November 2020 | Volume 15 | Issue 11
Because of, not in spite of
Missions gifting may come wrapped in disability
When we see a missionary going off to serve with some type of physical disability, we may think to ourselves, “Even though they have…they are still serving overseas.” When we see a missionary family with a child with a disability, we may think, “They are serving despite the challenges of caring for that child in another culture.”
However, these workers not only demonstrate that disabilities are not an insurmountable obstacle but also that a substantial part of their global impact is because of, not in spite of, their disability. They want to help churches understand the unique ways in which disabilities open doors around the world and how the challenges can be successfully addressed in tandem with a proactive agency and a committed sending/supporting church.
Anna Joy was born 20 years ago with Down syndrome while her parents, Brent and Bonnie Amistead, were on home assignment from Indonesia. Devastated at the thought that they might not be able to return to the field, Anna’s parents turned to their church for input. Several factors about Grace Fellowship Church (GFC) in Timonium, MD, shaped the response they received. First, GFC had sent the Amisteads and four other families to Indonesia with an extremely high level of commitment to their success and flourishing. The church had been “all in” from the beginning. Second, the church’s new missions pastor not only had had missionary experience himself on this team, but his family also had a child with a disability. GCF had both a strong missions gene in their DNA and also a deep commitment to minister to those with disabilities.
GFC refused to quickly pronounce the family ineligible to return to the field. Instead, they immediately arranged a one-year extension on the contract for the missionary house the Amisteads had been living in—providing time for much-needed family adjustment and decision making without the need to move or worry about housing. Then the church committed to join Brent and Bonnie in what turned out to be four months of listening for God’s guidance.
During this time, the missions pastor’s wife articulated what proved to be a watershed question for the Amisteads: “Why wouldn’t you go back if there are no medical issues that couldn’t be handled there?” This encouragement was essential, along with the fact that another family had taken a child with Down syndrome to the field, yet they still battled fear, worrying if returning to Indonesia would deprive Anna of essential therapy.
Then one day a woman they did not know from a supporting church called with insight that spoke to this fear and clinched their decision to return. She told Bonnie, “I’m a social worker and for 20 years have served as a parent educator with our county services. I’ve studied dozens of families to find out what makes a child with Down syndrome successful. The resources we professionals can provide help move these children along in their development, but the real key is always the same—it’s good parenting skills.”
God used this input to give Brent and Bonnie the confidence to tackle the largely unknown challenges of taking a child with Down syndrome to Indonesia.
Missionaries prove over and over that serving with disabilities is a path to fruitful evangelism.
HOW DISABILITIES OPEN DOORS
1. Modeling the truth that every person is beautiful and has worth because they are made in God’s image. In many cultures around the world, especially those based on honor and shame, people with disabilities are viewed as an embarrassment and are often hidden away at home, sometimes even restricted to one room behind closed doors. Children with disabilities are often assumed to not be able to learn or not worth educating.
In contrast, when missionaries openly include their child with a disability in family activities and invest time and effort in their education, their lives testify to the value that God places on every human being. Modeling acceptance without shame or disappointment does what words alone could never do in helping to reshape deep-seated beliefs in such cultures.
Justin Reimer, founder of The Elisha Foundation, sums it up well: “Outside of the West, 90% of those with disabilities are denied access to key resources. This creates huge amounts of social strain and personal suffering. Yet Scripture points repeatedly to the role of suffering in evangelism and discipleship. Missionaries prove over and over that serving with disabilities is a path to fruitful evangelism. When the local culture dictates that those with disabilities be rejected, the message that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus is indeed good news for all.”
2. Witnessing to the truth that disabilities are not God’s judgment on the family. In some cultures, religious leaders teach that the parents of a child with disabilities must have sinned to deserve this punishment. Jesus clearly rejected this assumption in John 9:1-3 when He taught His disciples that the man’s blindness was designed to bring God glory. One missionary mom explained that people in their host country said, “We can’t believe that lie any longer because we recognize that you and your husband are godly people, yet you have a child with a serious disability.”
3. Leveling the playing field. Missionaries who deal with a disability themselves or in their family consistently report that it profoundly changes them and opens ministry doors in ways they never anticipated. Bonnie Armistead expressed it this way: “The invisible barrier of being a wealthy, white Westerner that plagued every relationship I had with my poorer Indonesian neighbors suddenly felt reduced. Of course, in my neighbors’ eyes, I was still wealthy, white, and foreign, but on the inside, I was changed. Suffering seemed to have dismantled the false self-confidence underlying my high status, and Indonesians began to perceive me as being more approachable. It was my newly gained inner poverty that connected me to Indonesians in a deeper, more meaningful way.”
4. Accepting new facets of ministry. One missionary parent of a child with a disability observed that successful adaptation for such families requires developing at least part of their ministry around the unique opportunities that their family situation presents. Such was the case for the Reimers who moved to the Ukraine with a child with a disability. Much of their time there was invested in training churches to recognize and respond to their unique opportunities to show Christ’s love to individuals and families suffering because of the challenges of a disability.
Suffering seemed to have dismantled the false self-confidence underlying my high status, and Indonesians began to perceive me as being more approachable.
RECOGNIZING THE CHALLENGES
The opportunities listed above do not negate the fact that serving overseas with a disability poses extra challenges. Parents raising children with disabilities on the field must be prepared to make additional sacrifices, doing whatever it takes so that their child may thrive as they minister cross-culturally. However, even the most adaptable families may reluctantly conclude at some point in their service that they need to return to their sending country for physical treatment/therapy or special educational services.
Those with disabilities themselves may find that a lack of services or advanced medical care can make it difficult to serve or puts too much strain on coworkers. While this is true, it is important to recognize that the average length of field service for all missionaries is dropping significantly. Lifetime service is no longer the norm, so it shouldn’t be a criterion for accepting those with disabilities either.
Just getting to the field may require greater tenacity for those with disabilities. Workers who pursue ministry under such circumstances report that they often have to overcome skepticism, even outright resistance, from churches and agencies. Hesitancy in sending is not wrong considering that missions is always difficult and those with disabilities will need to overcome additional obstacles.
However, a disability certainly should not automatically close the door to missions service. Every person and situation is unique, and today there are more ways than ever before to minister successfully “because of,” not just “in spite of.” Here are some guidelines for the church considering sending someone with a disability.
Today there are more ways than ever before to minister successfully “because of,” not just “in spite of.”
GUIDELINES FOR SENDING
So how should churches go about making wise decisions about sending workers with a disability? And what are their additional responsibilities when they do? Please take time to read the how to’s for each of the following principles here.
- Affirm the biblical truth that every person in your church has a God-designed contribution to help accomplish the Great Commission.
- Recognize that sending those with disabilities can be culture changing.
- Embrace the fact that confirming the call to missions when a disability is involved demands extra discernment on the part of the sending church.
- Send a worker with a disability after customized preparation.
- Provide a good support network in your church for your worker with a disability.
- Help to confirm that your worker with a disability will have a very supportive agency and field team.
- Consider how to adapt a short-term team’s goals, ministry, and/or schedule in order to include a participant with a disability.
- Build your congregation’s excitement about sending a worker with a disability whom you believe God has gifted for a strategic ministry.
When Anna Armistead was invited to enroll in the eighth grade at an Indonesian school, the principal told her mother, “We need Anna at our school. Indonesian parents have no hope for their children with disabilities, but when they see that Anna can read and write, that she loves God and interacts well socially, then for the first time they have a picture of what might be possible for their own child.”
For almost 20 years now, Indonesians have been watching Anna overcome her limitations. They have seen that the Armisteads don’t hide her away in shame but instead celebrate God’s high calling on her life—to carry Down syndrome with dignity and grace. As a result, God has used Anna to draw Indonesians to consider the Source of all hope, and to begin to understand God’s love and provision for them and for their children with disabilities.
In order for Anna to have this strategic part in her family’s missionary service, their sending church had to play a pivotal role in confirming that God’s global ministry purpose for them very much included Anna. Bonnie Armistead sums it up this way, “We couldn’t have served all these years on the field with a child with a disability without a sending church like Grace Fellowship.”
Additional Resources: Here is a list of resources that will expand your understanding of the strategic opportunities for missions ministry by those with disabilities and how to support them.
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