Individuals with disabilities, and their families, are accustomed to poor treatment wherever they go. Sadly, says LaTonya McIver Penny, that includes the church.
Penny knows. She’s a Baptist minister who runs a nonprofit, called Mary’s Grace, that educates and trains religious and civic groups in how to embrace those who are differently abled. She also has two special-needs children, both age 12.
So, she’s heard her share of nightmare stories about church treatment of people with disabilities.
“The worst thing you can do is to treat them like they are different,” said Penny, the senior pastor at New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Roxboro, North Carolina, located about 35 miles north of Durham.
“The root of all the bad stories is they excluded the person, or they said you are not welcome here. They were not willing to do the work around including them.”
Penny spoke with Baptist News Global about her message that the church, of all places, must be a place of inclusion and respite for those with disabilities. These are her comments, edited for clarity.
You are a bi-vocational pastor. Is the nonprofit your day job?
I’m bi-vocational, though my husband says I am tri-vocational. I am executive director of Family Abuse Services of Alamance County. That’s my day job. We work with the court to get protective orders. We have a 21-bed shelter for men and women fleeing domestic violence. I am responsible for the finances of the agency and for 13 full-time staff and about 15 part-time staff members. I do public speaking and education and awareness. I sit on a lot of panels on domestic violence.
Why is your nonprofit called Mary’s Grace?
Its named after my maternal grandmother, Mary Stanfield. After she raised her own children she started taking in foster children. She took in the children most others didn’t want. There was no way of telling who would be at my grandmother’s kitchen table on Sunday mornings. Her ministry, even though she didn’t call it that, was taking care of those who were marginalized. She saw everyone as one of God’s children.
What inspired you to launch that organization?
When I was as in divinity school at Wake Forest we were focused on inclusion, but not necessarily around people with disabilities. I realized people looked at me differently because my children were born prematurely, at 25 weeks gestation. My daughter was 1.6 pounds and my son was 1.7 pounds. I never looked at them as broken or disabled but in the midst of a class conversation someone asked, “do retarded children fit into the image of God?” And I immediately got angry and I said we can’t use that language. So, I began this journey to how we become inclusive in our language about those who are differently abled in their needs. That’s how I word it.
Where it go from there?
Any kid born at 25 weeks has challenges. My daughter has learning challenges. It takes her a little longer to learn things, but she is in a class with her peers and does well. And I wanted, as a mom, that the church would be able to focus on children with these kinds of needs. For the Sunday school at United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, where I attended in Winston-Salem, I said let’s create a space for my children and other children who may not be able to read with other children or sit still in a chair – my son is a squirmer.
And as part of the Wake Forest program you can either do chaplaincy work in your third year, or a project. So, I took on what does it is like to be a mom with special needs children. And out of that birthed Mary’s Grace.
Is Mary’s Grace a calling for you?
I feel like this as a part of my calling. I will be finishing my doctorate at Campbell University. My doctoral work is about working with marginalized populations. My work is around a womanist theology of differently abled people and how the church, especially the African-American church, embraces those with different abilities.
I have also looked at how we historically hid disabilities. And I look at scripture and why we are called to serve them. I look at the (Gospel of) Luke text about the four men carrying a man on a mat, and how we are called to be one of those four men. We are called to take care of all of God’s children no matter how they are presented to the world.
What are the most common mistakes churches make with disabled people and their families?
They think they don’t need to be included in service. This is what I find at most churches. They want to feel like they are accepting of everyone but want to put them in a little box because they are different. All people with special needs are part of the image of God. I seek to help and coach people about creating relationship with people and not looking at them as broken but helping them serve in any way they feel called, whether its ushering or taking up the collection. I will get calls from churches who do separate classes or separate disability ministries. I tell them I’m the wrong person for you. I am going to teach you how to take those children you have put in a box and make them part of your congregation so they can serve and be part of the body of Christ.
How do you describe their pain at this treatment?
That exclusion and that rejection, or pretending they don’t have a disability, can turn people away from the church forever.
Are you hopeful about the church’s willingness to change on this issue?
I am so hopeful. I am having more speaking opportunities than ever before. Churches are thinking differently. Parents are finally realizing they shouldn’t have to walk away from a church. If you are called to be the church, you should have a heart with compassion.
Bi-vocational, black female pastor overcame doubters to thrive in pulpit