Dialogue

Beyond the Wheelchair Ramp

RECENTLY, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH moved toward beatifying Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was martyred while presiding at a Mass in El Salvador in 1980. Romero preached that, for the love of God, soldiers and paramilitary forces must stop murdering their brothers and sisters—and he paid with his life. Many have since honored his witness during El Salvador’s civil war as “a voice for the voiceless.” Without a doubt, more of us should take on that mantle.

And yet. Sometimes we are notcalled to be a voice for the voiceless. Sometimes we are called to listen carefully and discover the voices in our midst. Sometimes we are called to consider whether weare the ones preventing voices from being heard.

We are almost 25 years beyond the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and while access is still not all it should be, we need to move beyond the wheelchair ramp. We need to listen to those living with disabilities—as fully human, as fallen and holy, as friends of Christ, as people with abilities, as disciples on the Way.

What is disability? This simple question is not easily answered. There are people living with impairments, a loss of expected physiological form or function. A person missing a leg. A person whose optic nerve did not develop correctly. A person who has sustained a brain injury. The disability refers to the consequences of an impairment: loss of walking, blindness, memory issues. Handicap, in turn, refers to the societal disadvantage resulting from an impairment.

But when talking to people living with disabilities, those clear-cut categories become muddy. Some embrace the term “disability” as a simple aspect of who they are, a way of describing their lives and advocating for societal change. Others reject the term, saying they perceive no negative consequences from their impairments, only positives. Others fear the term and simply do not use it.

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The Play's the Thing

WHEN I FIRST arrived in a western district of Georgia, on the shores of the Black Sea, in 2004, I met a group of young people walking along the muddy dirt road to school. They were walking slowly, linking arms and talking and laughing together. Like teenagers anywhere, the young people were happy to talk about their own lives: tensions with parents, boredom at school, friends, and anticipation of the future.

The girls that I spoke with also mentioned their fears of being abducted for marriage.

Surprisingly, in this modern era, the abduction of girls for marriage was still considered common and acceptable. In rural Georgia, if a young man fancied a young woman, he arranged with his friends to have her abducted as she walked home from school. If she was held overnight away from her home (and often raped), her chaste reputation was lost, and she had no choice but to leave school, marry him, and move in with his family. Honor demanded it.

In rural Georgian high schools, rumors flew about who was about to be kidnapped, or who was thinking of kidnapping someone. Boys thought it was romantic and a test of bravery and manhood. Almost all the boys we spoke with said they would help a friend abduct a girl if requested, and many said they felt pressured by their friends to abduct girls. It was seen as a way of proving yourself a man, a true Georgian man.

Most girls were afraid of being abducted, but some girls I spoke with had mixed feelings, wondering if they could manage to elope with their boyfriends using a traditional kidnapping story as the cover to overcome their parents’ disapproval.

Parents also commented on the problem. One mother of a teenage girl said, “When I was in school, kidnapping girls for marriage was a big problem. In order to be a ‘real man’ and demonstrate his bravery, a boy had to kidnap a girl. But girls did not think kidnapping was romantic. They saw it for what it was—violence.”

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A Republican, a Democrat, and a Buddhist Walk into a Room …

Dialogue illustration, Kubko / Shutterstock.com

Dialogue illustration, Kubko / Shutterstock.com

An historic event took place recently in the seaside town of Belfast, Maine. Ten people of vastly different political persuasions — Libertarians, Tea Party Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives — sat in a circle, had a civil dialogue about their hopes and fears for America, and discovered their common ground. Their experience is a model of the local dialogues we so desperately need to build bridges across the political divide.

And yes, one of the 10 is a Buddhist. Judith Simpson, a practicing Buddhist, facilitated the conversation. Judith is an organizational development consultant who has worked with the likes of Eastman Kodak and Corning. She facilitates using a group process called Dialogue. Judith now plies her skills in restorative justice. Dorothy Odell organized the event. She has worked in education as a teacher and as a member of the Belfast School Board. Both reside in Belfast.

“I’ve gotten upset with the media fanning the flames of the story that we’re a polarized nation,” said Dorothy. Judith agreed. Together, they decided to do something about it.

A Jew and a Mormon Find Common Ground Midair

Airline seating, Thorsten Nieder / Shutterstock.com

Airline seating, Thorsten Nieder / Shutterstock.com

During a layover in the Phoenix airport on Friday, I caught the tail end of President Barack Obama’s remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. Struck by Obama’s words, I said to no one in particular, “It’s about time he said something about this.” The man next to me looked in my direction as I walked to get a snack, and I considered for a second going back and asking his impression of the president’s remarks. I kept walking toward the green licorice, but fate had other plans.

Who ended up being in seat 18B next to me? Yep. We smiled as we made eye contact, a mutual recognition that we had an overdue conversation coming and the time to have it.

For a living, I teach and facilitate dialogue. I train others how to — and why to — have challenging conversations that transform relationships and design community change. I have facilitated more than 10,000 hours of dialogue in the past 15 years.

I was feeling confident and curious. We got right into it.

“Well, looks like we are supposed to talk about it,” I said as he laughed. “What did you think of the president’s remarks?”

“I think I thought differently than you did,” John said

New & Noteworthy

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Photo: Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Julie Polter is Senior Associate Editor at Sojourners.

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