|Documentary explores faith of disabled|
By Kathy L. Gilbert and Suzy Keenan*
Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson signs the word “faith” during her
consecration service in Harrisburg, Pa., in this July 2008 photograph.
A UMNS photo by Suzy Keenan.
Dec. 8, 2009 | PHILADELPHIA (UMNS)
Gifts of humanity go beyond color, gender, ability.
Houses of worship, to be true to their mission, must make places for
persons with disabilities, United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson of the
Philadelphia Area says in a television documentary.
Johnson is one of several faith leaders featured in “A Place for All:
Faith and Community for Persons with Disabilities.” The show, produced
by the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission as part of ABC’s 2009 Vision
and Values series, began airing Dec. 6 and will continue for eight
weeks on ABC affiliates.
The bishop, who has served the deaf for more than three decades, said
she “considers it a privilege to be part of the Protestant voice in
this multi-faceted study.”
The sentiment is mutual.
“What Bishop Johnson had to say was made particularly meaningful
considering her own story,” said Debra Gonsher Vinik, the show’s
Priesthood of all believers
Johnson, who was born with sight in only one eye, felt a deep calling
early in her vocation to minister with deaf persons and persons with
disabilities. She was pastor of Christ United Methodist Church of the
Deaf in Baltimore prior to her election as a bishop.
The bishop said she has been inspired by several ordained United
Methodist pastors with disabilities whose “power was made perfect in
weakness” and are an inclusive and compassionate witness.
“I had the privilege of being supervisor to first deaf ordained pastor
since 1908-- he was ordained in 1997 in Baltimore-Washington—the Rev.
Kirk VanGilder. I learned so much from working with him. I was his
supervisor, but he really taught me so much about the giftedness of the
community and how important the empowerment piece is for lifting people
up in the church as leaders.”
Today, Johnson advocates for the inclusion of persons with
disabilities, “not just to receive, but to be co-ministers with us in
the priesthood of all believers.”
Barriers and isolation
Johnson signs “I love you,” while wading across French Creek at Innabah Camp and Retreat Center in Spring City, Pa.
A UMNS photo by Suzy Keenan.
One out of every five Americans has a disability and a key issue is social isolation, faith leaders say.
Johnson said she attends a different church in her conference every
Sunday. “I can count on one hand the churches that really have people
with disabilities. So where are they if they are not in our churches?
“We can get ramps, elevators … much easier than we can change hearts.
Sometimes ignorance is born of a lack of exposure and fear,” she said.
The church needs to do a lot of work to educate congregations on welcoming and empowering disabled people, she said.
Johnson remembers many times taking her deaf choir to sing in churches.
After the performance, the church would invite them to cookies and
coffee, but no one would talk to them.
“I don’t think they really meant to be rude, but it was awkward. They
just didn’t know how to … walk across the floor to that side of the
room where the deaf people were sitting to make small talk because
there was no way to talk,” she said. “They couldn’t understand them and
they couldn’t sign themselves so they just avoided us.”
Treating people with respect
The bishop was interviewed for the documentary as she directed a
weeklong camp for deaf developmentally disabled young adults at Innabah
Camp and Retreat Center, Spring City, one of four Eastern Pennsylvania
Annual (regional) Conference camps.
The documentary talks about how “the precious text” of all faith
communities –Bible, Quran, Torah—teaches how important it is to treat
all people equally.
But, Johnson said, all faith groups fall short putting the principle into practice.
“There’s a little delivery problem,” she said.
“It (the documentary) ends on the note that all people are really the
same, we are all searching for the meaning of life, the meaning of God.
That is something we all can share, abled and disabled alike. It sort
of comes down to we are in this together, folks,” Johnson said.
"I always tell people to challenge themselves, step out in faith,
reach a community that you are not comfortable with and you can grow
personally. The doors of opportunity keep opening when you take that
first step of faith.”
Local listings for “A Place For All” can be found at www.interfaithbroadcasting.com. A promo can be seen here.
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in
Nashville, Tenn. Keenan is director of communications for the Eastern
Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Down Home Ranch
Signs Of Deaf Awareness
Bishop Peggy Johnson:
“They just avoided us.”