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Tom Hoeksema on a Bibliography of Disability and Inclusion

Too many pastors and churches fail to see the wholeness of people who live with disability. Tom Hoeksema recommends books that can help preachers and churches become more inclusive.

Thomas B. Hoeksema Sr. established the special education program at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He officially retired in 2011, but taught two-thirds time the next year. Hoeksema serves on the Christian Learning Center Network board. In this edited conversation, he talks about what preachers and church leaders can learn from books in his annotated bibliography about the theology and practice of inclusion.

Why did you create this bibliography?

At an all-day meeting about supporting churches in becoming inclusive communities, I showed John Witvliet a copy of Kathy Black's A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. He asked me to create an annotated bibliography to share on the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship website. I chose books that influenced me and described why each is valuable.

My bibliography has two kinds of books. The first will particularly interest people who preach or who teach preachers. Each title is theoretically sophisticated, deeply theological and challenges prevailing paradigms of disability in the church and society. The other titles are also theologically rich but include excellent ideas for translating theology into faith practices. These will appeal to lay members who advocate for and create inclusive practices in congregations and parishes.

What career experiences made you choose these books?

In the 1980s and 90s, I served on a National Council of Churches task force on disabilities. Those meetings prodded me to interrogate the way the church historically has viewed disability and to shift my paradigm. I began to understand that people who live with disability need to be recognized for having strengths and gifts and should not just to be seen as vulnerable and in need of care.

All the books in my bibliography reflect a fully orbed view of inclusion, which recognizes that churches worship and serve better when we do it side by side, using all our differences to enhance our faith practices. Everyone profits when we receive the gifts that others have to offer us in our need and when we offer our personal gifts to others in their need. True inclusion is not based on “caring for our friends with disability” but on reciprocity. We are in life together, each belonging, each serving.

How often do you hear about disability in sermons?

Rarely do I hear a sermon with an adequate understanding of disability. If you don’t know what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes—whether they are poor, of a different gender or ethnic group, or live with a disability—then it’s hard to read Scripture or formulate a sermon through their viewpoint. Preachers typically are not trained to see through the lens of disability. Consequently, they miss opportunities to change how disability is perceived and they fail to extract important meanings from the text.

What does it take to “see through the lens of disability”?

It’s not complicated. The key is to look first at the person’s gifts instead of at their disability. Sermons about suffering or problems of pain and evil often use disability as an example of suffering. There are disabilities that cause people to suffer, especially ones acquired later in life. But when pastors and congregations just see disability as suffering, it evokes only compassion or, worse, pity. I’m not saying that disability doesn’t have downsides, but it’s not helpful to always lift up the wound instead of the gift. Too often, people with disabilities get marginalized. Disability is viewed as an aberrance, something to be avoided. Certainly that’s not what God intends.

I’ve heard, “She suffers from Down syndrome.” This comment misses the wholeness of the person. Just because someone doesn’t see, walk or think the same as most people do doesn’t mean they don’t have gifts to offer. I know many people who were born blind. For them, it’s the only reality they’ve ever known, and they don’t consider themselves as constantly suffering.

What’s an example of a gift that rises from a disability?

Guys from a group home near our church have been attending for years. When I was an elder, I pushed for us to offer them the chance to be baptized, make profession of faith and become church members. Our church does a bidding prayer every other Sunday. One guy from the group home has a pattern of always asking God to help him get along with Paula, the group home supervisor. After the fifth time Clarence asked this, some church members wondered whether we should keep him from getting the microphone. But he was allowed to keep asking. Worshipers began to see that Clarence’s prayer was more honest than many prayers are. His gift of honesty has helped many of us to silently pray along with him, “May I get along with whoever I have trouble with.”

Can you think of other gifts?

Yes. Getting to know people who live with disability can heal us of our negative ways of seeing disability. Our church offers a Bible study for people who volunteer with or use our weekly food pantry. A man who co-leads that Bible study used to live at the group home and now lives independently. He has such a gift for talking about faith. It’s a blessing for the group home guys to volunteer at the food pantry, and I think many neighbors, especially the homeless ones, identify more easily with those guys than with someone like me—a retired white male professor. Jesus lived in solidarity with people who were outcast in one way or another. Even in his resurrected body, Jesus still had scars. His life is a model for our churches. I think the little old lady who comes every week sees Jesus in the guys passing out the food.

Isaiah 35 promises that in the new creation, the blind will see, the deaf will hear and the lame will walk. On the other hand, there is a strand of theology of disability as gift. Years ago I remember meeting a deaf woman who was a theologian. She said that her lived experience of being deaf made her uniquely able to interpret Scripture and preach. We have friends whose daughter with Down syndrome died. If she doesn’t have Down syndrome when we meet again, will she still be Andrea? Maybe in the new heaven and new earth, disability will be viewed as just another way of being.

The gift, then, is seeing that our wounds shape us into more complete people and equip us uniquely to accomplish God’s purposes.  

How might seeing through the lens of disability lead to a different interpretation of Scripture or a new worship practice?

Lent and Easter offer many opportunities to include reflections on disability, like how God became weak to accomplish the most powerful thing that has ever happened. Is faith only for the strong and the healed? What can we learn from people whom we see as disabled or not having been healed?

In our Dutch, Reformed and Calvinist traditions, we don’t have as rich an understanding of the Holy Spirit as many Pentecostals do. We’re kind of suspicious of how the Spirit works in people. We like to think that words are the primary means by which God is mediated. Many people with an intellectual disability don’t have a lot of words, yet they understand deep things about God, because the Spirit puts a way of knowing deep in their bones.

Pentecost gives us an opportunity to dig deeper into how we know God and grow in faith. When I see the guys from the group home going up to receive the bread and juice, I realize that there aren’t enough words to wrap around the mystery of communion. If you understand that the Holy Spirit can move without words, then we need to create places in the worship service for other vocalizations, the freedom to dance and lift hands, and the smells and bells that we threw out in the Reformation.

Has this conviction made you more apt to use your body during worship?

I sometimes envy people who move more freely in worship, but I’m finding that my arms are moving in ways they haven’t always done. I might raise my hand during a song. Sometimes I open my arms at the doxology. It’s a way of opening myself gesturally to receive a blessing.

I think I am more visually alert to new colors in the sanctuary as the liturgical seasons shift. I notice small physical acts, like people connecting with each other through a glance or physical touch.

What are good first steps for a pastor who wants to be more inclusive?

My first advice to them is to invest in getting to know—and be known by—m embers of the congregation or parish who have characteristics that may be labelled “disability.” Learn to understand their lived reality. Second, read Amos Yong’s The Bible, Disability, and the Church—and every other title in my bibliography!


Learn from Tom Hoeksema’s bibliography on disability and inclusion. Explore other resources from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship on disability and inclusion.