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Mainstreaming the Alienated: The Church Responds to a ‘New’ Minority

by Harold H. Wilke

Mr. Wilke is director of the Healing Community, a program of the New Samaritan Corporation. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 23, 1977, p. 272. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Princess Dymphna was a lovely Irish lass who lived in about the fifth century A.D. Her father, the king, lusted after her, and she fled to Gheel in what is now Belgium. There, when the king caught up with her, she still refused his advances, and he had her beheaded.

Out of the grisly materials of this violent and sex-filled story there developed a strangely hopeful tradition. People understood the act of the king as obviously that of a mad person and came to believe, as a somewhat illogical corollary, that his daughter had special healing qualities for the mentally ill. People started coming to Gheel from all over Europe, a swelling number through the centuries, and finally in 1245 Princess Dymphna was canonized by the church.

The remarkable thing -- that which speaks to us across the years -- is that all the people who came to be cured stayed in the homes of the parish, the homes of the people in the community, and the visits lasted from a month to a year or more. No institutions were built, no huge dormitories prepared: the homes of church people were opened to the sick who came. In fact, the only change that has come about in this whole expression of acceptance is that about 100 years ago, the Belgian government began reimbursing the people of Gheel for extra costs in room and board for their suffering guests.

What does this story say to us?

The Church and the Alienated

Societally alienated persons are far too often rejected by the local congregation and responded to, if at all, primarily in terms of a “mission” on the part of the church to these groups -- to alcoholics, the mentally retarded, the physically disabled, returnees from mental hospitals, the violence-prone, former prisoners, and the aging. These are the persons who are wounded or ill on the road to Jericho wherever we travel. On this road the church is far too often not the Good Samaritan, but the priest and the Levite passing by on the other side.

Our comfort is disturbed, our feelings are jolted by the presence of such a person in church (and as much on the way to church). We do not want to be reminded of the presence of such alienated persons in overwhelming numbers in our society, and of Christ’s response to them.

Their name is legion. The physically disabled and developmentally disabled, for example, number close to 30 million persons in the United States. But they are seen only when one consciously -- as in taking the commuter train through Harlem -- bothers to notice. They are seen only when we remove our blinders, for they exist outside the comfortable purview of most church members. Alienated persons are in every third home on the block, and they are spread throughout our society; but far too often these persons in wheelchairs and otherwise incapacitated remain “in the attic,” where society has placed them through the years.

We have a history of keeping people “out of sight, out of mind.” In the U.S. it has been thought the proper thing for the church to institutionalize such persons; in many cases the church has turned over to secular society the keeping of such institutions. Several of our denominations have been leaders in this work, which is motivated by humanitarian concern and often is necessary, although institutionalization is not always the best solution. The church in Germany helped to create, both there and through churches in this country that follow their examples, the idea that institutions can best take care of alienated people.

But now, within our churches and in secular society, the process of deinstitutionalization is gathering force. For just one example, the number of persons in mental hospitals -- over a quarter-million, seven years ago -- has been cut in half over the past six years. Most of our state governments and the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare follow an intentional program of deinstitutionalization. In many cases our churches have led the way.

Within a stressful, technologically oriented society, the facts are clear. Ever more people are becoming alienated, and ever more of them are coming out into the open. A highly scientific Western world creates so much that is new and effective in medicine and technology that, on the one hand, more and more persons are injured and crippled by the use of that technology; on the other hand, more and more persons severely injured or born with physical abnormalities are saved to life through technology. Thus we are creating and holding on to an ever-increasing number of handicapped individuals.

An overwhelming majority of these persons need not, should not and indeed cannot be institutionalized. They are part of our society, not apart from it. More sharply than ever before, the idea of “mainstreaming” -- keeping persons who differ from the norm within the main current of social life -- is becoming a part of Western thinking. In this context, there is an urgent need for society to respond to a “coming-out party” for those who are about to be deinstitutionalized, as well as a need for a far more adequate response to that much larger number who already are in our midst. Certainly the religious community, in its contact with people on every street corner and in every hamlet, has a prime opportunity to help in this mainstreaming process.

Case in Point: The Physically Disabled

Considering just one group in this list of the alienated -- the physically and developmentally disabled -- we can discern some specific implications for the churches.

The physically disabled are emerging as a new minority (9 per cent of the population), only now beginning to find an identity for themselves and to exercise the power that they have. They are also a group with many close ties to religious faiths. For literally millions, a trust in God is what holds them together -- that is all they have. The care and concern with which many of our churches respond is beautiful, but the dark side is also there: my blind friend speaks bitterly of the many “church people” who say to him, “If your faith in Jesus were strong enough, you could overcome your blindness.” While you and I cringe at hearing this response, many Christians cringe daily in having such judgmental words spoken directly to them.

As institutions, the churches have sporadically expressed concern for the disabled. The Louvain Conference held by the World Council of Churches in 1971 clearly placed on the agenda of world Christianity the matter of the church’s ministry for persons with handicaps. At Nairobi the WCC not only included this matter on the agenda again, but in putting emphasis on “ministry to and with” fostered a far more accurate theological understanding of that ministry and placed it squarely at the heart of the gospel. The words that the Nairobi assembly spoke are these:

The Church’s unity includes both the “disabled” and “the able.” A church which seeks to be truly united within itself and to move toward unity with others must be open to all; yet able-bodied church members, both by their attitudes and emphasis on activism, marginalize and often exclude those with mental or physical disabilities. The disabled are treated as the weak to be served, rather than as fully committed, integral members of the Body of Christ and the human family; the specific contribution which they have to give is ignored. . . . The Church cannot exemplify “the full humanity revealed in Christ,” bear witness to the interdependence of humankind, or achieve unity in diversity if it continues to acquiesce in the social isolation of disabled persons and to deny them full participation in its life. The unity of the family of God is handicapped where these brothers and sisters are treated as objects of condescending charity. It is broken where they are left out.

The conscience and the concern of the church in this area was lifted up by the participation at Nairobi of a physically disabled American churchwoman, Ruth Elizabeth Knapp of New York city. whose very presence was a catalyst for the creation of this resolution.

The United Methodist Church in the early 1960s brought into the curriculum of the church school a concern for persons with disabilities, and at its quadrennial General Conference in 1976 adopted a resolution looking toward churchwide expressions of concern for the handicapped. Several Lutheran bodies have had a long tradition of special ministries to such groups as the deaf and the blind, and the Episcopal Church has also been heavily involved in such specialized ministries.

Three years ago a number of church persons along with experts from outside the church created the Healing Community, an action-research project designed specifically to discover whether the church really can respond to the various kinds of alienated persons of our society, and what some of these responses might be. Their findings will be published early in 1978. The Healing Community is one of many signs that a major ferment exists -- on the part of the churches expressing concern and on the part of that emerging minority who are asking whether only secular institutions will respond to their needs.

Theology of the Alienated

The idea of the Suffering Servant, a dominant theme in Hebraic Christian theology, stresses that the one who comes ultimately to give life and hope to humankind is the one who suffers for humankind, who gives himself for that humanity. The Suffering Servant exemplifies God’s ultimate concern for humankind, giving the assurance that underneath all of us are the everlasting arms. The Suffering Servant is also one who responds to the needs of all persons. In a Western society which has so often rejected the physically handicapped, at least at the unconscious level, and has made such persons the object of mission and oftentimes also of pity and scorn, the Suffering Servant shows God’s concern not alone for the able and privileged persons of this world but even more for the apparently forsaken.

For the Christian community the one lost sheep is the one for whom the Shepherd leaves all the others that this one may be saved. In Jesus’ picture of the Day of Judgment, he expresses the idea that God in Christ comes to that person who visits those who are sick and in prison and in need. The nail-pierced hands of Jesus -- the “stigmata” -- are the hands of one who cares for the stigmatized, who are in manifold ways pierced by the turned-aside eyes of fellow human beings. In word and action Jesus sets the handicapped directly within the circle of unity of the Christian church.

The Pauline writings set forth another kind of argument; namely, that the individual is made perfect in weakness, and that God has chosen the weak of the world to demonstrate life’s meaning to the wise and the strong: indeed, God has chosen the weak over against the strong. Paul boasts “of the things that show my weakness” (II Cor.11:30). His statements indicate that it is not weakness itself which is to be glorified, but the fact that in weakness he can see more clearly God’s intent for the world; that is, for the “power of Christ” to dwell within him.

A dramatic statement of our being made perfect in weakness was made by Gerald Moede, general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, at his inaugural address in Memphis in 1975. Dr. Moede pleaded for the church once again to recognize God’s proffer of his strength in our weakness. He spoke of a young woman totally incapacitated, requiring help for each mouthful of food, every bit of clothing and every trip to the bathroom. What hope does she have, asked Dr. Moede, except for the grace of God expressed in close friends and family?

The “thorn in the flesh” which Paul speaks of but does not define may be recognized by all of us as a part of our lives. Some biblical scholars seem to suggest that for Paul it was indeed a physical malady and that it inflicted severe pain. In any case, the argument is clear that God’s strength is ultimately seen in weakness, the many meanings of which include the solemn reminder that we are mortal.

A third argument has to do with grace. We are accepted in the beloved not by our deeds or by our being but by the grace of God. Thus a person’s power and beauty and majesty and strength all combined cannot save him: salvation comes through grace. As for illness, physical handicap, decrepitude, old age or mental retardation, none of these can destroy a person in the sight of God: he or she is saved by grace. Our condition before God is the same.

A fourth argument has to do not so much with meaning or validity or doctrine as with the utilitarian and prudential question of what to do. Why debate the theological meaning of the unity of the church and persons with handicaps? Those persons are here! We acknowledge their presence among us and indeed see them in us. Without searching for reasons, without attempting to find the cause of evil and illness and pain in the world, we rather ask, What can we do? Jesus’ answer at this point is found in his statement to the persons who asked him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ response was that neither sinned; then he went on to the next step: within the condition this person has, it is yet his duty and indeed his glorious privilege to praise God.

In weakness we are chosen. Not by our deeds or status, or lack of them, are we accepted in the beloved, but only through the glory of the grace of God in Christ.

Practical Responses of the Church

Any notation of specific ways in which the church has responded to the needs of alienated persons must begin with the realization of the overarching and undergirding aspect of the religious incursion into the whole of secular society. A total infusion of the Christian culture has formed the secular response to human need. While it may well be tax dollars which support institutional and community care and all the other manifold responses to human need on the part of our society, the inherent motivation derives from Christian understanding, and the policy and guidelines reflect a basic Christian concern, Regrettably, there is no direct ratio any longer -- the gears do not engage smoothly! -- and there are enormous areas of slippage as between the secular response and the Christian motivation. Nonetheless, we must note at the outset the enormous contribution to the secular response to human need which is initiated and constantly reinforced by the Christian ethic.

Continuing specialized ministries under church auspices have been maintained for many years by the Episcopal Church, a number of Lutheran bodies and most other denominations in greater or lesser degree. Such ministries stem sometimes from the national denominational offices; more often they have come out of diocesan or synodical responses, which then have spread to other areas of the church. The usual target groups for such ministries have been persons representing very specific difficulties, such as the deaf or the blind. Within a local area, numbers of churches will tacitly accept an ecumenical answer by simply pointing out that “signing” for the deaf is carried on at one or more specific churches in the city, and deaf members in a church where such signing is not practiced are in effect invited to the church where it is, even though that church may be of another denomination.

Separatist attempts are made: some churches minister only to disabled persons. Examples are the “Church of the Exceptional” in Macon, Georgia, and the “Victim Missionaries,” an organization based in the Convent of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleview, Illinois.

An approach that has great potential for consciousness-raising within ordinary congregations is fulfilled by a group in Chicago which convenes its handicapped members once a month at a different church in the Chicago area. Some 25 to 100 physically disabled persons in wheelchairs will by prearrangement and invitation converge upon a specific church, to become part of the worshiping congregation in the morning and then to be hosted with lunch and afforded time for fellowship in the afternoon.

Most of the major denominations have councils for health and welfare, designed not only to work with the health and welfare institutions operated by or related to the denomination, but also to relate the denomination to the varied secular institutional responses and thus to keep open the lines of communication between religious motivation and secular response to need.

Eliminating the Barriers

The fourth area of response on the part of the church is the one with which I am most in agreement: efforts to “mainstream” persons of special need. In literally thousands of local congregations a minister or a lay leader has raised the question of why a disabled member of the congregation has to go elsewhere: “Of course we must make it possible for him [or her] to attend here,” they say, and then they intentionally work at overcoming two kinds of barriers -- architectural and attitudinal,

The architectural barrier is to be found in all too many places. A survey in St. Louis, Missouri, by the former director of the Healing Community Project, O. Walter Wagner, indicated that only 1 per cent of St. Louis church buildings were accessible to wheelchairs. Now more and more churches are building ramps and designing new structures or renovating old ones so that persons with crutches or in wheelchairs, persons who have suffered coronaries, etc., can enter easily.

The attitudinal barrier is more difficult. Certainly the first step is that of making the church building accessible so that the congregation no longer says in effect, “We don’t want you here”; but once means of easy access have been created, the response of the church membership to persons of special need requires intentional action on the part of individuals, supportive statements from the pulpit, and a deeper understanding of biblical acceptance of all of God’s children.

A Lady Bountiful attitude which assumes that the ministry of the church is to such “unfortunate individuals” -- rather than with them -- misses the whole point of the gospel.

The recognition that healing communities exist throughout the world is pointed out by the Christian Medical Commission of the World Council of Churches. Some of the criteria for such groups (which exist in both secular and religious contexts) are these:

(1) the healing community is supportive of individuals in it; (2) it must cope with the question of how much it will impose conformity and whether such imposition is inevitable or necessarily repressive; (3) it has self-awareness; (4) it can adapt to change and growth; (5) it is small enough to function effectively; (6) in some cases it may be institutionalized to reach out in love and service to those outside the group.

Perhaps the concept of Gheel and St. Dymphna may help us most in the matter of acceptance. When people from all over Europe began coming to Gheel to be cured of their mental illnesses, they found there total acceptance on the part of the community. No institutions were built for them; they stayed within the homes of community members. This situation still obtains today. Gheel represents a kind of community of acceptance which most of us have experienced at one time or another in our lives. You have felt it on occasions when you were accepted as a person just as you are, when you felt the “attributed wholeness” that society can and does give. We must extend to the person with a disability, that supportive community of acceptance, which can in turn receive and learn from such an individual.


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