30 years of disability ministry: an interview

Bridget Hathaway

Bridget Hathaway has worked with people with disabilities for over 30 years, most of which has been as a Crosslinks mission partner in various countries in Africa and Asia. Following the launch of her latest project – a book to challenge Christians in their attitude to disability – we asked her to explain more about what she does. 

Q What is disability ministry?

That is a good question! To be honest I find it hard to define because the term ‘disability ministry’ can encompass so many activities and how I define it depends, to some extent, on where I am in the world. I can only give a broad answer. Disability Ministry is working together with people with disability, their families and the community to raise the profile of their abilities, rights and inclusion in society. Necessarily this may take many forms but, for me as a (now retired) mission partner, the work was undergirded by a desire to share the true and eternal freedom of knowing Christ as Saviour.

Q Why is disability ministry needed?

Look around your church, in whatever location you are as you read this. How many people with visible disabilities attend your church regularly? How many of them hold any role of responsibility in the church or play a part in the service such as reading a lesson or leading the prayers? If the church is a microcosm of society generally then we can see from this that marginalisation takes place. This marginalisation sometimes happens inadvertently but frequently it is because we have set ideas of how things should be done. Doing it differently makes us feel uncomfortable.

In African and Asian contexts we can add the effects of harmful beliefs, often traditional, that have shaped attitudes towards disability for generations. These beliefs may be due to a lack of understanding about disability and its causes, so alternative explanations are searched for. 

The Church here in the UK cannot be complacent. We still have far to go to be truly inclusive. It’s not easy in some circumstances, but what does God say? ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you a part of it.’ (1 Corinthians 12:27) God created each one of us to be part of the body.

My church in the UK welcomed a young woman with disability to church. Well, some of us welcomed her, but maybe others were a little uncertain. She had a variety of disabilities, including autism, and sometimes the noise and lights were a bit overwhelming for her. One day she was taken to the back of the church to do some colouring of pictures of the disciples. After a while she looked up and said, ‘I am a disciple too.’ Simple yet profound. She had taken that truth on board in a way we often complicate. Perhaps we sometimes need these voices to teach us Christian truths.
 
Q What difference can disability ministry make?

Disability ministry can make a huge and long-lasting difference to people’s lives and society in general, but it is a lifelong ministry. I am thrilled that the programme I set up in Karagwe, Tanzania, is now networking with and enabling organisations that are led by people with disability working for people with disability. Children with disability are now receiving education - which is indicative of a change in parental attitude, where the child is valued enough to be sent to school. When someone is valued there is a growth in confidence that is a joy to behold. Self-confidence and self-worth are things we take for granted but disability ministry can make a real difference here. Let’s aim for the Church to be living in a way that shows unbelievers what the Kingdom of God is like. 

Q You’ve recently written a book: Included and Valued – who is it for and what impact could it have?

I never intended to write a book, it never entered my head to think I could do that. However God does work in strange ways! Someone commented 'Why don’t you write a book?' and somehow from that comment the book took shape. I co-authored it with my colleague Flavian Kishekwa from the programme in Karagwe. The original plan was to write a handbook for the church in Africa, aimed at members of the Mother’s Union, evangelists and local community leaders. However, the publisher, Langham, suggested we write for students at theological colleges and bible schools, because by enlightening those entering into church leadership attitudes could be changed on a wider scale. This was challenging but also rewarding. The book is aimed at a readership in Africa and hopefully Asia as well, but people who have read it say it is also applicable for our own society here in the UK.

I hope and pray the impact will be to open people’s eyes to some bible texts that help us to understand God’s heart for those who are marginalised and vulnerable.
 
Q How can I buy a copy for myself? How can I buy a copy for someone in the global church?

The book is available in hard copy from amazon, langhamliterature.org, bookdepository.com and Barnes and Noble. An e-copy can be obtained from amazon, Apple iBooks and Barnes and Noble Nook. Bulk purchases can be made from literature@langham.org 

It would be amazing if you bought a hard copy book/i-book for the global Church. Is there a theological college or bible school you have contact with? Maybe you know a diocese that could use one? Flavian and I rely on you to spread the news of this book!

To find out more, email Bridget at contact@crosslinks.org.