Black Liberation Theology of Disability

Message by Kendrick Kemp

Bulletin 2.11.18

Outline
I. Disabilities in the Bible
II. My story
III. Bad Theology; Disability as Sin; But what is it?

Before I get started, I want to thank Pastor Jason Storbakken for inviting me to speak here today. And that I have the honor preach during Black History Month.

  1. Spiritualizing Disabilities

Luke 4:18-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In the church where I grew up, there was only one interpretation of blindness: blindness was a physical ailment that needed to be healed, or rather cured. This person needed to change. This person needed to be fixed.

“To recover the sight of the blind.”

These passages become irrelevant to people who have physical disabilities. How can the church nurture and feed us without marginalizing certain groups? Reinterpreting the healing passages can open up new discourse.

The Church must acknowledge people with disabilities and lift up their experiences in order to reinterpret these passages for the well-being of all souls—including those with disabilities.

Blindness was a common ailment in the ancient world—especially when one reached old age.

Humans have lived for centuries and millennia with no way to overcome the disability of losing sight. However, Christ was anointed to preach good news to the blind. He was tasked with promoting radical inclusivity. When Jesus healed, he not only took away the impairment, he tore down those social barriers that blocked people with disabilities from fully participating in community. Healing for Jesus was not about curing a disability; it was about restoration to a community—for all people.

It’s not about recovery of sight to a single blind person, but an openness of vision for the community.

In our time today, people living with disabilities, particularly people of color, need a place to have their physical and spiritual needs met in an inclusive sanctuary. Our churches are not always welcoming. In-accessible entrances, restrooms, and seating literally shut some people out of the church. This unintended evil is widespread. Additionally, positions of church leadership have been occupied by able bodied clergy, who have ignored those living with disabilities.

However, we must ground ourselves and hold up our sisters, brothers, and all kin-folk, especially those with disabilities.

 My story

How many people in this room have a disability, or know a friend or family member with a disability?

I ask that because this a very important question for me. This is a much-needed conversation. Right before my 21st birthday my life changed dramatically.

I want to share a little of my story with you.

I suffered a stroke. It left me paralyzed, I couldn’t talk or walk.

Before this I was All Star Athlete in my hometown. I won All States of basketball, the County in football and Sectionals in track. Up until then, I rode on a magic carpet and it was like someone snatched it from under me and I fell on my face. My life was over.

I remember my Doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to talk or walk again. My mother stood beside me, comforting me, saying it would be all right. I didn’t know what all right meant, but I believed in my Mom and she wouldn’t lie to me.

 

She had my best interests at heart. Weeks went by, I relied on my family, church family, and some friends. It was still hard, though, to ask for help. During my long start of recovery in the hospital, I prayed to God daily. Even hourly. It was a time of wrestling with God. I remember asking God if you help me to walk and talk I’ll go anywhere. Where you send me I’ll go.

After a while I left the hospital. People in my town looked at me differently. I looked at myself differently.

Going to church I was an outcast.  I felt invisible, like a nobody, a spectacle. People wouldn’t even talk to me. They were scared of me. I didn’t know what to say to them either. Two years later, I had another stroke. The improvements that I made after the first stroke were gone. I really wanted to give up after the second stroke. I went to very dark places. But I couldn’t give up.

Yet, there was something inside of me that wouldn’t give up. God put in me the resilience and the inner drive to keep going in the face of tragedy. After yet another recovery process I started searching for an answer to why this happened. I never found that answer, but what I found instead fed my spirit – it was the work of Dr. James Hal Cone.

Eventually this got me out of the abyss I was in. It gave me the fire to keep going in the midst of this struggle. I’m still looking at Dr. Cone’s work today. When Dr. Cone was writing Black Theology in the 60’s, God was with him – in the face of Black oppression. So too, I believe, God was with me – in my situation.

Dr. Cone gave me the language and the fortitude to keep going and create a theology around my story.

 III. Bad Theology and Conclusion

Before my strokes I sat where I pleased.

After my strokes I was assigned a seat, often to the side, feeling hidden from the rest of the congregation.

Before my strokes I actively socialized during coffee hour and at fellowship dinners.

After my strokes I often sat alone; church people who did share meals with me were, at times, motivated by pity.

Before my strokes I regularly received communion.

After my strokes one church denied it to me. I became a spectacle, a nobody. I was ostracized. People stared as if I were from another planet—a contemporary leper.

Yet, we are all incomplete.

Disabled folks might expect to be treated as less than human from people who do not hold themselves accountable to the message of the Gospel, but we must not slow down.

We need to honestly ask ourselves, are we doing enough?

What risks do we take when we bless those living with disabilities? Why do we feel ashamed of our wounds and do our best to conceal them? We are not perfect, nor are we intended to model or strive for perfection. Like the resurrected Christ, our wounds are visible and undeniable, and their very existence challenges us to reconcile our fear of vulnerability. What better place for reconciliation than the church?

 Please pray with me:

Oh God of Justice, help us to lift up one another in our differences, struggles, and hopes. Gather us to become one people, your people, a people of love and inclusivity. Amen.