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19 August 2019

Living with Disability by His Grace

Synopsis:

Rowan’s ideas in “The Gospel of  Liberation and the Implications for the Church in Relation to People with Disabilities” are personalized by Yao who describes his own experience. Knowing that Jesus journeys with him in his disability helps Yao in day-to-day life and as he accompanies and ministers to people with different disabilities. He understands ministry to the disabled as cross-cultural in that we must transcend personal barriers to embrace others as we come to understand that in God’s sight we are all disabled by sin and in need of his love and salvation.

Jonathan Yi-Deh Yao

Yi-Deh’s master’s thesis in history focuses on the work of the China Inland Mission among the Lisu. After failing to secure a middle school teaching position, Yi-Deh saw God make a way beyond his imagination—giving him the chance to participate in OMF Taiwan’s 150th anniversary project in 2014. He then joined OMF Taiwan’s literature department where he assists the OMF Chinese communication ministry and serves as the chief editor of 萬族萬民, the Chinese edition of East Asia’s Millions. Yi-Deh wrote a book in Chinese, 鷹架任務— 內地會在台灣 (Scaffolding: OMF in Taiwan, 2015), and he also serves with the youth ministry in his church.

Living with Disability by His Grace

Mission Round Table 14:2 (May-Aug 2014): 31-32

As a disabled person, I was deeply touched by Peter Rowan’s article. He has, as stated in the article, “spoken for those who cannot speak.” As he shows, the gospel of liberation gives us a lens through which we can see two things more clearly: Jesus’ example and the situation faced by disabled people. From this firm biblical basis, we can step further, by God’s grace, on a journey towards transformation of life.

My disability

I have lived with Mucopolysaccharidoses (MPS) since I was born. MPS is a metabolic disorder that causes me to lack certain enzymes so that I am not able to break down mucopolysaccharides very well. As the accumulation of the mucopolysaccharides harms some of the organs and skeleton, I am shorter than normal, and have distorted joints and a weaker body.

The disease causes me to live life in a “peripheral place”. Thank God that Jesus is there. And though our Lord willingly chose to come that way, for me it was not a choice. Even so, I realize that it is actually a blessing for me to walk such a special path.

MPS is a progressive condition, so it has brought me different challenges at different stages of my life: some on the physical level, others impacting my adjustment to daily life, and even more on the spiritual level. Thank God that he walks with me when I walk with MPS. I experience his abundant grace and have learned (and am still learning) to rely on him. More than that, when I serve him in church, I find that I am a special vessel, molded by God through everything I have been through.

Living with disabled people

We have learned of Jesus’ wonderful model to become weak for others, but we need to confess that it is not easy for Christians to follow perfectly. It is hard to serve in the way Jesus—the incarnate Son—did. We are not careful enough to observe the needs of the disabled. As Christians, our problem is not necessarily a lack of love, but a lack arising from not having the experience and training needed simply to observe. We easily neglect details that hinder disabled people from becoming more integrated into the community. Church buildings often lack accessible facilities. The scheduling and arrangements of outdoor activities and other common routines inadvertently leave people out. And even when we consider helping out in certain areas, we are still blindsided by needs and issues that we have not yet conceived, much less encountered.

Carelessness is a challenge for us; but too much care is another problem. Sometimes we can place too much emphasis on the disability and not enough on the person. Most of my Christian friends wholeheartedly serve those who are disabled—just like Jesus—and that shows a very precious characteristic of his church. Once a need is seen, they use all their strength to help their disabled friends, treating them as a most honored guest. The question is, might this attention make one’s disabled friend an object and thereby negate the possibility of their being integrated into the community? It is more challenging to live side by side with disabled people within a community, and not just as with “the one who needs service.”

In my college days, I had friends with different kinds of disability. They were not Christians yet, but some of them had joined the Christian fellowship at the university. In the fellowship, there were nice Christians with true faith, passion, and kindness. They cared for their disabled friends and served them a lot more than I had ever done. But I wondered if my disabled friends really became integrated into the community. Though all college students face many similar situations and issues, I sometimes found the talks at the Christian fellowship missed the needs of disabled students. For example, when talking about one’s career plans, disabled and other students have vastly different considerations. Disabled students often had more constraints due to their special situation, and it was not easy for them to share in such a group. The university I attended was quite a good one, so most of the students are excellent in their academic performance and represented many disciplines. In Taiwan, a “successful student” (just like me!) found it hard to express his weakness to others. I knew that everyone has his own challenge and weakness, but it was just not easy to share openly in such a culture. To get everyone involved in the community, the church must reflect more on the “strong” and the “weak” based on Jesus’ example. As Christians, we have to live out a new way that distinguishes us from the conventional thoughts and practices.

We really need God’s grace when we build the community. There are so many subtle things that make it difficult to interact in any “symmetrical” basis. Physical differences cause us to experience more asymmetric situations in daily life and make relationships more complicated. Those complications might well cause misunderstandings or even hurts. After all, we are trying to reach out to people in quite different situations from us, and we want them to be members of the body in Christ, not just acquaintances.

My experience with disabled friends

Working with disabled people seems like a cross-cultural issue.

I feel that living with people having different types of disability is like living on different planets. Even a disabled person like me finds it difficult to get out to see disabled friends. I started to pay attention to issues of accessibility because one of my friends uses a wheelchair. I remember that, in our college days, we were forced to make a long detour for lunch because anyone who wanted to cross the wide road separating our campus from the shops had to make use of an overpass or underpass with only stairs. That was about ten years ago. And while disabled-friendly access in Taiwan has improved greatly in the years since, I believe that disabled people still face challenges in many parts of East Asia.

Since I met that friend, I started to pay attention to whether a restaurant is wheelchair friendly or not—even a few stairs at the restaurant entrance can be a major hurdle. And when we go out together, I am the one who goes to the cashier or picks up napkins and utensils—things that others usually do for me. It is very interesting for me to have such a role change. I become more active than he in such locations. But in other places—for example, moving a distance from one place to another—it is easier for him to go by wheelchair than for me to go with my barely-walking legs. Disability is thus a relative idea.

To a degree, I feel God gave me a special gift to accompany my disabled friends. As disabled people, though we live on “different planets”, we encounter similar experiences: the challenges of daily life, feelings of loneliness, issues pertaining to self-identification, and more. In addition, we experience the “unfriendly situation” together when we walk on the streets through the “ups and downs.” Our similar feelings lay a broad foundation for building our friendship.

His grace makes the difference

So, how can churches minister to and with these special friends? Should we conclude that only disabled people can reach the disabled? Absolutely not! Rather, we should see it as a cross-cultural ministry that requires us to transcend our own barriers to embrace and walk side by side with other parts of the body in Christ.

My own life is a testimony. Though I was born in a Christian family, it was still an “already but not yet” journey for my family, my church, and my friends in fellowship to learn to walk together. Thank God for putting so many great people around me. But there are still challenges for us because we are not perfect. In fact, sometimes we make mistakes or even hurt each other in our relationships, whether we intend to or not. When I was a teenager, I often felt my family and church members failed to walk in my shoes to understand my situation, and it sometimes tragically led to great tension. (I hope that I have totally repented!) However, as suffering increases, grace increases all the more. When we put our focus on the work Jesus has done on the cross, we see the fact that he bears our sufferings and insufficiency. He filled all the gaps by his personal sacrifice.

We Christians share a foundation that is not just based on personal feelings that are similar. Thank God that we have Jesus Christ as the foundation so that we can be one community, the body of Christ, and we can bravely invite others to join in the process of transformation and healing. As I look back, I have to thank God that my family and church did not treat me with too much privilege. For on the one hand, such treatment might have reflected the reality that, in Taiwan, special education was just sprouting during 1980s to the early 2000s. And on the other hand, it meant that participation was a very natural thing for me—the thing I ought to do. Physically and mentally, I was mostly just within the range I could bear, a reality that helped shape my personal character in an open and positive direction. Though it is complicated to discern how to handle the degrees and ways in which to do this, it is definitely important to enhance the ways disabled people can participate in the wider world. That is the touchstone for identification with the community. And though it may be difficult, we should not be afraid to step out, accompany the disabled, and work together with them. After all, in God’s eyes, we are all disabled sinners who need his love and salvation.