Nervous in The Netherlands, I approached the podium and placed a postcard of a chick emerging from an egg where the audience could see it. It was July 1, and I was about to deliver a paper at the Third Biennial Conference of the European Society for the Study of Theology and Disability. This was easily the farthest-flung stop on a vocational journey that was inspired largely by my relationship with my beloved Aunt Debbie – and nurtured by the courses I've taken, the relationships I've formed and the resources I've tapped at MTSO.
This conference, in the Dutch village of Schoorl, brought together top scholars in the relatively young field of disability and theology. As the only master's-level student from the U.S. who spoke, I pointed out the picture of the hatching chick and told the group, "This is how I feel presenting this paper to this conference."
In the paper, "Vocation, Theological Anthropology, and Emerging Adults with a Developmental Disability," I consider disability through a lens of who and how we believe God is in relation to humans, and how that can shape the way we think about vocation. This view of vocation has particular applications for emerging adults with developmental disabilities, who often leave the support network of public accommodations at a certain age.
When I finished the presentation, one of the scholars approached me and said, "I like your little egg picture, but what do you think? That all of the rest of us are grown chickens? You have a voice."
That brief exchange is typical of the way I have been encouraged and challenged as I delve deeper into this fascinating and blossoming area of study. Through my education, I've learned the disabilities field is experiencing a sort of "civil rights movement," a movement to which the church is something of a newcomer. In fact, places of worship were exempted from key requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. One leader in the field has pointedly noted that bars and Walmarts are more accessible to people with disabilities than most churches are.
The good news is that the past decade has produced a wealth of work in this field, across many faith traditions. Perhaps because I grew up in a Lutheran congregation, currently attend a Mennonite church and study at MTSO, I notice ecumenism. It's encouraging to see the way people in many denominations are working together to be the best body of Christ we can be within a culture shaped predominately by ableist attitudes. Ableism, like racism or sexism, is not just attitudinal; it institutionalizes discriminatory practices against persons with disabilities.
MTSO is a fitting educational home base for a person engaged in this issue. Last winter, our campus hosted a four-part lecture series with the theme "Disabilities, Theology and the Church." And I personally have benefited from the encouragement and prodding of MTSO faculty, as well as the availability of academic and financial resources. Through courses in ethics, biblical studies, pastoral care, theology and practical theology, faculty members have encouraged me to dig deeper, use new tools and develop language in getting to some of the questions I have been asking for a long time.
Those questions began to develop early on for me. I would not be who I am without the presence of my mom's younger sister, my Aunt Debbie, in my life. She was my greatest teacher and a beacon of light into what it means to have an intellectual disability. Among all of the parts that made her who she was, she had Down syndrome. She was born in 1960, and even amidst much joy, she and my family experienced the kind of roadblocks that arise when little is known or understood about disability. Debbie died suddenly the year before I came to MTSO, and this raised new questions in my mind, mostly regarding end-of-life care, pastoral care and medical ethics as they apply to those with disabilities.
The flexibility afforded me in my journey at MTSO gave space for a distance-learning course through the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. The course, Ministry with Persons with Disabilities and their Families, was taught in part by Bill Gaventa, director of community and congregational supports for the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities in New Jersey. He quickly became one of my top "disability mentors."
Under Bill's leadership, Gettysburg Seminary launched an annual Institute on Theology and Disability in 2010. I was able to attend both the first and second annual institutes at Gettysburg, as well as the conference in the Netherlands, thanks to an invaluable resource MTSO provides: the Student Enrichment Program. SEP grants are awarded throughout the year for approved student endeavors beyond our campus. Without this funding, I couldn't have attended these events.
At Gettysburg's Institute on Theology and Disability, I've been able to interact with pastors, scholars and fellow students, including some of the most significant voices in this area. Many of the experts at the institute are people whose work I have explored in depth through two independent-study courses I took with Professor Lisa Withrow at MTSO.
At the first Gettysburg institute and in other disability-focused settings, I chose to be a sponge, filling journals with personal reflections, conference notes, memories of my aunt and theological questions. But in advising my independent study, Dr. Withrow began prodding me to continue with these "inputs" while also producing "outputs"; it was time for me to stop simply observing and become active. And so it began, first with a talk at my church and then through work for the Anabaptist Disabilities Network, where I am currently completing my MTSO Field Education.
This spring, my final project for Dr. Tim Van Meter's Ministry with Young Adults class explored the topic of young adults with developmental disabilities in relation to my work with college students at Bluffton University, where I am director of career development. Around the same time, I finished a theological anthropology paper within my independent study. I wouldn't realize until shortly before the Netherlands conference that those two projects could come together. They formed the basis for the paper I presented in Schoorl.
Less than three weeks after July's Schoorl conference, I arrived in Gettysburg for the Second Annual Institute on Theology and Disability. My time between the two events had been hectic, and I planned to simply sit back and take things in. But my mentor had other ideas. When I arrived, Bill Gaventa greeted me with a big smile and a sign titled "Wednesday night presentations" – with my name on the list. "You're on tonight," he said. I hadn't even brought the paper I presented in The Netherlands, so I scrambled to cobble together remarks from old notes I happened to have on a thumb drive.
Later, after my presentation, I thanked Bill for adding me to the schedule, even if it took me out of my comfort zone. He responded, "Hopefully you understand a bit more about what is expected of you."
Encouraged and challenged yet again.
I hope to continue working on my "outputs" even as I keep filling my journals. I plan to graduate from MTSO with my M.Div. degree in the spring of 2012. Regardless of what comes after that, I understand my place within the body of Christ includes offering a voice in this vital field.
For continued support on this journey, I am grateful to MTSO.
Methodist Theological School in Ohio prepares transformational leaders of many faith traditions for service to the church and the world. MTSO offers master's degrees in divinity, counseling ministries, theological studies and practical theology, as well as a Doctor of Ministry degree. For more information, visit www.mtso.edu.
Danny Russell, director of communications