Thinking Out Loud

March 1, 2010

Abilities Church: A Ministry Role Model

Just five weeks ago I wrote about a reconnecting with the music that forms one of the main founding roots of the world of Christian music.   As a result of that concert, my wife decided to do a weekend seminar with Toronto Mass Choir founder Karen Burke — they called it the Power Up conference — all day Friday and Saturday, and we returned to Toronto on Sunday night for a final event in which her choir along with the conference registrants performed a number of songs.

We arrived in Toronto for dinner at Swiss Chalet (the Canadian dining institution Americans never hear about with all the talk of Tim Horton’s) just in time to catch the last five minutes of the third period of the Canada-USA Olympic hockey final, followed by the overtime period in which Canada won.

The patrons in the restaurant cheered when Canada won it; the screen displaying images of people across the country going into high-gear revelry; but it was nothing compared to the energy at the concert which was sustained for two hours without a break.

The church where the concert was held is the The Toronto Celebration Church, a church so diverse that during its morning and afternoon services simultaneous translation is available in six or seven different languages.    The evening concert “bumped” a smaller service that usually takes place from 6:00 to 7:00 PM for people with disabilities, so it was determined that a couple of their people would participate in the Power Up conference concert.  At least, that’s what I first concluded.

The Abilities Church ministry pastor, Robert Gagnon opened in prayer.   His voice was marked by the effects of cerebral palsy, but you could understand every word and there was no denying the depth and sincerity of his prayer.   My youngest son, who was caught a bit off guard by the concept of someone who the church at large might consider so otherwise unsuited for platform ministry being called on to open in prayer, said later that he was arrested in his tracks of pre-judgment by the actual words that he was praying.  In fact, a November, 2009 story in Christian Week defines that depth: Gagnon has a Masters degree in Theology from Toronto’s Tyndale Seminary.

Then their church’s worship leader, Kenny Rojas, who is visually impaired performed “I Can Only Imagine.”  The song — which most of us have heard many, many times — suddenly took on new meaning.    There was sustained applause for more than a full minute at the song’s conclusion.

After that point a guest music group did three songs and the evening was turned over to The Toronto Mass Choir.

I realized later that while The Abilities Church was for most people perhaps a sidebar to the whole evening, it was the only thing I could write about today.   A flyer handed out at the door stated:

Our goal is to maintain an equal congregational balance of people with and without disabilities.  Our purpose is to encourage the entire community and church to personally practice inclusion as a part of everyday living.

When founding pastor Jaime Castro welcomed us he said the church is apparently somewhat unique in North America.   So I knew the first thing I had to do on Monday morning was visit the website.   There I learned more:

TAC is the first fully inclusive church for the whole family and community. The Church today desperately needs people with visible disabilities to minister to them because they have a sincere, empathic and pure faith and message to share that will inspire and transform the whole community and church with the love, humility and power of Christ.

The Abilities Church is not a “disabled” ministry but an “Inclusion” ministry for the whole church and community. We do not believe that individuals with disabilities should be confined to segregated services, programs or classes within the community or church.  Every church must fight the natural tendencies of segregation. TAC is an unique and groundbreaking ministry that is giving people with disabilities the equal opportunity of participating in the worship and ministry of the church.

We who are not labeled as “disabled” have much more to gain from people with disabilities than they do from us. They have the power through their weaknesses to inspire and transform us into authentic and caring people. They help us see and remove our human biases, prejudices, self deceptions or denial, hypocrisies, discriminations, pretenses, complacencies and conditionings. Who than really has the disability?

The true gospel of our Lord Jesus is manifested through the weak and simple and not the strong, smart or sophisticated.  Jesus said  that we must receive him as little children. People with intellectual disabilities are child-like, helping us see the face of God through their humility, sincerity and purity. We need people with disabilities to be at the forefront of the community and church because they teach us about God, ourselves and about having an authentic faith.  The Scriptures teaches that the weak, feable or humble among us are the greatest in God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 19:14,30; Luke 7:28; 1 Corinthians1:27; 2 Corinthians12:10; James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5)

The website — which contains many more sections I would like to reprint here reminded me of the book review I did two weeks ago, in which author Fritz Kling says that mutuality is one of the seven currents influencing the future of the global church.   The site is not written from the perspective of people who are doing things for people in Toronto with disabilities; it instead presents the appearance of being written by people with disabilities, expressing the pain, hurt and alienation that many of them feel trying to fit in to the so-called “normal” churches that most of us attend.   Regardless of who drafted the text, the site gives voice to their frustrations, a voice that generally goes unheard.

Jesus’ greatest condemnation was against organized religion that arrogantly criticized, segregated and discriminated against different groups of people. We at TAC are committed to fighting against all forms of segregation by becoming inclusive with all people and churches. We believe in respecting all churches by promoting Christian unity, diversity and love.  Different kinds and styles of churches are important because no one church can meet everyone’s preferences, expectations and needs.

When is the last time you asked a handicapped/disabled person who attends your church what they like or don’t like about it?   Asked them where it meets their needs and where it fails them?

Founding pastor Jaime Castro told Christian Week that a variety of groups — including some from other faiths — have been contacting the church and see it as a model — I prefer the term role model here — for other cities in North America.   The CW article continues:

“We all have a disability,” Castro adds, “whether it is visible or invisible.

“People who are ‘normal,’ from the world’s perspective, tend to have more spiritual or emotional disabilities than those with disabilities. I grew up in a very rigid denomination, and it was people with intellectual disabilities who helped me to really see the love of Jesus.

“There I was, a Bible college grad. I knew theology, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. All they knew was that Jesus loved them and a hug. They would sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ with a big smile on their face. And I would think ‘What are they so happy about?

“With people with disabilities you can be yourself. You can cry. You can laugh. You can be yourself. And they will accept you. They have incredible faith to deal with the challenges in their lives. They inspire us not to focus on our problems but on our strengths.”

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