On the Sunday after our son James’s autism diagnosis, I looked around our church in Pennsylvania and didn’t see anyone with disabilities. What I had taken for granted as a sibling—being able to attend church even though I was part of a special-needs family—suddenly wasn’t available to me as a mom. It wasn’t that our church was intentionally excluding people with disabilities. I’m sure if you had asked us if people with disabilities were welcome, we would have said yes! But we weren’t making accommodations so people with disabilities would feel welcome. We weren’t thinking about how to meet sensory needs, how to adjust a Sunday school lesson someone with a learning disability, or how someone with social anxiety might want to visit the church on a Thursday afternoon to figure out where to park and what door to come in so she’d feel more comfortable on Sunday morning. People with disabilities weren’t part of our church family until the son of the pastor got an autism diagnosis.
James’s diagnosis led our church to take three steps: realization, restoration, and invitation.
We realized we weren’t accessible to many people with disabilities who make up twenty percent of the population in the United States. We made restoration as we apologized to those who didn’t feel welcome. And that led us to being able to extend invitations to James and others who could become part of our church family with some inclusive practices. We weren’t the first church to go through these steps once we realized there was a better way. We even see it in the life of David in 2 Samuel 9.
6 Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, fell facedown, and paid homage. David said, “Mephibosheth!” “I am your servant,” he replied. 7 “Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “since I intend to show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all your grandfather Saul’s fields, and you will always eat meals at my table.” 8 Mephibosheth paid homage and said, “What is your servant that you take an interest in a dead dog like me?” 9 Then the king summoned Saul’s attendant Ziba and said to him … “Mephibosheth, your master’s grandson, is always to eat at my table.” Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem because he always ate at the king’s table. His feet had been injured.
Some background info would be helpful to set the scene for this story. David was mourning the death of his friend Jonathan. He wanted to show kindness to anyone left in Jonathan’s lineage. He found out there was a survivor—Mephibosheth. Earlier in 2 Sam. 4 we read this about him: “Saul’s son Jonathan had a son whose feet were crippled. He was five years old when the report about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nanny picked him up and fled, but as she was hurrying to flee, he fell and became lame. His name was Mephibosheth.”
In 2 Sam. 9, Mephibosheth was a man, summoned to approach the king who was ultimately responsible for the death of his father and grandfather. Not only that, because of his anger that the city of Jerusalem had refused to help David in a battle in chapter 5 by taunting him with the claim, “You will not come in here, but the blind and lame will ward you off” (v. 6), David had banned the blind and lame from Jerusalem, where he lived and called the city of David (v. 9). David had declared “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” When David summoned Mephibosheth, he lived outside the city in Lo-debar. To come when David requested him, he had to enter a city he had been excluded from and face the man responsible for that exclusion. Mephibosheth fell at David’s feet in fear as he was brought before the king. But David responded with an invitation to sit at his table and have all of Mephibosheth’s grandfather’s lands restored to him. The last verse we read said Mephibosheth then lived in Jerusalem and ate at the king’s table.
In this story from David’s life, I see the same steps our church took: realization, restoration, and invitation. He had the realization that his friend’s son was one of the people he had kept from living in his city. He made steps of restoration, giving back what was his and restoring their relationship. Then there was an invitation for Mephibosheth to always have a seat at David’s table. Churches can follow that same pattern of realization, restoration, and invitation. It starts with our theology and then changes our practices.