Throughout the Gospels, we routinely see Jesus interact with marginalized peoples. Society in Jesus’ time would cast aside people because of situations out of their control or actions committed to them by injustice systems. He embraces the outcasts, cares for their needs, and gives them a place at the table of fellowship.
We experience Jesus’ embracement of the outcast in his healing of a paralyzed man, a woman who had bled for 12 years, or the Gentile in need of acceptance. Jesus teaches his disciples, those who would seek to follow in his footsteps, how to embrace people society often marginalizes.
As these essays reflect on the need for the entire church to be more inclusive of the autistic community, how might a Jesus-centered approach to engagement be applied to this effort? Might we see something of an engagement strategy formed through one of the many healing stories available to us?
I think we can, especially in the story of the healing of the blind man in Jericho.
This particular healing narrative appears in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43). Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called synoptic because of the vast similarities between these accounts.
With the healing of the blind man, Jesus approached Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. He intended to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, which led to this death and resurrection. It is the last healing narrative before the triumphant entry in the synoptic gospels.
There is not much in the way of difference between these three accounts. Mark and Luke share that Jesus healed one person. Luke leaves the man with no name, while Mark says his name is Bartimaeus. Matthew describes the scene as including two blind beggars. The differences do not take away from the narrative, which is about Jesus meeting the need of a blind man.
John’s account of the healing of a blind person (John 9:1-12) expresses how people in Jesus’ time viewed people with disabilities. We see people ask Jesus if sin led to the man’s blindness. The question suggests a belief that the man’s blindness was because of his or his parent’s sin. Jesus quickly dismisses that notion in such a way to tell the disciples that medical issues or disabilities are not always the result of sin.
Those who were blind, or had some other medical disability, were often looked down upon in society. People with disabilities were left to beg for resources and support. This act explains why Bartimaeus was begging for money from the side of the road.
Engagement Begins With Recognition of Need
Bartimaeus hears the crowd announce Jesus’ impending arrival in Jericho. We can assume by his reaction that he had heard something of Jesus before he arrived in Jericho. He begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47, NRSV)
Engagement that lives into a vision of full inclusion for the autistic community in the church begins with the autistic community expressing its needs to the church. Communication is vital in any engagement strategy. Here it is about the community’s expression of needs so the church can hear their desires. Admittedly, this first step is hard. It requires vulnerability and a sense of hope from the person and family.
My family is in a unique position as a pastoral family. This aspect of communicating helps us call attention to what we need from the church and my denomination of the United Methodist Church. Our communication has included discussing our family’s needs during my annual interview with my district superintendent (the equivalent of an annual performance review). We talk about our need to be close to therapy centers and the importance of a strong special education program for our son. It has also included being open in appointment interviews (the meeting when the church meets its new pastor) about our son.
Engagement Continues By Persevering Through Pushback
There was pushback among the crowds and disciples of Jesus after Bartimaeus expressed his desire to meet Jesus. The crowds and disciples tried to quiet him so as not to bother Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. (Mark 10:48a, NRSV)
Bartimeaeus’ community sought to keep him on the margins. Society often marginalizes people with disabilities or who face various struggles, especially the autistic community. Society looks down upon individuals who might get overwhelmed by noise and react loudly or have emotions. Society will criticize autistic behaviors as “bad parenting” or “unruly attitudes.” Autistic behaviors are not always the result of bad parenting or unruly actions. It is sometimes the uncontrollable response to an overwhelming situation.
The church is not immune to society’s outcasting of the autistic community. The church can make the lives of autistic individuals and families uncomfortable through knowing glances, judgmental attitudes, or long-winded suggestions on how to better discipline a child. These actions, and others, are attempts to marginalize reality and treat people with autism as different.
As well, there are often roadblocks placed before a church that hinders an attempt at full inclusion. Churches will claim there is not enough money or resources to reach out to the community. Members suggest that a special effort is not needed because “everyone is welcome here.” Pastors will lose focus on reaching out because it is easier to give in to the complaints than to push forward.
Engagement happens when a church is willing to push through the marginalization attempts. This can only happen when our focus is on a vision of inclusion and welcome of the autistic community. When our focus is on keeping people happy, we will lose sight of the vision of full inclusion.
Engagement Seeks Partnership
Jesus refused to allow the crowd to dictate his actions and called Bartimaeus to come to him. When he arrived, Jesus asked him one of the most powerful questions in Scripture. He asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51, NRSV) The question provided an opportunity for Bartimaeus to express his desire to be able to see.
Engagement develops a ministry partnership between the church and the autistic community. At this point, this involves a deeper dialogue of needs, resourcing, and conversations that help build an effective ministry and witness of welcome.
This type of engagement is never about doing something for the community. When ministry is doing something for someone it promotes the idea of ableism. The belief is that those with disabilities or challenges cannot do things for themselves. Abelistic attitudes prevent effective ministry from being formulated because it ignores the voice of the individual and community.
At my current church, this has meant my family conversing with our leadership and children’s team about appropriate ways of conversation and engagement. This has led to the establishment of systems of care in our church. We have worked together to create resources, sensory areas, and purchase items that help make the worship experience better for everyone. As well, we have involved trusted partners in our conversations. This has included the work of the West Virginia Autism Training Center in helping guide our church in being an ally of the autism community.
Engagement Changes Lives
After Bartimaeus expressed his need to Jesus, it provided an opportunity for Jesus to give him the ability to see. He becomes a new person and joins Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem. (Mark 10:52, NRSV)
The goal of any engagement is for people to experience God’s love and work in their lives. It not only helps that individual experience God’s love, but it also affects the life and witness of the church. Engagement with the autistic community strengthens the church’s love and compassion for everyone.
A Jesus-centered framework of engagement, much like what took place with Bartimaeus, can be the motivating force to affect real change in the lives of autistic individuals in the church. It can also help a church lead into a vision to seek full inclusion of autistic individuals and their families in their community.