Myanmar is home to over one million people with disabilities. There has been a recent surge in new policy commitments to improve their position. However, currently people with disabilities remain marginalised in society and they are often unable to access education, jobs or public services.
In general, most in society would view people with disabilities with pity and readily donate to help people with disabilities. The opening up of the country over the past decade has also led to increased social awareness of the difficulties often experienced by the most vulnerable. As in many countries, discrimination which was previously concealed by a conservative culture is slowly coming to light. Thus, Christians need to have the Spirit’s equipping to learn how to ‘love well.’
I work with a small group of local colleagues with people with various types of disabilities, producing and selling high-quality handmade products to the local and international market. ‘Oh, how lovely!’ is a common response when I or my colleagues explain what we do. While it is gratifying, perhaps, to be doing something which people view positively, it is also frustrating to grapple with the mismatch between people’s perceptions and our own experience. For what we seek to do is not just help people with disabilities, but to ‘love them well’. In doing so, we seek to connect the Christ of the gospels, to their self-worth as individuals created in the image of a creative God, and develop their potential to work and take part in society with dignity and a future. A verse we’ve often prayed is Philippians 1:9
‘that [our] love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that [we] may be able to discern what is best….’
Thinzar* is a delightful girl with communication difficulties due to her disability, which are exacerbated by the discrimination she regularly experiences. We have known her for a few years and have seen her grow socially, in her skills to earn an income and most wonderfully, in her relationship with God.
Over time, however, her behaviour became increasingly erratic, leading to a diagnosis of a deeper mental health issue, which required professional help. However, this alone was not sufficient to help stabilise her life. She also needed my colleagues to ‘love her well’, drawing on their newly acquired skills in counselling and art therapy. Having the time to do this work with individuals is key for us. As a not-for-profit business, loving well means doing more than just sustaining a business to give those we serve an income.
Sadly, for many churches, though, people with disabilities simply ‘don’t fit’ into the normal church activities and plans, except as occasional recipients of charity. So, what is needed to be able to ‘love well’?
First, it must come from a theological root. The ‘shape’ of our love is shaped by our understanding of God, humanity, disability and the gospel. In Mark 2, Jesus’ engagement with the paralysed man was first and foremost with him as a fellow human (‘my son’) in search of fellowship.
Second, our theological roots shape our perspectives, not only of people with disabilities, but also of ourselves; a fundamental shift in understanding that the body of Christ is not complete unless we are all equally and fully included. When we realise this, our engagement with people with disabilities changes from a view that we are ‘helping’ or ‘ministering’ to them, to having fellowship with them.
Third, such loving requires skills, from financial record keeping to product design, organisational governance, to counselling skills or art therapy. We have seen remarkable ways in which God has equipped our staff practically, often well in advance, to have exactly the right skills to be able to ‘love well’ in a particular circumstance.
Fourth, loving well requires resources, in particular, time. In an organisation such as ours, which relies on income from product sales, the pressure to produce and sell more can often sit in tension with the call to love well. Loving well invests time and energy away from economically productive activities. Generous gifts have enabled us to hire additional staff so that we can have the flexibility to give time for counselling, follow up, and taking group members and staff on retreats.
‘Loving well’ is, in the end, something we do in fellowship with each other – as we work and share with our local colleagues, as we pray together, and give together, recognising that ‘loving well’ has no short-cuts, special techniques or reproducible methods, but rather asks us to walk a long, uncertain road together on the way to God’s kingdom.