February 3, 2020

My Kind of Church

Close your eyes. Is your church accessible to those with disabilities? You don’t know, do you?

Larry R. Evans

We have a problem, and we aren’t unique. Many, it seems, have bought into the myth that weakness always leads to failure and strength always leads to success. But at times we awaken to the reality that we’ve been squeezed into the mold of conventional wisdom (Rom. 12:2). Almost imperceptibly we’ve sought to develop heroic virtues in ourselves when simple trust in God is the greater need. As is often the case, God has a way of turning our assumptions upside down. Scripture teaches the fundamental principle that brokenness and wholeness need not be opposites. They are easily complementary (see 2 Cor. 12:10).

New Life Through Brokenness

It began like an ordinary day. Regiane went to the bank to withdraw some cash. As she was driving back to her office, two men followed her on a motorcycle. Soon they drove to within a few feet of the driver’s side of the car. The passenger on the motorcycle pulled out a gun, aimed at Regiane’s head, and fired. The car crashed; a passerby pulled her out, and waited for the ambulance. The bullet destroyed her sight in both eyes, but her life was spared. In a moment her life, and the life of her family, had been turned upside down.

Someone has said, “Adversity introduces us to ourselves.” This was the case for Regiane. Moments of loss, pain, and suffering can cause most of us to shout out, “Why!” Such times of brokenness can turn the focus of our lives inward. When we are fully broken, however, the focus shifts outward and upward. Such was the case with Regiane.

I was invited to her home in Brazil for supper and Sabbath vespers. The whole evening was a time of praise to God, not only for His saving her life, but for giving her a ministry for those who are blind. As we sang “How Great Thou Art,” the song took on a deeper meaning for me. Regiane’s blindness helped me see: I saw that immediate tragic circumstances don’t need to be the final word. This is the power of her witness in the small Bible study group of 45 blind individuals that she leads, from which three have already been baptized.

The very year that Regiane lost her sight, Juliana, a pastor’s wife, was also losing hers. Some believed that if she had sufficient faith, her blindness would be healed. But God’s wisdom produced major spiritual success for Juliana, who has become the regional leader for blind ministry (Isa. 55:8). In her search for understanding, God brought her and Regiane together. They are now partners in a growing ministry for blind individuals. Out of two tragedies has come a united ministry for those who are blind.

What Is a Weakness?

God’s process of developing a person’s character often allows mystifying circumstances to come their way. The Bible is filled with examples of individuals who overcame weaknesses and tragedies thanks to God’s leading. Joseph had his faults, and his own brothers dwelt on what they perceived were his weaknesses. As a result, Joseph endured trials of abandonment, deception, and imprisonment. Yet when events turned in his favor, when he had the opportunity for payback, he testified, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:8). Living faithfully despite horrific circumstances turned any weaknesses Joseph had into strengths that blessed not only Israel but Egypt as well.

52 1 7Moses, another man whose case seemed hopeless, was dismissed as being vulnerable and impulsive. He may have had the best education afforded by Pharaoh’s court, and he may have had good intentions when he killed the Egyptian, but his own people did not trust him. God, however, could see what others could not. It took some 40 years of preparation in the desert herding sheep, but God saw what others failed to understand. When an angel informed Moses of his calling to be God’s spokesman to Pharaoh, Moses recoiled and essentially said, “I am disabled and have been so for a long time!” To which the Lord responded, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” (Ex. 4:11, 12).

And in answer to his continued resistance God explained that Moses’ brother, Aaron, was “already on his way to meet” him (verse 14). Though we know that God is our Maker (Ps. 100:3), that He knows how we are formed (Ps. 103:14), we are still slow to trust Him. As humans, we tend to write conclusions while God is still adding chapters. God’s conclusion for “disabled” Moses was eventually written, “For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deut. 34:12). Disabilities notwithstanding, Moses’ “church” absolutely needed him. And God still needs people like Moses today.

Relating to Weakness

God has service assignments for everyone. Stigmas regarding human weaknesses and disabilities can be demoralizing. Some people are depreciated in the very places where they go to find meaning and purpose, an issue well addressed by Paul: “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked” (1 Cor. 12:24). In fact, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (verse 22).

The mission of God’s church is nothing if not inclusive, and God desires all of us to feel equally welcome to His party and useful in His company. “To be effective, the mission movement needs every part of the body in Christ ‘on mission.’ If we do exclude people with disability from missions, then the mission movement is missing part of the body. The mission is itself disabled.”
1 God’s extravagant and dignifying love enables rather than disables His servants, granting everyone, whether good- or ordinary- or inadequate-looking, their own honored role in His varied fields of service.

God expects us to be mountain movers. Unfortunately, many have found barriers keeping them from coming. No wonder John the Baptist, like Isaiah before him, announced that mountain moving, valley raising, and road straightening would all take place, providing total, direct entrance into the coming Messiah’s presence (Isa. 40:3-5; Luke 3:4-6). Isaiah’s and the Baptist’s song of total access was wonderfully demonstrated in the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12).

A paralyzed man heard about Jesus being in a nearby city. He had no way of going, but he had friends who would do whatever was necessary for their companion to meet Jesus. They carried him all the way. When they arrived, large crowds obstructed their access. But no mountain or valley—roof tiles in this case—could stop them. They opened a road through the roof and lowered their friend directly into the presence of Jesus. Their disabled friend’s only hope was meeting Jesus. They saw the need: they moved the mountain that needed to be moved; their friend met Jesus and received the healing and wholeness that he longed for.

God’s children shouldn’t be defined by their disabilities. I had never seen anything like it before—a wheelchair church: scores of wheelchairs crowded into the tight space of this Romanian meeting place. What a sight! Not all were in wheelchairs, but all had one thing in common. They had come to worship, to share, and to befriend one another.

I’ll never forget meeting Gheorghe (yes, call him Gheorghe): he has cerebral palsy. I’d be challenged to understand him even if I understood Romanian. But the sparkle in his eyes outsparkled everything else—garbled speech, odd smile, constant drooling, or stuttered gestures. I soon realized that I was encountering something far more amazing than any mere assembly of people with disabilities. It was a time for my own self-examination. Indeed, I had found my people—a people whose faith was not built on their being physically healed or having their rights defended. They were seeking something greater. That day they, and others like them, became my teachers. This was the church I needed—a place where brokenness is not about what we cannot do, nor about prejudices others had about us. Rather it is about finding the real purpose for each one’s living. And I found it that day in the wheelchair church.

God has high ambitions for the disabled. When Jeff was born his parents had great dreams for him. They denied it at first, but the truth became unmistakable: their son had been born deaf. Nobody can say what went “wrong,” but Jeff is deaf. But deafness is not Jeff’s identity. He knows that “higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children.”2 Jeff is secure in his identity as one of God’s children. Today, as an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister, he serves as my honorary associate in Adventist Possibility Ministries, while also engaged as a full-time pastor. His wife, Melissa, is an interpreter for the It Is Written telecast. They are a team ministry—one deaf, one hearing.

Jeff’s role as a deaf pastor is not an employment accommodation of some sort, but a full-fledged and godly service that has impacted both deaf and hearing persons around the world. The changed moniker from Disability Ministries to Adventist Possibility Ministries is one reflection of the greater respect for God’s children who belong to this constituency, as well as the higher regard for the importance of this area of the Lord’s service. I give thanks to God that my church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is ever more clearly recognized globally as a movement of bringing hope and soon-coming glory to many who have long lived with despair, depreciation, and disdain. God’s providence has placed widows, orphans, and others whom society often marginalizes “in close Christian relationship to His church; it is to prove His people and develop their true character. Angels of God are watching to see how we treat these persons who need our sympathy, love, and disinterested benevolence. This is God’s test of our character.”

We all need liberation from society’s conventional thinking on weakness. Only as we surrender to the truth of our own inadequacy do we become available for ministries of service as God’s “jars of clay” from which He may pour out the water of life to thirsty people everywhere (2 Cor. 4:7; John 4:13, 14; 7:37).

  1. Nathan G. John, “Disability and Mission: For His Glory,” in David C. Deuel and Nathan G. John, eds., Disability in Mission: The Church’s Hidden Treasure (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Press, 2019), p. 158.
  2. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903, 1952), p. 18.
  3. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 3, p. 511.

Larry R. Evans is assistant to the General Conference president for Adventist Possibility Ministries.