Documentary Explores Faith of Disabled

December 08, 2009

By Kathy L. Gilbert and Suzy Keenan*

Gifts of humanity go beyond color, gender, ability.
Houses of worship, to be true to their mission, must make places for persons with disabilities, United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Philadelphia Area says in a television documentary.
Johnson is one of several faith leaders featured in "A Place for All: Faith and Community for Persons with Disabilities." The show, produced by the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission as part of ABC's 2009 Vision and Values series, began airing Dec. 6 and will continue for eight weeks on ABC affiliates.
The bishop, who has served the deaf for more than three decades, said she "considers it a privilege to be part of the Protestant voice in this multi-faceted study."
The sentiment is mutual.
"What Bishop Johnson had to say was made particularly meaningful considering her own story," said Debra Gonsher Vinik, the show's producer.
Priesthood of all believers
Johnson, who was born with sight in only one eye, felt a deep calling early in her vocation to minister with deaf persons and persons with disabilities. She was pastor of Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore prior to her election as a bishop.
The bishop said she has been inspired by several ordained United Methodist pastors with disabilities whose "power was made perfect in weakness" and are an inclusive and compassionate witness.
"I had the privilege of being supervisor to first deaf ordained pastor since 1908-- he was ordained in 1997 in Baltimore-Washington - the Rev. Kirk VanGilder. I learned so much from working with him. I was his supervisor, but he really taught me so much about the giftedness of the community and how important the empowerment piece is for lifting people up in the church as leaders."
Today, Johnson advocates for the inclusion of persons with disabilities, "not just to receive, but to be co-ministers with us in the priesthood of all believers."
Barriers and isolation
One out of every five Americans has a disability and a key issue is social isolation, faith leaders say.
Johnson said she attends a different church in her conference every Sunday. "I can count on one hand the churches that really have people with disabilities. So where are they if they are not in our churches?
"We can get ramps, elevators … much easier than we can change hearts. Sometimes ignorance is born of a lack of exposure and fear," she said.
The church needs to do a lot of work to educate congregations on welcoming and empowering disabled people, she said.
Johnson remembers many times taking her deaf choir to sing in churches. After the performance, the church would invite them to cookies and coffee, but no one would talk to them.
"I don't think they really meant to be rude, but it was awkward. They just didn't know how to … walk across the floor to that side of the room where the deaf people were sitting to make small talk because there was no way to talk," she said. "They couldn't understand them and they couldn't sign themselves so they just avoided us."
Treating people with respect
The bishop was interviewed for the documentary as she directed a weeklong camp for deaf developmentally disabled young adults at Innabah Camp and Retreat Center, Spring City, one of four Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference camps.
The documentary talks about how "the precious text" of all faith communities – Bible, Quran, Torah - teaches how important it is to treat all people equally.
But, Johnson said, all faith groups fall short putting the principle into practice.
"There's a little delivery problem," she said.
"It [the documentary] ends on the note that all people are really the same, we are all searching for the meaning of life, the meaning of God. That is something we all can share, abled and disabled alike. It sort of comes down to we are in this together, folks," Johnson said.
"I always tell people to challenge themselves, step out in faith, reach a community that you are not comfortable with and you can grow personally. The doors of opportunity keep opening when you take that first step of faith."
A Place for All: Faith and Community for Persons with Disabilities airs in California on KGO TV07 (ABC) in San Francisco, Friday, December 11 at 4 a.m.; and on KABC TV07 (ABC) in Glendale, Saturday, December 12 at 2 a.m. Its only scheduled showing in Nevada will be on KTNV TV13 (ABC) in Las Vegas, Saturday, January 2 at5 p.m. A promo can be seen here. (The documentary aired on December 6 in Bakersfield, Fresno, Monterey, Redding, Reno, and Sacramento, along with Palm Desert, Santa Barbara, and San Diego.)
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*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn. Keenan is director of communications for the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference.