Beyond the Wheelchair Ramp

Baloncici / Shutterstock

Baloncini / Shutterstock

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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Short Takes: Anastasia Uglova

1.  How would you describe Akilah Institute’s goals for its students and alumnae? Rwanda today is a far cry from the genocide-torn country that most think of when they hear about it. Rwandans have a vision of a knowledge-based economy, and Rwanda is fast becoming the region’s leader in information technology and new business development. And yet, only 1 percent of Rwandans attend university, and just 30 percent of these are women. We want to make sure that young women have a part to play in building the country’s future.

Akilah’s unique model of market-relevant education empowers young women to launch professional careers and assume leadership roles when they graduate. During their three years at Akilah, students develop English fluency, leadership, public speaking, and critical-thinking skills.

2. Why does Akilah feel young women specifically have needs that must be met through education? Akilah’s nurturing environment creates a culture of community where students can heal from some of the trauma of their past, and no one struggles alone. Of the overwhelming majority of young women in Rwanda and Burundi, an estimated 95 percent will never enter the workforce. Ultimately, we hope that empowering these young women to take control of their future pays dividends generations down the line. Educated women tend to marry later in life, have healthier and fewer children, and are able to disrupt the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families.

3. What makes Akilah unique in the education it offers women? We admit only the most promising young women. But our admissions process is unique in that we don’t just look at academics. We are much more interested in fit, potential, and passion. What’s special about Akilah is that it is extremely career-focused, assessing students’ career interests and rigorously preparing them to find meaningful employment and launch their own businesses.

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Invest in Women, Divest from Trafficking

Human trafficking is an overwhelming and complicated issue. 

(Actually the root causes of human trafficking are complex. But there’s nothing complicated about treating people like people, not property).

Yet, how can those with little time to volunteer or a burgeoning desire to make some kind of difference do so?

Support socially responsible businesses! Here are five groups dedicated to helping sell the products of at-risk women and girls, as well as trafficking survivors—supplying them with work and the means to provide for their families.

Engage in smarter buying—invest in women, in their work, and in their futures.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

ALL THE 14-YEAR-OLD BOYS kill their grandmothers.

I stole the line— “It was the day my grandmother exploded”—from Iain Banks’ novel The Crow Road.

I write it on the whiteboard on the first day of school, and ask my ninth graders to compose a short story starting with that prompt. The girls go for metaphor—their Nanas and Mee-Maws explode in frustration or laughter.

The boys go literal and explode their grandmothers into bone-chunks and guts. Usually I laugh. Not this year. I’m pregnant with a baby boy, and I’d prefer he never explode anything, especially the women who love him.

During the five years I’ve taught this lesson, meant to celebrate the punch of a great opening line, the Tsarnaev brothers blew up the Boston Marathon finish line, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, Adam Lanza devastated Newtown, Conn., by firing bullets into each of 20 small children and six adults, and Elliot Rodger carried out a misogyny-fueled killing spree in Isla Vista, Calif. I live in Texas, where gun-lovers and worried moms persist in a steady standoff about open carry laws.

My students remain unaffected by these horrors—they’re privileged children at a college prep school, the boys more concerned with GPAs and J.J. Watt’s football stats than the way some males—especially white males—in our country use violence or sullen indifference to respond to their perceived disenfranchisement. They idolize Walter White and George R.R. Martin; most identify as Christians but cannot tell me who Job is or recite the beatitudes.

I worry about my unborn son. How do I raise a good white male? I ask all the good men I know, and they give me the same answer: “He’ll need a mentor.”

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Deconstructing God's Mission

Dennis Cox / Shutterstock.com

Dennis Cox / Shutterstock.com

When I ask people to describe a typical “missionary,” the usual response includes that of a young man with black pants and a white collared shirt (with a name tag attached) that knocks on doors, or perhaps an evangelical preacher who stands on (and shouts from) street corners, or possibly one who travels the far ends of the earth to help the poor and plant new churches. But just because some are more vocal and visible than others, such missionaries should not be acknowledged as the totality of all that exists, because:

All people in all places are missionaries, for all people in all places participate within a particular mission in some shape or form. Missionaries are as diverse as the human community itself.

While most missionaries do not self-define as such, the world is filled with them, many of whom serve with a high degree of commitment and faithfulness. For instance, if a missionary is – by definition – one who participates within a particular mission, then those who consume Coca-Cola are not merely consumers, but they are – by definition – missionaries of the Coca-Cola brand and its corporate mission. Similarly, there are countless political missionaries in all corners of the globe. As election cycles draw close, such missionaries multiply in mass numbers, and their energetic zeal often rivals – and sometimes far exceeds – the determination of many religious clergy labeled as extreme.

The world consists of countless missions and innumerable missionaries. As stated from the onset, all people in all places are missionaries, so not only should we hesitate to assume we know what a “typical missionary” is, we should also attempt to distinguish who a Christian missionary is to be within the context of countless other (complementary and competing) missions and missionaries. So what follows is a brief reflection on what the focus of God’s mission might be, and an exploration of how Christian missionaries may be able to function as a result.

Smiles from the Inside

Lynne Hybels, center, with Syrian refugees and staff at the Za'atari U.N. camp. (Photo by Christine Anderson.)

I'M DREAMING. Ten young men about my son’s age are singing me a Mother’s Day greeting to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” I recognize the melody, of course, but the language is foreign. Still, I’m delighted; I clap and laugh.

Oh, wait. It’s Mother’s Day 2014 and I’m not dreaming. In a refugee camp in Jordan, 10 young Syrian men are singing beautiful Arabic words to me and two other visiting American moms. It’s our last stop in an intense week of refugee visits; it feels good to be laughing.

The singing men, and the young Syrian women who joined us as we toured an educational compound in the Za’atari U.N. refugee camp, were bright university students in Syria before the war—future historians, mathematicians, teachers, agricultural engineers; some just months from graduating—when the violence of Syria’s civil war forced them to flee.

“But when you end up in a refugee camp,” one of the young men explained, “people treat you like idiots. Like you understand nothing.” Herein lies one of the great refugee tragedies. Living at the mercy of others and with little respect, no decision-making freedom, and no control over their future often fuels anger and hopelessness in young refugees.

Curt Rhodes, founder of Questscope, an NGO dedicated to empowering marginalized youth, says, “Perhaps the most dehumanizing thing that can be done to an individual is to take away his or her ability to make choices. ... [We must] increase their personal agency to make positive change in their lives and the lives of others like them.” Recognizing the innate human need to contribute positively to the future, Questscope trains young adult Syrians like the ones I met to be mentors, caseworkers, and teachers for younger children in the camp.

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The Problem with Exercise Plans and Miracle Cures

Diet and fitness bundle, Mariusz Szczygiel / Shutterstock.com

Diet and fitness bundle, Mariusz Szczygiel / Shutterstock.com

A post making the Facebook rounds claims that “a mix of honey and cinnamon cures most diseases.” Mix honey and cinnamon together and your arthritis pain will vanish, your lost hearing will be restored, the flu virus ravaging your body will be killed, and your eczema and ringworm will disappear!

I know I should ignore this stuff. But I can’t. Every outrageous health claim I come across online (and there are many) cuts me to the quick, because of what they say about me as a person with a disability, and about us as God’s beloved creatures.

The Internet fosters a populist environment in which regular folks’ life wisdom, assumed to be more valuable than professional or conventional wisdom, is rarely questioned, despite obvious logical fallacies. For example, while many foods, including honey and cinnamon, indeed have therapeutic potential for reducing inflammation and boosting immunity, that’s a far cry from curing arthritis or hearing loss. Yet people click and share, apparently without pausing to consider how outlandish it is to claim that two common foods can cure — not ameliorate, but cure — a long list of health problems that have affected people for all of human history.

Breaking the Silence: The Growing Faith Movement to End Sexual Violence

Photo courtesy BEELDPHOTO / shutterstock.com

A figure walks towards the light. Photo courtesy BEELDPHOTO / shutterstock.com

Though the church remains stuck in a culture of silence on sexual abuse, advocates are steadily building the platforms for individual voices to change the narrative. The depth of reconciliation that plays out upon these platforms can be profound.

Rachel Halder, founder of Our Stories Untold — a blog that hosts stories from survivors of sexualized violence within the Mennonite church — has witnessed such moments happen in real time.

One of Halder’s first contributors was a woman who was prompted to break her silence after Todd Akin’s comments qualifying “legitimate rape.” By happenstance, the woman’s former dorm-mate, who decades ago witnessed the immediate aftermath of this assault, recognized herself in the survivor’s story.

Halder sat in disbelief as this dorm-mate came clean with her own years of shame and regret, expressing sorrow over lessons learned too late.

“I just saw this play out on my site, this overwhelming moment of reconciliation and restoration,” Halder said, who later helped the two women reconnect by email. “It was completely unanticipated ... they hadn’t seen each other in 20, 30 years. The healing process in these kinds of stories is really magical.”