Thursday, January 5, 2017


We are living in a time when our country is becoming more and more aware of white privilege. According to Wikipedia, “White privilege is a term of societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in Western countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political or economic circumstances.”

Around our conference in recent months we have called white people together in small groups on our districts to learn about this reality in our world and in our churches. More of us will gather in churches and districts this month and next to discuss what it means to use that privilege and power to discriminate and build walls of institutional racism.

Many white people unknowingly have lived in a “white bubble” of family and social circles all their lives. They may not realize they have privilege that on a broad, systemic level causes harm to others who don’t. These are important conversations, and we will—we must—continue having them, as we enter courageously into ventures over these next four years that respond to the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference’s Call to Action. It is a call to begin building racial awareness and understanding, while making progress in the cause for racial equity and harmony among all peoples.

Hearing privilege

Recently, I had lunch with an old friend who works with the Deaf community, and she told me about the new twitter feed #hearingprivilege. I have worked in the Deaf community for many years, but this was new to me. It is similar to the dynamics of white privilege. Hearing people have many more advantages than those who cannot hear. Yet it is often taken for granted. Here are some of the tweets: 

“Hearing privilege is being able to hear the ‘loud and verbal commands’ given by the police before they shoot.”

“Being able to find and meet with a mental health professional who speaks my language (sign language).”

“To be able to walk into your gurdwara (Sikh) or mosque, church or temple and fully understand and participate.”

“To be educated in your own language, alongside people you can actually understand.”

The truth is, everything we are and have in life can be a privilege. And it can all be shared with less privileged sisters and brothers.

I remember Deaf members of the Deaf Church I served in Baltimore having “seeing privilege.” Some other members were deaf and blind; so those who could see had a privilege over those who could not.

Some of the Deaf members would interpret the visual signs of the worship services for the Deaf-Blind members through a tactile sign language that “spoke” into their hands. Thus, the Deaf-Blind members could “feel the Word of the Lord” by a tactile reception of the signs.

Privileged and unprivileged

The church, the full Body of Christ, is this amazing, diverse collection of privileged and unprivileged people living through a variety of situations and scenarios reflected in our races, ethnicities, socio-economic status, genders, abilities, sexual orientation, health, ages, and so on. We are, within ourselves, a unique collection of both privileged and underprivileged people on any given day.

Yet, no privilege is as universal as those that relate to the basic human body. Each of us has a body of some kind; and at best, most of us are “temporarily able-bodied” until the processes of aging and death take their course.

Disability crosses all lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc. Sadly, however, many of our churches are ill-prepared to receive people with disabilities. Not only are they unable to receive them physically, with accessible buildings and services; but often church members have inaccessible “hearts” that fail to welcome disabled visitors. It is even harder to find churches that engage in the greatest form of accessibility of all: empowerment.

I was at the meeting of the NEJ Committee on Native American Ministries recently when its president, Cynthia Kent, praised the UM Church for offering her a place where she could be both a Native American and a Christian. “I did not have to leave who I was at the door when I joined the United Methodist Church” she said. “I praise God for that.”

But as I consider disability access it is true that many people can’t even get into the doors of our churches because of the architectural barriers. Many are still not able to even enter. Is that true of your church?

Disability Awareness Sunday

I encourage all of our churches to hold a Disability Awareness Sunday this year, whether on the official observance date of Jan. 22 or another Sunday. Use the Disability Awareness Sunday Resources website for sermon ideas, liturgies and hymns.

Invite a person with a disability to be the preacher. Do an accessibility audit of your church and report findings to your congregation. Explore avenues to serve and involve people with disabilities, so they can use their unique gifts to enhance the ministry of the Body of Christ.

I Corinthians 12:22 reminds us, “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Understanding that principle and giving honor to those among us who lack advantages is the first step to eradicating “able-bodied privilege.”


The Discipline
, the book of procedure and legislation of the United Methodist Church, states that the church is to be inclusive, and that it should enable every person to participate in its life (¶ 139). It further states that all persons with “mental, physical, developmental, neurological, and psychological conditions or disabilities” are fully human and full members of God’s family, with a rightful place in church and society. In recognition of this status, the church is to be in ministry with all people who have any special need, and to enable their full participation in its activities. The church is also to be an advocate for equality (¶ 162, emphasis added).

To recognize and affirm these statements, a Disability Awareness Sunday is to be observed annually. The date is determined by each Annual Conference. An offering may be received for disability ministries if the conference chooses to do so (¶ 265).

If churches want to receive and designate an offering on Disability Awareness Sunday, they can give it to UMCOR’s “Disability Ministries” Advance Special # 3021054, which provides “resources and funding to develop ministries that include and empower persons with disabilities and their families.”

Pastors and lay leaders may contact Disability Ministries Committee members in their districts to offer disability awareness promotion ideas. (See the list on the Disability Ministry webpage.) Or contact committee chairwoman Barbara Skarbowski at or 717-584-6170.

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