Time for the Church to step up!

The Ao Baptist Church Diphupar, one of the very few churches in Nagaland with ramp access into the building 

The Baptist Church of Nagaland has designated the third Sunday of November every year as PwD (Persons with Disability) Sunday, a day for churches and fellowships to focus on celebrating the abilities and involvement of disabled people. This year it falls on the coming Sunday – November 20.

The Nagaland Baptist Church Council has taken a very important step towards building an inclusive church by setting up a Disability Commission to guide its churches. I believe this is a watershed moment in the Nagaland Christian disability movement.

The Church is an integral part of the social order and thus it has a huge social responsibility. In our Naga context especially, the church plays such a central role in the lives of the people and so it has a much bigger responsibility to lead the way for our society in standing up against social injustices and to show what a human community ought to be and then to expect a better society to come. And for this to happen, the church must be socially involved through practical social action, not only words.

According to Census 2011, there are 29,631 people with various disabilities in Nagaland. This figure is underreported, in my opinion, and the actual number would be much higher. In any case, this is the official number – 29,631 people with disability in Nagaland. Here’s a question I always ask - how many of these people with disabilities do you encounter in your everyday life – in the streets, markets, schools, playgrounds, offices, churches, public events or in family celebrations?

I think your answer would be ‘rarely’ or even ‘never’. This is because they are Nagaland’s forgotten people. This large group of people in our State continues to live on the fringes of our society completely deprived of their rights and dignity and facing exclusion and discrimination from society as a whole.

We need look at the aspect of physical accessibility alone and the scenario in the State becomes clear. People with disability find themselves shut out - shut out of buildings, offices, homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, CHURCHES, sports and community groups and activities. They find themselves shut out of our way of life.

Like the rest of society, the Church in Nagaland too has thus far forgotten the people who may look different or act differently from what is seen as ‘normal’. Where are the people with disability? They are certainly not sitting in church. They are not among the congregation listening to the word of God, singing and praying along with other fellow worshippers. Children with disabilities are not taking part in Sunday School activities, listening to Bible stories or playing and having fun with their friends.

Speaking only of the physical building, among the thousands of churches in the State, all denominations, only a countable few have any kind of enabling environment that beckons and welcomes people with disability. Lack of accessibility and unfriendly spaces excludes disabled people from the life of the church.

We like to think of our churches as places where all are welcome. Take a look at your church building. Does it have barriers that you do not notice because you’re so accustomed to the way things are? Can a person with mobility disability enter your church and sit among the congregation and worship with dignity? Many people with disabilities never go to church because they either cannot get there or they cannot get in.   

However, though churches certainly have a legal and social responsibility to ensure that their buildings are safe and accessible, inclusion for those living with disabilities goes far beyond installing ramps and accessible toilets. Many do not feel welcome at church because they cannot hear the message. Others cannot participate because they cannot read. Some have difficulty following the unwritten rules. Others simply cannot sit quiet and still for an hour or more. Some cannot understand what is happening.

Now, there is no question that people with disabilities face huge barriers in the form of physical obstacles in buildings and public spaces. But architectural barriers are often relatively easy to surmount with some creative problem-solving. The most difficult barriers to overcome are attitudes other people carry regarding people with disability. Whether born from ignorance, fear or misunderstanding, these attitudes keep people from appreciating and experiencing the full potential of a person with a disability. The most pervasive negative attitude is focusing on a person's disability rather than on an individual's abilities. And this is the attitude that rules Naga society.

The worldly culture is highly intolerant of what is perceived as physical and mental imperfection. Is the Church simply going to flow along with this culture or is it ready to step up as a change agent in society? Disabled people deal with societal patronisation and pseudo-compassion on a daily basis, but the worst is being marginalised by your own church. This rejection hurts the most!

There is much that the Church can do to change attitudes and perceptions, educate the masses on inclusion and acceptance and encouraging people with disabilities in their gifts and abilities. It can create communities where all people, whether they’re alike or not alike, can be found worshipping together, working together, playing together and building relationships. To borrow from David W. Anderson’s ‘A Forgotten Barrier: Attitudes toward Disability’, this will allow the Church to assume its rightful position in shaping culture, and to become a visible expression of God’s love for all humanity through constructive protest against the social conditions faced by men and women with disabilities.

The Nagaland Church must lead the movement away from ignorance, insensitivity, and indifference toward acceptance and reconciliation, actively seeking to remove barriers which exclude disabled persons from all aspects of society. It has the opportunity and capacity to transform the lives of thousands of people with disabilities, their families and carers.

It’s time for the Church to step up!