Recovering the dignity of every person is the focus and mission of Special Needs Ministries, plenary speaker Larry R. Evans told attendees of the 3rd Global Conference on Health and Lifestyle at Loma Linda University on Thursday morning, July 11, 2019.
“We are a possibility ministry, not a disability ministry,” he said.
A first-time presenter at the international health conference, Special Needs Ministries was created on the heels of the 2015 General Conference session in San Antonio. Its mission is to equip and mobilize the Deaf, blind, orphans, and those with physical or mental limitations to serve God and their communities.
“We’re to bring wholeness to all in a world that is broken,” Evans explained.
Capable of Cruelty
Evans, assistant to the General Conference president for the ministry, emphasized the cruel and inhumane treatment of which people are capable. He cited an example from the Los Angeles Times in 1917, about a woman called Mother Hastings.
Hastings had crippled hands. She was told by authorities in Portland, Oregon, that she was “too terrible a sight for the children to see,” Evans said. “They paid her money to leave town.”
“Preindustrial societies were cruel to those who were different,” Evans noted. “They didn’t segregate them but turned the responsibility over to their families. Following the American Civil War, however, as sentiment against beggars and the disabled grew, they were often whisked away at the first sign of an anomaly to a ‘poorhouse’ or ‘work farm.’”
According to Evans, in various American cities laws were enacted and enforced, making it a crime for those with obvious deformities to be seen in major public areas. Later these city ordinances were called “ugly laws.” Chicago was the last city to repeal an ugly law, in 1974.
“And these laws weren’t confined to the United States. The United Kingdom and the Philippines, for example, had their own version,” he said.
“We had a different form of leprosy, a different form of discrimination.”
The good news, Evans said, was that the Adventist Church was not silent on the subject.
In 1874, Ellen G. White wrote in the third volume of Testimonies for the Church that “it is in the providence of God that widows and orphans, the blind, the deaf, the lame, and persons afflicted in a variety of ways, have been placed in close Christian relationship to His church; it is to prove His people and develop their true character.” And she added, “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” (vol. 3, p. 511).
According to the World Health Organization, people with disabilities make up the largest minority in America, or 15 percent of the population, Evans said. “Worldwide, some 550 million people are disabled. And we have a responsibility to minister to their needs and to incorporate them into the mission of the church.”
The source of our identity helps us to view all people from the perspective of a loving Creator, Evans notes. “We see people from a different starting point than those who don’t believe in a Redeemer, in a Creator. God gives every person meaning, dignity, and value.”
“The value of a person should not be based on what she or he is able to do or may have done in the past,” Evans continued. “Rather, the value of a person should be seen in what God has done, is doing, and could do if given an opportunity.”
Dignity and Respect
Evans explained that understanding the difference between the terms “dignity” and “respect” is crucial. Respect, he said, is earned through one’s actions; but dignity is inherent, whether the person is blind, deaf, or physically or mentally challenged.
When our identity and dignity are accepted, we feel included; we feel we belong, Evans explained.
“Hiding people from sight is not the answer. The lifestyle of Jesus is. He saw possibilities when others were embarrassed. Jesus still saw His image in them. Disabilities visible or invisible were never an obstruction to Him,” Evans emphasized.
“The whole meaning of wholistic health is a wholistic acceptance like that of Jesus.”
“That’s my challenge to myself; that’s my challenge to you; that’s my challenge to the world church,” Evans concluded. “Let’s recognize all people as gifted, needed, and treasured the way Jesus did.”