Today I write for the Helens in the world.
Helen is a person I’ve not met. This post could just as easily be for Henry or Harold or Hannah or Hope for they live among us. But it is the name Helen I wish to be remembered.
The Helens in the world are all around us.
Some in loving homes, others in not-so-loving homes; some in the nursery and others in nursing homes; some in group homes and sadly, some living alone.
The Helens in the world are all around us.
Some are professors and others are students. Some are businessmen and others designers. Some are lawyers and others are medical professionals. Some are parents and others are children.
The one thing they have in common is a tenacity to fight to be seen, to be honored and recognized as fully capable persons regardless of their limited capabilities.
Each person most likely has faced his or her turn to turn the other cheek with courage and grace when publicly slandered by others. It matters not whether it be intentional or unintentional.
So today I write for Helen
It’s a post to draw our attention to the way we publicly speak of or write about those who are in various stages of disability, physical decline, and vulnerability.
It’s an attempt mostly to motivate us to guard against reckless rhetoric in our pulpits and churches.
It is an attempt to encourage genuine engagement with others instead of superficial encounters common today.
It’s a call to commit to deeper engagement with others – in the church, our workplaces, and in society.
Most of all, it’s a plea to become educated ourselves about the dignity and value of all persons so we can engage compassionately with the profoundly disabled persons in our own community.
Honoring our Helens
I learned about Helen a while ago when a preacher referenced her in his message. He often made pastoral visits to the nursing home where Helen resided. When describing his encounter with Helen he invoked a term that has long been considered an inappropriate and insensitive slur.
Those who knew Helen personally were aware that her limited verbal function was due to her stroke. Apparently the pastor didn’t know her that well and mistook this inability to verbalize as an indication of a mental deficiency.
Hence several uses of the derogative term retarded took place in a message given before an audience of young college students preparing for careers in ministry.
Perhaps in writing this post my hope is that those training for future ministry in our churches can learn from our mistakes. We in ministry, of all places, need to be committed to speak respectfully and rightly about the Helens in our lives without resorting to terminology that offends and alienates.
Two years ago I was challenged to think deeply about the theology of disability. I spent the year reading, processing, weeping and writing about the subject related to my sister. You can read her stories on my blog.
My memories are filled with these same slurs slung at my sister who, injured at birth, has spent over 70 years with a condition called cerebral palsy. I know too well the heat of shame as it rises to my own face whenever those words are spoken – even though I am not the recipient of the demeaning and derogatory terms tossed my sister’s way!
I know too well how unfortunate consequences can occur when well-meaning providers fail to take time to listen, to really listen to her.
I’ve also experienced the incredible difference a loving, embracing Christian community made in her life and in my own life. You can read about this in A Tale of Two Churches, Worship in the Basement and Gathered in the Sanctuary .
Educating Ourselves for the Sake of Helen
The use of inappropriate language and disrespect for peoples from all walks of life spills forth in our politics and social media networks. That comes as no surprise. It’s expected.
But when words, especially words such as the one noted in this post, are spoken carelessly or recklessly from our pulpits, we need to be remind ourselves and our brothers and sisters that that should not be so!
Yes, I’m passionate about this!
I hope you feel the same. If not, I pray some of my passion inspires you to investigate more about this important topic.
The list of books below are available from Amazon and other booksellers. They will start you on a journey that honors Helen and many others in our lives.
- Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church by Bethany McKinney Fox, IVP Academic, 2019
- Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, by Thomas E. Reynolds, Brazos Press, 2008.
- Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics, by Hans S. Reinders, Eerdmans, 2008.
- Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities, by Benjamin T. Conner, Eerdmans, 2012.
- The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God, by Amos Yong, Eerdmans, 2011
- Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton, Eerdmans, 2012.
- The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, by Nancy L. Eiesland, Abingdon Press, 1994.
For the sake of the Helens and Harolds in our midst, let’s rise above the fray!
Let’s embrace the other. Let’s let love rule.