On at least four occasions the New Testament commissions us to minister to the handicapped. The Gospel of Mark records that immediately following His temptations in the wilderness, Jesus began His ministry by casting out devils and healing those whom we consider the handicapped. He continued this emphasis throughout His ministry. His example commissions us to minister to these people also.
Another commission is given in Matthew 4:23-25. This passage indicates that handicapped persons were among those to whom the Sermon on the Mount was given. Matthew 8 verifies that the handicapped were also among those who followed Him after the sermon and received healing.
The third commission to a ministry to the handicapped is demonstrated by the fact that twenty of the twenty-five people-centered miracles that Christ performed were for the handicapped.
Finally, in the parable of the great supper Christ summarized His (and our) entire mission on this earth. When the original invitees gave their excuses, the host instructed his servants to compel the handicapped to come, eat, be filled, and be made whole.
Handicapped people (who call themselves handicappers) are the largest identifiable group of people in the world. Handicaps cross all national, racial, sex, age, socioeconomic, and religious lines. A handicap is the same regardless of whom it involves or where he lives. What has the church done for these individuals? Have we been faithful in searching them out to assure them of God's love? Have we deliberately planned health seminars, stop-smoking clinics, weight-control programs, stress management workshops, and Bible seminars for them? Have we studied what we can do to facilitate handicappers' attendance at services? These are not easily answered questions. I hope that they challenge your thinking and your actions.
We should begin by trying to understand what a handicap is and how it affects the person. First, there are the sensory impaired. The hearing impaired, the largest group of handicappers in the world, are subdivided in several ways. Those who lost their hearing before developing their language and speech are identified as deaf. Members of this group have a most severe handicap because they never acquire a good form of communication or cognitive reasoning abilities. They have difficulty with the abstract aspects of life. Those who lose hearing after developing their speech and language are identified as deafened. Next are the hard of hearing, those who can function effectively with the use of hearing aids.
Another group also classified as deaf are those who can function somewhat effectively through lip-reading and sign language. These people are frequently misunderstood because they "partly" hear. They may be considered mentally retarded, aloof, emotionally maladjusted, and many other things. They have difficulty in socializing before and after church, following instructions, participating in Bible study groups, and listening to sermons. Many parishioners are unwilling or fearful to talk to them and consequently avoid them.
The other group of sensory impaired is made up of the visually impaired. These are divided into the visually limited and the blind. The latter group is divided into the legally blind (vision less than 20/200 in both eyes) and the totally blind, those who have no visual facility.
The blind are often readily accepted by a congregation, but sometimes they experience overt or covert rejection. It is tragic when the visually impaired hear snide remarks whispered about them. Churches, by and large, are quite adaptive to the blind unless there is an accompanying facial deformity.
The second major category of handicappers includes persons with malformations of body. Here again we find much misunderstanding. Too many people assume that anyone who does not "look normal" must also have mental/emotional deficiencies.
Companion to this group are those who have loss or lack of a limb or of limb usage. These need consideration for their mobility. Thoughtful congregations build or modify their facilities to make everything from the sanctuary and social hall to the restrooms accessible.
The last major category is made up of persons who have psychological and emotional problems. Their mechanisms for coping may be abnormal and may appear erratic to people. They may need special caretakers during all the time they are in public, yet they may be richly fed by worship participation.
The pastor's responsibility
Our next concern must be how we as pastors should relate to those handicappers who are already in the church and what we can do to deliberately proselytize handicappers who need a personal experience with Jesus Christ. We can begin by understanding our own experiential relationship to them. We must know how we feel about them and why we relate to them the way we do. In many cases this takes real soul-searching--searching that may uncover some pharisaical tendencies within us. For instance, we tend to like to be seen with people who enhance our image.
Suggestions for a more effective pastoral ministry to handicappers include:
1. Call the handicapped into Christ as surely as all others are called. Search them out and invite them to evangelistic and church services. These people often feel as though they are far away from God. They need to know that handicappers are as favored today as they were when Christ walked on the earth.
2. Design all healthful-living programs to incorporate them. Handicappers need the stop-smoking, drug-abuse-control, weight-loss, and diet seminars. Some, particularly the physically handicapped, have special need of help in these areas.
3. Conduct special Revelation studies for them. Let them view the studies through the prism of their handicaps. Provide books and materials that have been designed for handicappers. For example, use materials from the Christian Record Braille Foundation.
4. Incorporate handicappers into all church services. Be sure they have access to the rostrum, including the pulpit. There is no reason that they should be denied the joy of leading out in Sabbath school or of giving sermons. They should be serving on church boards and conference boards. What a fantastic experience it would be to share the foot-washing moment with a blind person or an amputee!
5. Involve them in social activities. They can introduce the rest of us to new games and fascinating modifications of games that we have played for years.
6. Facilitate their transportation to and from services, and be sure they have access to ramps, appropriate seating (don't relegate them to some unobtrusive corner), restrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains.
7. Keep your ear tuned to the hurtful, ignorant, pharisaical comments made by others in the congregation. Speak to the offenders in Christian kindness and inform them of God's love for the handicappers. Follow up by assuring the handicappers that the comments they overheard are not reflective of the church's attitude.
8. Organise the church into units to assist handicappers. This should go beyond mere transportation to visitation, counseling, fellowship, and assistance with active involvement in class participation, program planning, and additional outreach to other handicappers.
We are commissioned to continue the pastoral role that was the very life activity of Christ. We are commissioned to present the message of salvation to all people. One day God will ask of us, "Where is thy flock, thy beautiful handicapped flock?" Let us be able to answer, "Here they are, Lord, in the pews and in the hearts of Thy church."