Erin Raffety, MDiv ’08, didn’t realize it at the time, but fieldwork in China as part of her doctorate in cultural anthropology would change her outlook on ministry — and her life. “I didn’t know before I studied China that a large number of foster families there are raising children with disabilities,” she says. And while many of the children may be eventually adopted in the West, most of them spend time in foster care. These children are cared for by elderly and poor women who, marginalized by society, take them in and provide them with not only a roof over their heads but also an outpouring of love. “They have these makeshift families that come together around their needs for each other,” she says. “And the children give such gifts to their foster mothers, whether they’ll be adopted eventually or not.”
Inspired by the families she saw, Raffety and her husband decided to start a family of their own. When their daughter was just over a year old, she was diagnosed with a progressive genetic neurological disease of the brain. “God prepared me in China to receive our daughter and accept and appreciate her and her gifts just as they are,” she says. “Many people assume that the research I did on disabled children in China was inspired by my daughter, but in reality it was the other way around.” All of a sudden, her work surrounding people with disabilities became very personal. Raffety decided to bring it full circle, blending her personal and academic experience with people with disabilities with her work as a pastor, scholar, and lecturer in youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.
The result was a class called Ministry With Youth With Disabilities, made possible thanks to a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. “The idea is that people with disabilities have gifts and ministry they can contribute to the church,” Raffety says.
Throughout the course, students learned how the church has sidelined and marginalized people with disabilities in a variety of ways: first, by treating them as a mission, rather than as constructive and valuable members of the church community, and second, by creating environments that can feel exclusive. Students have the opportunity to visit an independent living center for adults with developmental disabilities, and enjoy a fellowship night with the residents. As one of the final projects of the course, several students chartered a chapter of the Association for Disabled Seminarians and their Allies (ADSA), which now provides valuable support to disabled Seminary students on the Princeton Seminary campus.
In the end, the gifts Raffety witnessed in China and those she loves in her own daughter have helped to inform her work in encouraging churches to utilize the gifts of their disabled congregants. “Anyone who’s been in a dynamic relationship with a person with a disability knows that they experience the world so differently and have so much to give,” she says. “They experience God differently, and have theological insights we must and should not overlook.”
1. Understand disability. It may not look like what you think it should. “Many churches will say they don’t have any members who are disabled,” Raffety says. “But the reality is that you probably do, you just don’t know or feel comfortable accepting them as disabled.” Disabilities, for instance, may include experiences of chronic illness and mental illness.
2. Create an inclusive environment. It’s about so much more than offering a wheelchair-accessible ramp, Raffety says. The truth is that many disabled people won’t come to church because the environment is too quiet or structured. “These people may make noise or move, which a church may not necessarily support in worship,” Raffety says. “The first step for a church is looking at their building, but also their practices of worship and where they can be more intentional about welcoming people with disabilities.”
3. Provide opportunities for ministry and leadership. Raffety encourages leadership to examine the gifts among those with disabilities in their church. These individuals may find a calling in joining the choir, working with young children, or even helping with the sound system — whatever their talent or interest is. “We think of leadership so narrowly,” she says. “If we only offer roles to read at the lectern, then if you can’t read, you can’t lead. And that is not true. These are just some of the ways we’re diminishing the role people with disabilities can have in the church.”