Who May We Be Overlooking?
The hot, African sun was beating on my head as I walked through a camp for internally displaced people in Soroti, Uganda. Line upon line of closely packed thatched huts provided temporary shelter for those displaced by the cruel ravages of the Lord’s Resistance Army who were destroying villages and towns across the north of the nation. Weaving my way through the camp, I nearly tripped over a mound in the sandy soil that was covered in the all-pervading white dust. On closer inspection, I discovered it was a little boy lying in the dirt. Others were assiduously walking around him. As I bent down and picked up the child, I could see that he was disabled. “Don’t touch him!” cried out a nearby woman. “He is nobody!”
“He is nobody.” This was a phrase I was to hear repeated once more a couple of years later, in relation to a child I met who was living with Downs Syndrome in a village in Togo. Like so many children and adults living with disability, these precious children who were created by God in his image had been branded as outcastes and assigned to the margins of their communities.
All too often, people living with disability are ‘invisible,’ because of the societal barriers of prejudice and stigma, lack of access and understanding that render them so. A colleague of mine had worked for some time in a township in Zambia when it dawned on her that she had not seen a single child with disability in public. Not one. When she asked her pastor whether there were any in the community, he laughed, and said, “Oh yes – there are many! But the stigma and shame are so great, they are kept locked away in their homes.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that globally, people living with disability are amongst the least-reached people groups in terms of the gospel. Tony Phelps Jones works with people with learning difficulties and wrote, ‘If disabled people formed one nation, it would be the third largest in population after China and India: over a billion people. It would be the poorest, least educated, least employed, least evangelised, with the lowest church attendance. This is the mission challenge. Disabled people are not a distant nation – they are among us.’[i]
In the excellent book, Undivided Witness, Rosemary Hack asks, ‘‘If we want the kingdom of God restored among those least reached by it, then who are we looking to reach and who may we be overlooking?’[ii]
This is such a key question to ask ourselves. Who may we be overlooking? Who are the ‘invisible’ ones? The ones who are hidden from view? Who is excluded? Ask Holy Spirit to reveal them to you.
When my colleague in Zambia had her eyes opened to the fact that children with disability were being kept behind locked doors, she and her husband began to visit them and their families. They found children of all ages who had never seen the light of day. Some were young people in their teens and early twenties who had never been out of their homes. I remember visiting one such child and sharing with her parents how beautiful the child was and how precious in God’s eyes. The mother wept and said, “You are the first person to say that my child has value. Thank you.” As the visits continued, friendships were formed. Children were loved and cared for and brought out into the open. As the good news was shared and families prayed with, many of them came to Christ and were knitted into local Christian communities. The work has gone from strength to strength and the lives of countless children across Zambia have been transformed as have those of their family members.
Jean Vanier once said, ‘The friendship that is given to us in Jesus calls us to move beyond mere inclusion [of people with disabilities] towards belonging. To belong, you need to be missed.’
Are people living with disability on our radar as we seek to reach the unreached? Are we mindful of them? Do we include or exclude them? As we are used by God to build vibrant groups of Christ followers, are they ‘sitting at the table’ with us and being encouraged to participate with God in all that he is doing to redeem and restore all things? Do they belong? Or are they not even missed?
‘Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ (Luke 14: 21b – NLT translation)
Our King of Glory who was disabled for our sakes, desires that his house be full!
About the Author
As a nursing sister in the UK in the early 90’s, Susie specialised in the care of those living with HIV and AIDS. In 1995, she and her husband moved to Zimbabwe where Susie founded The Bethany Project that mobilises community-based support for children affected by HIV and AIDS. In 1998, she became Founding Director of the Pavement Project in the UK, which produces Bible-based resources for the restoration of street children in different continents. Also in 1998, she founded The Bethany Children’s Trust (BCT) that, with local partners, mobilises churches in different African nations to act and advocate with and on behalf of marginalised children. After 21 years as BCT director, Susie is now a consultant for the organisation. In 2012 she co-founded Stop Child Witch Accusations (SCWA) and is a member of the Steering Group. She is married to Jeremy, a church elder at the Community Church, Putney. Together, they are increasingly involved with the Unreached Network. Her book, Resistance Fighter is a must read that tells the early part of her story. If you’d like to contact Susie, you can do so here.
 Temple Gordon and Lin Ball, Enabling Church: A Bible-based resource towards the full inclusion of disabled people, SPCK 2012: 86
 Greenlee David, Mark Galpin, Paul Bendor-Samuel, Eds Undivided Witness: Jesus followers, community development, and least-reached communities, Regnum Books 2020, 142