People with Disabilities are Welcome Here

Written by Joel on June 22nd, 2010

June 20, 2010
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 8:26-39


I have shared a few stories with you about the Disciples church in Los Angeles where I worshiped. Well, after just a few Sundays I was sitting in worship and right in the middle of the opening prayer someone yelled…loudly. The pastor just keep going with her prayer, and the voice yelled again. This must have happened three or four times. When the pastor said amen, there was clapping from the same person who had been yelling before. Throughout the service, every time the congregation said “Amen,” this person would let out a yell and a clap. I came to learn that this person was the pastor’s child and had an intellectual disability since birth.

Some have suggested that when we read about demon possession in the Bible that it is really an example of ancient cultures attempting to describe mental illness or developmental disabilities. Whether or not this is the case, I believe it provides a helpful analogy for us today. Luke 8 provides one such example.

The setting of the Gerasene Demoniac.

Jesus and the Disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee into Gentile territory. Instead of being welcomed by the Gerasene welcome committee, Jesus and the Disciples encountered a demon possessed man. We are given a quick snap-shot of the situation. The man was from the town, but not living in the town – The towns folk had cast him out. He did not wear any clothes – people thought he was not worthy human dignity. The towns folk chained him up and kept him under guard – he was not worthy to be free. He was living in the tombs. He was dead, as far as the towns folk were concerned.

What kind of people treat such poor and unfortunate souls in such a manner? Surely people are deserving of such basic human needs as clothing, shelter, and basic human dignity. Could such a thing happen in our modern society?


NPR’s Joseph Shapiro, in a December 2009 All Things Considered piece, shares the disturbing story of Byberry Mental Hospital in Philadelphia.

During the WWII draft, conscientious objectors who rejected war were assigned to work at state mental hospitals to fulfill their service obligation. Warren Sawyer was a young Quaker who describes the hospital. Building A was simply called the “incontinent ward.” Sawyer says it was terribly overcrowded and all the staff could do was custodial care because there were only 3 staff caring for 350 patients. The smell lingered, even after washing your clothes. It was a large open room with a concrete slab floor, no chairs, no activities, no therapy, not even a radio to listen to. Hundreds of men, most of them naked because the hospital did not provide clothing, just wandered around aimlessly all day or hunched on the floor next to the bare walls.

Building B was called “the violent ward.” That is were they housed patients who would attack each other. There was row after row of men strapped and shackled to their beds 24/7. The regular attendants often beat or choked patients in order to keep control. Many attendants were drunks who got fired and were moved to the next state hospital. This was in 1944.

People with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and those with mental illness were tossed away, without clothes, freedom, or basic human dignity; much like the story we encounter in today’s gospel reading. Christ, however, was so bold as to approach this man and ask his name.


Verse 30: Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. This man had been robbed of his name. He was not “the man who is struggling with a demon.” He was Demon. After perhaps years of seclusion and subhuman treatment; what other choice did he have really? He came to believe himself to be demonic because he was treated as the demon. What is your name? I am demon.

Again, this is a challenge for people living with disabilities today. So often society defines them by their disability instead of as a person. They see the wheel chair, the crutches, the differences first without seeing the person for who they are. The autistic guy, the Downs kid, that one in the wheel chair. When people do this today they confine people to their label of disability. They fail to do as Jesus did and see first a man with a name and an identity.


Ben Mattlin has a Spinal Muscular Atrophy and is paraplegic. It’s a progressive neuromuscular weakness. It occurs in one of every 6,000 births. He is often asked what he would do if a cure became available. His answer: He wouldn’t choose to be cured.

In his own words, “My disability is part of who I am. It’s all I’ve ever known. Who would I be without it? It doesn’t define me, but it has informed every aspect of my life. Even as a child, I never dreamed of walking. Flying, yes. I wanted to be a superhero, but I never wanted to be just like everyone else…After all, if you dream of a cure, aren’t you saying we’re not okay as we are? Disability is a fact of life. It’s here to stay, so why not celebrate it as another part of human diversity? Call me crazy, but I sort of like myself just the way I am.”

Back to Community

After Jesus asks for his name, recognizes him as a person and not a disability; the demons are driven out and the man is healed. The towns folk discover the man clothed and in his right mind…and they are afraid. They are afraid that he is healed. Well, now the community has to face their sin of exclusion. The man is so thankful that scripture tells us that he begged to go with Jesus. Can you blame him? Why would he want to stay with the people who dehumanized him these many years and wrote him off for dead? But Jesus tells him to return to the community. In fact, he even gives him a commission – to tell how much God has done for him. I think that part of the reason Jesus sent him back to town was because healing continues in the community.

Good Church, Bad Church.

The church is one place where such healing occurs in community. Sometimes churches do a good job of being the place of welcoming healing; and sometimes church can do better.

Remember the pastor’s child I mentioned earlier? His clapping and yelling annoyed some of the church members. They wrote letters to the pastor stating that her son was not welcome in worship. One of the reasons given was “his outbursts interfere with my worship.” What a selfish, un-Christian understanding of what it means to be a Christian community, worshiping the God who makes us one! The young man who was about 14 years old was excused from worship with the children for children’s church. Other 14 year olds were not. He is not a child. What kind of welcome is this?

A good friend of mine, Mike, drives a group of developmentally disabled men to his church every Sunday. He is so devoted to this ministry that he personally bought a giant passenger van as his regular vehicle. He tells me that the guys are just welcomed into the fold. He remembers one Easter Sunday he was driving the guys home and noticed a tear running down one of the men’s cheek. Mike asked him “What’s the matter?” He replied “I’m happy.” When Mike asked why he was happy, the man responded “Because Jesus isn’t in the tomb anymore!”

Mike told me that he thinks the church has been more blessed by these men than the other way around. I wonder, if in the Gospel reading today, Jesus sent the man into the community not so much because he needed further healing; but because the community needed to be healed.

Our Challenge and Our Opportunity

What kind of community will we strive to be? Will we cast away people with disabilities or will we be a place of welcoming healing?


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