Dr. Thomas Hentrich, Ajax, ON
When my son Sean was born over 31 years ago with a lack of oxygen and a resulting developmental delay, I could not have imagined how this otherwise happy event would influence my family’s life in many ways. While I was working towards my Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at Université de Montréal, my wife Myrna and I were also doing an intensive stimulation therapy to reorganize Sean’s brain.[i] This got me very interested in various aspects related to brain injuries, and after completing my Ph.D. in 2000, I decided for my postdoctoral studies to research disabilities in Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East. The results of this study were published in 2013 in a book entitled “’Abgestempelt’. People with Disabilities in Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East” (available through www.morebooks.de).
Historically, people with disabilities have always been marginalized by society, dating back to ancient times, when disabilities were regarded as divine punishment for a sin that you or a family member presumably may have committed. Until today, many people with disabilities still are disadvantaged by society and feel unwelcome by their own churches and congregations, even when they express additional needs to their pastor/priest. These needs may or may not be limited to just physical access to a church but concern a larger issue of a lack of belonging within the general society and church in particular.
As Christians, we are all called to address injustices in our midst. From a social justice perspective, issues like climate change or peace building generate great interest and participation in most church denominations, whether on a local, national, or international level. A good example are the various initiatives on human trafficking, religious freedom, poverty, interfaith dialogue et al. that are promoted by the World Council of Churches and its over 250 member churches. Striving for inclusion and belonging of people with disabilities into church life as equal members should be a natural goal for church inspired social justice as well.
From 2012 to 2014, I had the pleasure of working for the Canadian Council of Churches and participated actively in some of their important programs through the Council’s Faith & Witness commission, such as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. While with the CCC, I also noticed that inclusion of people with disabilities did not rank very high on the priority list when it came to policy making. There is hope though, as the Faith & Witness Commission has made mental health the topic of their next three-year discussion cycle.
It is important that the afore mentioned social justice discussions need to continue in the church. But, in 2015, I decided to make inclusion and belonging for people with disabilities the main focus of my life as a Theologian. People with disabilities of many different denominations around the world essentially face similar issues of inclusion, and I believe that all churches can learn from each other how to solve these rather practical questions regardless of theological tradition or dogma. Therefore, I decided to approach this topic from an ecumenical perspective.
With this in mind, I have identified seven principles of inclusion and some follow-up questions:
- Inclusion is Global: How can all Christian denominations and non-Christian religions play an important role in breaking down existing taboos?
- Inclusion is Ecumenical: How do faith communities become more welcoming, so that persons with disabilities don’t become “shut-ins” and stay at home? How well are their accessibility guidelines enforced?
- Inclusion is Mandated by Biblical Tradition: Jesus himself is advocating the inclusion of disabled people and thus changing the mindset toward people with disabilities in Ancient Israel. How do faith communities remember these biblical traditions and transcend possible cultural and historical stereotypes towards this group of people?
- Inclusion is not a Dogmatic Issue: Making people with disabilities feel welcome in your faith community does not require a complete rethinking of Christian dogmas, nor does it affect liturgical or administrative church practices, that may not be shared by all denominations.
- Inclusion is more than Government Regulated “Customer Service Compliance”: Inclusion does not mean just making a church wheelchair accessible. In fact, inclusion only begins there. How can churches make all aspects of church life, from Sunday school for children to representation on church council or synod, more accessible for persons with disabilities?
- Inclusion is an Integral Part of the Ecumenical / Interfaith Dialogue: There are many social justiceissues in global Ecumenical and interfaith discussions. However, inclusion does not seem to carry the same weight. How can churches give people with disabilities a higher priority in the Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and thus have a direct impact on their situation?
- Inclusion is only the first step to fully Belonging: Belonging adds another component to just being included: being loved, which is the essence of church and communio.
The long-term goal of my project EcumenAbility© is nothing more than to raise the profile of inclusion of people with disabilities to the same level as other social justice issues. Churches and congregations can thus take a leading role in improving the lives of people with disabilities in their present life and give a positive example to the general society.
However, in order to escape the relative niche, in which the inclusion debate currently operates, we must ask ourselves how can we engage those for whom people with disabilities are not on the radar? To achieve this goal, these are some concrete objectives that are a continuous work in progress:
- Update EcumenAbility©’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/ecumenability/ regularly, where I share and exchange information about global and local inclusion and belonging initiatives, regardless of denomination and language (I do speak a few languages if I may say so…). Please “like”.
- The same goes for my Twitter account @hentricht, which runs parallel as some as organizations have a Facebook account, but no Twitter, or vice versa. Feel free to follow as well.
- Reorganize my personal website thomashentrich.page4.com to include current work in progress with EcumenAbility©.
- Edit the daily EcumenAbility Digest, a computer-generated newsletter with general disability related articles from around the world. Here is the link:
paper.li/e-1459212348#/. Also posted every other day on Twitter.
- Fundraise for local or regional inclusion projects worldwide. To that end, I have set up a GoFundMe page: www.gofundme.com/ecumenability. Please visit and donate, it is still at 0$…Thank you.
- Establish and support local ecumenical inclusion projects, i.e. a Bible study at my local parish with the new Accessible NIrV Bible and develop a workshop on inclusion for individual denominations
- Liaise with national and regional ecumenical organizations, such as the Canadian Council of Churches, the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, the Centre canadien d’oecuménisme / Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, or the German Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen in Deutschland.
- Liaise with the World Council of Churches and its Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network, as well as the Vatican Council of Culture: In 2018, I have met with EDAN’s coordinator Anjeline Okola in Geneva and we are looking for areas of cooperation.
- Liaise with disability representatives of national churches of all denominations, as much as they are available.
- Continue to attend and report at international and local conferences re disability inclusion. I have attended and/or presented at the Society of Biblical Literature’s International Meeting (Buenos Aires 2015; Berlin 2017), Living Fully (Rome 2016, in collaboration with the Vatican Council of Culture), Life to the Full (Niagara Falls, 2016, organized by Christian Horizons), Summer Institute on Theology and Disability (Toronto 2013; Atlanta 2015).
On a more practical level, besides my regular day job at a large Canadian airline, I also work as relief support in a residential home for Christian Horizons in Ajax, ON, as well as Casual Residential Assistant for Cota at the Collegeview residence in Toronto.
And what is Sean
doing now? Well, he doesn’t like to be profiled on social media or otherwise,
but in short, he is enjoying volunteer work with a group of peers at various
locations in the Durham Region and is happy with his Catholic faith.
[i] For more on this see The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia.