As a small child, I attended a church where members greeted each other as family. I had many “aunts” and “uncles” who I sat with during services while my mom would provide ASL interpretation. One perspective would be that this group of Deaf members, sitting at the front right edge of the church, was on the margins of the congregation, but from my perspective, I was surrounded by community. I was both on the margins and in the centre.
As an adult I worked for Christian Horizons, serving people with developmental disabilities, for about a decade before becoming disabled myself. After my initial diagnosis, I felt pushed to the margins of my life. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t volunteer at church, and my social life evaporated. In this time of crisis and solitude, I turned to spaces where disabled people congregated. I found a vast and vibrant community. As I moved to the margins, I realized that the margins had shifted. Once again, I was in the centre surrounded by community.
This shifting of the margins isn’t unique to disability, and it isn’t unique to humans.
John Swinton states that the Church often looks at the example of Jesus and mistakenly believes that “the task of the church is to reach out to those on the margins and bring them into its loving heart.”[i] Swinton points out that while “It is certainly the case that Jesus sat with the marginalized and […] in sitting with such people, Jesus, who was and is God, actually shifted the margins.”[ii]
There are three principles we can learn from Jesus’ example if we want to participate in shifting the margins around us, to surround those struggling to belong.
“As I moved to the margins, I realized that the margins had shifted.”
First, Jesus sat with people exactly as they were. He did not require people to change themselves. Swinton writes that “Jesus offered no ‘technique’ or ‘expertise.’ He simply gifted time, presence, space, patience and friendship.”[iii] He simply sits with people where they are and how they are. He brings the centre to them.
Second, Jesus sees all as gift. Swinton summarizes what he has learned from theologian Stanley Hauerwas: “We are all creatures wholly dependent on God and on one another; all that we have is gift.”[iv] All we have is gifted to us from God, and all we are is offered as gift to one another. Judith Snow states that “all gifts add to the mosaic of the potential available community.”[v] She says that all people have at least two gifts that they bring to any situation; presence and difference. Each person enters a context as their own unique self, offering one half of a meaningful interaction. Throughout scripture, we see Jesus recognize a person’s unique presence and then partner with them to be the other half of a meaningful interaction.
Third, “sometimes Jesus was a guest in people’s houses; sometimes he was a host. The constant movement from guesting to hosting is a primary mark of the hospitable work of the Incarnation.”[vi] If we position ourselves to always be in the role of host, what does that say about our opinion of those we are sitting with? Swinton says “when we take time and allow ourselves to move from host to guest, we gain the opportunity to learn some beautiful and important things.” [vii]
As a child, it was easy to live out these principles Jesus embodied. I was fully aware of my dependence and was grateful for the gifts of presence and difference in the adults around me. “Guest” was a familiar and comfortable role for me as a four-year-old child.
Life has a way of tarnishing that child-like vulnerability and openness. We forget the lessons that Jesus taught. Thankfully, entering into disability spaces has reillumined the importance of shifting the margins of community to nurture spaces of belonging with all people.
When the province closed down due to COVID-19, part of my role at work was to connect with the people who use Christian Horizons services through Zoom as part of fulfilling our vision to nurture communities of belonging. As the months progressed, these video calls have become a lifeline for many, including myself. Although I started out in the role of host, more and more I am finding myself in the role of guest. What a sacred position it is to be blessed by the deep welcome extended to me.
During this pandemic, my health vulnerabilities again place me on the margins of society. As I step away from the spaces I normally inhabit, I find myself in the centre of a thriving community of people who welcome me as I am, recognize and value the gifts each of us brings to the group, and shift seamlessly from acting as both guest and host. May I remember to do the same.
*A longer version of this piece originally appeared in the Canadian Journal of Theology, Mental Health, and Disability Spring 2021 issue.
[i] John Swinton, “Doing Small Things With Extraordinary Love: Congregational Care of People Experiencing Mental Health Problems,” ABC Religion and Ethics (website) accessed October 29, 2020 https://www.abc.net.au/religion/doing-small-things-with-extraordinary-love-congregational-care-o/10098938
[ii]John Swinton, “Doing Small Things With Extraordinary Love: Congregational Care of People Experiencing Mental Health Problems,” ABC Religion and Ethics (website) accessed October 29, 2020 https://www.abc.net.au/religion/doing-small-things-with-extraordinary-love-congregational-care-o/10098938
[iii] John Swinton, “Doing Small Things With Extraordinary Love: Congregational Care of People Experiencing Mental Health Problems,” ABC Religion and Ethics (website) accessed October 29, 2020 https://www.abc.net.au/religion/doing-small-things-with-extraordinary-love-congregational-care-o/10098938
[iv] John Swinton, “Who is the God We Worship? Theologies of Disability; Challenges and New Possibilities,” International Journal of Public Theology, 14 (2011): 273-307, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270014936_Who_is_the_God_We_Worship_Theologies_of_Disability_Challenges_and_New_Possibilities
[v] Jack Pearpoint and Judith Snow, From Behind the Piano: The Building of Judith Snow’s Unique Circle of Friends and What’s Really Worth Doing and How to Do it: A Book for People Who Love Someone Labeled Disabled (Possibly Yourself) (Toronto, Canada: Inclusion Press, 1998), 3.
[vi] John Swinton, “Doing Small Things With Extraordinary Love: Congregational Care of People Experiencing Mental Health Problems,” ABC Religion and Ethics, accessed October 29, 2020,https://www.abc.net.au/religion/doing-small-things-with-extraordinary-love-congregational-care-o/10098938.
Photo credit: Joel Dunn