"Dr. Lamar Hardwick on Disability, Inclusion, and the Fear of Being Human" Transcript

Season 1, Episode 5

[00:00:00] Lamar Hardwick: And here's the thing, you mentioned COVID and I'll say this: when accessibility became an everybody issue, we saw the church get really creative didn't we? We saw it come up with money to do all sorts of things, right. And I tweeted about that. Like the disability community is watching. What you're saying is it could have been done all along.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]   

Suzie Lahoud: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. I'm Suzie Lahoud here with Jonathan Walton and Sy Hoekstra.

Sy Hoekstra: Everyone, I am so excited. Today we have an interview with Dr. Lamar Hardwick. He is a graduate of Candler School of Theology and has a DMin from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the lead pastor at Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia, and is the author of a few books, most [00:01:00] recently, Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion.

Now Dr. Hardwick also has autism spectrum disorder and is known online as the autism pastor. He provides workshops, seminars, and consultations for local churches and faith-based organizations on how to create welcoming environments for people with autism. He also provides mentoring services to teenagers and young people on the spectrum.

We talk to him today about his book, Disability and the Church; his personal story of living as an autistic pastor; what our fear of disabilities teaches us about ourselves and our faith; his theology of diversity; God's disabilities- you heard that correctly- and so much more.

Jonathan Walton: Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to our podcast today. Don't forget to subscribe to our blog at www.ktfpress.com to support the show, receive our weekly newsletter and resources to help you leave colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, and get access to bonus episodes of the show and writing from the three of us. This also helps us support other projects we're working [00:02:00] on like future books for wonderful authors that are worthy of your attention.

If you aren't in a position to do that, please take a moment to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast app. You could also follow us on social media @KTFPress on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. And tell your friends about us, rate and review us wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you so much for your support!  

Suzie Lahoud: Without further ado, here's our interview with Dr. Lamar Hardwick…

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

[00:00:00] Sy Hoekstra: Pastor Lamar Hardwick, thank you so much for joining us on Shake the Dust today!

Lamar Hardwick: Well, thanks for having me. It's an honor.

Sy Hoekstra: It’s an honor for us to have you here, and I also know that you're going through a lot at the moment. You've been sort of public about you're going through chemotherapy, there was a tornado came through your neighborhood recently… I know there's just a whole lot and that's just the public stuff that we know about. So we really appreciate you taking the time to be here right now. And I know this book tour is also probably busy, so just thank you, first of all, from the bottom of our hearts for being here.

So, you know, we've talked a little about you and your book already in the intro, but I just wanted to start off by saying, or by getting a bit of your story to the listeners. So you were diagnosed at age 36 with what we would now call autism spectrum disorder- I think it was Asperger's when you were diagnosed. And can you just talk to us a little bit about [00:01:00] why that diagnosis came so late in life, why it happened when it did, and what that was like for you?

Lamar Hardwick: Sure. So I think one of the ways I explain it best over the years when people ask that question is, you know, one, I was born in ‘78, so right around the age of, you know, 18 months to two years- would have been, you know, ‘79/ ’80- there really wasn't a lot of education as far as what we know now about autism. And then, you know, in those days there was still very much the stigma of, “Oh, boys develop slower than girls,” you know, those types of things. And so a lot of that, attribute to that.

Also, and I think I talk about this in the book, I was raised in a military family. So we moved just about [00:02:00] every three years. So, you know, in reflecting with the therapist, the psychologist, that diagnosed me, you know, no one really expected me to adjust well, especially socially, because we're always moving. And so part of that time, especially in my younger years, was spent actually living overseas. We lived in Germany and so different language, different culture, you know, different country.

And so people really didn't expect me to adjust well, they just sort of did the best they could with me. And so she believes a lot of that masked what were obvious signs, but because of the circumstances of our family traveling all the time and some of the lack of education and many people, you know, like me have all experienced that too that's around my age or older where we just didn't know. And then, you know, I was verbal, although my mom's said that there were times where I [00:03:00] would not talk. And I don't know if it's because I couldn't or I wouldn't- that part of my developmental history is a little bit of a mystery. Like no one can actually pinpoint when I started talking, they just knew that I didn't talk a lot.

And my mom also recorded, you know, not actually, having to quit working because she couldn't leave me with anyone. I would cry for six, seven hours at a time. And so that's one of the reasons why she couldn't work.

Sy Hoekstra: Gosh.

Lamar Hardwick: So yeah, there were a lot of things that probably, in this sort of modern era of understanding of autism, would have gotten me diagnosed in a proper time.

Honestly, some of it has to do with what continues to be diagnostic disparities between white children and African-American and Latino children. There's still African-Americans getting diagnosed sometimes two years later than average. Some of that [00:04:00] has changed, but I can imagine, you know, back in the late seventies/ early eighties, it was probably even more of an issue with, um… So there were many factors for that that, you know, I could talk about at another time, but I also suspect that had a lot to do with it is that it just wasn't something that was commonly talked about in the African-American community. So there wasn’t access to resources and the knowledge to know what to look for, and, you know, when you should be seeking some type of assistance in getting your child diagnosed.

So it was kind of a perfect storm of things that I think stopped me from being diagnosed at an age that most children would have been diagnosed at.

Sy Hoekstra: What was it like for you then receiving that diagnosis?

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah, so, I mean, I was 36 at the time. So it's almost been seven years. So the beginning of it was a relief actually. [00:05:00] I, for the first time, felt human, because I had been told my whole life about the way that I should behave and the ways I should conform and the things that I should do, and not really being able to ever achieve those behaviors that I was told I should display. So you grow up like that. You feel very strange. A lot of times I tell people how the best way I can describe my experience is it felt like the world was an inside joke that I didn't get. And it didn't matter how hard I tried, I just didn't understand a lot of things that people did. I did fake a lot of things and I pretended to understand a lot of things and I mimicked a lot of behavior that I saw other people do just because I didn't know what to do to fit in, but I knew what not to do to, to stand out. And so I just pretended to [00:06:00] be like all the other kids that I saw around me.

But being diagnosed helped me to feel a lot more human; that I wasn't weird or weak- all the things that I had been characterized. It also made me feel more human because I understood for the first time that all the things that people had problems about with me was about my neurology and not my character. And so, you know, when you grow up as a child, usually the first thing that is said is that you're defiant, you're a bad child.

Sy Hoekstra: You’re misbehaving.

Lamar Hardwick: Misbehaving, yeah. And so for the first time I realized like, no, I'm not. I don't have serious character flaws that people are making me out to be. It's just neurologically I see the world differently.

So it was a relief, but then there's the other part of it where there actually was a little bit of grief just because it was like meeting myself for the first time and the person that I thought I was, was not [00:07:00] really the person that everybody else was experiencing, which was okay. But, you know, you got 36 years of struggling trying to make people like you, and you realize that the things, the way that people have perceived you is not the way that you thought that they perceived you. So there was a little bit of grief there I had to wrestle through. You know, blaming myself for relationships that ended that I had no idea why they ended, for jobs that I wasn't able to hold, those types of things. But thankfully, both my wife and I stayed with the clinical psychologist that diagnosed me. I actually stayed with her for almost two years to sort of help me unravel those complicated parts of my life so that I didn't have to carry that burden of grief because the reality is none of that was my fault. I just had to get to a place where I was okay with what happened in the past and I was ready to move forward.

Sy Hoekstra: That's, it's interesting to me because I'm, [00:08:00] because I'm blind I don't, I did not have the experience of not… [chuckles] blindness is something you can diagnose pretty quickly. [Lamar chuckles] So I did not have the experience of missing that diagnosis, but I do understand the part about having to like go to a therapist to deal with grief because I did for a long time, even though I obviously knew what was going on, I just wasn't dealing with the emotional aspect of it. I wasn't dealing with the, you know, the kind of social rejection and like a lot of those things that you're talking about. I was trying to pretend that I could see and do everything that other sighted kids could do, and like not ever having to go back and say like, no, okay, this, you know, rejection and the ways that society isn't built for me, like actually made me sad and I need to deal with that, like preferably with a professional, was something that took me a long time to get to. So that part I understand.

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Dr. Hardwick, something that you [00:09:00] mentioned, I would, I wonder if you could talk more about like the intersectionality of disability and Blackness. Like I'm not part of the disabled community, but I am part of the Black community and in reflecting on like how we as Black folks treat people who are quote unquote different- that's how my church would describe it in the South, you know, Southern Virginia Church of 50 people- there were some different kinds of people, right.

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: And so, could you share about coming out to us?

Lamar Hardwick: Sure. Yeah, I mean, a lot of my work is based on that. I touch on it a little bit in the book and I probably am looking to do some further work and maybe write another book specifically about that, you know, the Black church experience, the African-American experience with disability.

So what I'll say about that is there's a huge, [00:10:00] huge context of history of, one of mistrust of medical systems, mental health systems. Rightfully so because, you know, we know now from history, there was plenty of things that were done to enslaved Africans and even after slavery ended that just created this huge mistrust.

So a large part of it, especially my research in the Black community, is difficult in dealing with some of those things, is that, you know, enslaved Africans were brought here to produce and so they needed bodies that could produce. And so a lot of the enslaved Africans when they had children that had some form of disability would lie about having the child, would hide the child, because it was a way of protecting that child.

And so some of that mindset has [00:11:00] continued throughout the community because, you know, we understood very well that Black bodies were born to produce. And if there was some reason that they were not able to produce, then they needed to be protected by the community at all costs because it is very well documented that slave owners would beat the children, sometimes even kill the children, drown the children.

So some of that shame and stigma is a direct result of slavery and racism, to be honest. And so we're, as a community, always fighting against that because what it has done is it has made us suspicious for a reason, but also has put us behind the curve as far as being able to access the resources that are needed. And then some of those resources, honestly, don't, are not easily accessible to communities of color. And so I've talked to many people across the country where they would go somewhere, but it's not anywhere close to where [00:12:00] they live. There's no access to those resources.

And then the last thing I'll say about that is that there's a great sermon from Dr. King called “The Guidelines for a Constructive Church.” And he talks about in that sermon that, and I'm paraphrasing, that one of the things that the church is also responsible and on the forefront of doing is helping to get rid of the bias that slavery created. And so it's not just in freeing enslaved Africans, it’s freeing people from the bias that it created. So a good example of that would be CDC, I think last year, released new statistics on autism. And they did say in that report that the diagnostic disparities between white children and African-Americans and Latinos has been reduced. As fact, they're saying that, that they are being diagnosed at the same [00:13:00] rates.

But what's interesting in that report is that for those who don't have a co-occurrence of an intellectual disability, like myself, those rates are still, there's still a huge gap. A co-occurrence of intellectual disability with autism does not define autism. So therefore, in theory, all the behaviors that should get you diagnosed should be the same, right? This is just science. And having an intellectual disability does not actually make the autism more pronounced.

So what that suggests is if those behaviors should be all the same, then why is it that when it comes to African-Americans and Latinos who do not have an intellectual disability along with autism are still not being diagnosed at the same rate? What I've shared in some conferences is that's because behaviors from Black and brown bodies are always interpreted as something different. And so you [00:14:00] get these gaps. But we don't even need that. That's just one example. We don't even need to see that, we can see it in society, right, with how behaviors and mannerisms and the way that their bodies move are oftentimes interpreted as something other than, and so what it's done is just, it continues to create diagnostic disparities.

And I think that that's one of the things that Dr. King was talking about in his sermon about not just freeing enslaved Africans, but freeing, particularly this country, from the bias that slavery created. So it's unfortunate that that's part of the legacy of this country, but it has done a disservice to the African-American community. So that's why you see a lot of not being able to handle, as you said, Jonathan, the different people in our congregations, right. Some of that is because of protection for those persons who would otherwise be [00:15:00] demonized by the greater society.

Suzie Lahoud: Dr. Hardwick, thank you so much for sharing with us both your personal story and also your expertise as an advocate and as an author who's written on this. And just to ask you now as a pastor, after you received your diagnosis, how did you change the way that you approached pastoring and how did your church respond? What were the changes that they made?

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah, great question. So, you know, once I was diagnosed and I had time to process it, I realized a couple of things. One, I realized a lot of the barriers that I had faced in trying to be a pastor, in bouncing from church to church because I didn't fit- I realized what those barriers were for the first time. I didn't understand it before I had a diagnosis and people didn't know either, [00:16:00] but it is very instinctual for people to sort of push away anyone who's different because I don't fit the stereotypical mold of what most people think a pastor should be like or act like. And so I realized, on a larger scale, me understanding it now I'm understanding some of the ableism, even though it probably wasn't intentional because no one knew, but I really started to understand the barriers that I had to fight through and why it was so difficult for me.

What that did for me is I now realize I'm a part of the autism community, but I'm also part of the disability community at large. And wow, if I've had these experiences now that I have a label to be able to, or a language, rather, to be able to explain them, how much more difficult has it been for other people?

So it [00:17:00] really opened my eyes. Like I didn't have as much experience or knowledge about how people with disabilities were impacted by a society and a culture that's not necessarily built for them. I just knew I had problems on my way, you know, trying to become what I felt I was called to be. So that, it made me pastor differently because now I realize that I have my foot in both worlds. And, you know, as someone who has been a leader, is blessed to have been a leader of a church, I felt the necessity to say, okay, now that I understand this better, now that I get it, I should leverage the platform and any privilege that I have to make it better for persons like myself, because I understand it now. I understand what those problems were. I understand it a little bit deeper. So it made me more empathetic, but it also empowered me to [00:18:00] say, okay, I can do church differently because I'm blessed to be able to be the one who could change things because I happen to be the pastor.

But then also it felt more like a calling from God to say, okay, not just your church, but what if you start to speak out and try to help all churches to understand this important issue? So it made me, it totally made me pastor out of my personal experience with being a part of the disability community and say, okay, here's the stuff that doesn't work for me. I don't like it. It's been a barrier for me my whole life. It's been the reason why I struggled with church. We're not doing that anymore. And if, you know, if y'all, don't like it, I hate to tell you, but, you know, this is how it's gonna, we're going to have to do it this way because there's many people like me who are not coming to our churches for these reasons.

So it gave me, it gave me a reason to do things differently. And the [00:19:00] church responded, I think. You know, at least the church I was previously at that I pastored and I helped set up ministry there, and the church I'm at now, that I've only been at two years, but when I came in to interview, I told them up front, “Look, if you're going to bring me in, you have to know these things you have to know about me,”-which they already knew all about me- “and you have to know that we're going to have to do things a certain way if we're going to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.” And thankfully, they have risen to the occasion because I think they're understanding the necessity of what we've been trying to do.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, and building off of that, I'm wondering, how did your theology change? In the book, you talk about the fear of being human as it relates to the Garden of Eden and the fall and disability. So could you just, you know, for people who haven't read the book or are just diving into it, cause it's meaty, like it needs time, you know? But if you [00:20:00] were going to just give a quick overview of like, what are you getting at with the fear of being human and what do people who read the book look forward to getting when they engage?

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah. Good, good question. One of the things I realize about myself is I've always had these perspectives and these views of scripture that I'm now realizing that a lot of it is attributed to my neurology. Like I've just always, I say all the time, if I'm in a room with nine other people and there's ten of us, I'm almost always the person who's going to see things differently, almost always. And so that's always put me on the outside, but so a lot of those verses that and scriptures that I unpack were things I had preached about for years before I even knew that I was on the spectrum, but that's just the way I see things.

So there's a whole thing about the fear of being human is that we have, you know, none of us like limits. [00:21:00] And you see this more as our society progresses, right? Especially with technology. Like we don't like to be limited. And so, you know, we’re the type of people who will leave something early so we can get to something late. Cause we want to be everywhere, all the time, you know, and be connected all the time.

And that's an internal struggle that we have because we don't like limits. We want to be more than what we are. We'd like to do more than what we are capable of doing. It's caused us to be burned out, has caused us to chase after things and be unhealthy. Like we're the culture that brags about how much rest we don't get, right. Because we just, we're just obsessed with the grind and the hustle.

Well, for me, like I have sensory processing issues, social anxiety. There's a lot of things, a lot of ways that I'm limited. And so when I said when I got diagnosed that for the first time I felt human it's because I realized I'm not supposed to be able to do all those things. I'm not supposed to be able to be all these things, right. And that's sort of the [00:22:00] story of the Garden. The way that I've always seen it is God tells Adam and Eve look, you know, he's put them in this perfect situation, right? This ideal situation. And just asks for simple trust because you're not, you're not built to bear the burden and the weight of this knowledge of good and evil, right? We're just not built for that. And one of the things that the serpent does is he appeals to our need to be more than human. So he says, “If you, if you eat this, you'll be just like God.”

Well, I say this in the book, that that was never really God's plan to be like him. It was to be with him, right. We already bear his image. Like what, what are we, what more do we want? And so it just speaks to our need to constantly try to be more than human. We don't like pain. We don't like suffering. We don't like disability. We don't like, you know, [00:23:00] all the things that make us feel limited. And so I think at the core, we really have to wrestle with that. Like, why do we have this aversion to suffering or disability or limitations when God designed us to be human, right? And to enjoy that experience. We're not supposed to be more than that. And you even think about that with time.  Like I tell people all the time, you know, I do certain things. I know when I'm the strongest. I know how much time I have to use. But I've learned to just not try to be more than what I am.

Paul talks about that too. Like, you know, embracing that, that thorn that he has and understanding that, you know what? I'm human and I don't have to try to be more than what God created me to be. I can be happy with what God created me to be. And so I, you know, I think that's something that we gotta wrestle with and come to terms with and know that God was happy with how he created us. And the more and more that becomes less about what we desire is to [00:24:00] just be with God and not try to be like God and try to be God, the less capable we are of having what I believe is, is the best version of ourselves and the best relationship we can have with God.

Sy Hoekstra: That's such a pastoral word of grace, I feel like, to so many people. Cause I, like when I read that in your book, I mean, this is just from my own experience, I immediately jumped to a story where a coworker of mine whose mother was going blind as a result of a medical condition had told the coworker that when she went blind she was going to commit suicide. Like she just straight up said that to her own daughter. And it's like I- which is obviously horrible for the daughter, for the woman herself I feel terrible, like that's an awful thought to have- but me hearing that story is like, you know, someone saying I'd rather be dead than you.

It's not just people with disabilities. There's so many different people who, to whom society in various ways [00:25:00] says that, like gives that message.

Lamar Hardwick: Right. Yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: So to say this just isn't, this is like, it's baked into us, but God is with us anyway. Like it's right there at the beginning of what we believe. It's a fundamental thing, this fear of being human, it's part of who we are, but God has made provision for that and has worked to remedy that is, I don't know, it's just, it's a really powerful message.

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah. And to not be ashamed, right? Like they, they cover themselves. It's just like before you ate that fruit, like you were perfectly happy with the bodies you were given, with the situation you were in. All of a sudden now you feel the need to cover yourself, right. To be ashamed of the bodies that God has given us. And for me, I think that's a huge issue we got to wrestle with and try to progress past.

Unfortunately, progress has made it harder to do that because it keeps promising us the ability to get rid of all of our [00:26:00] limitations. And, you know, when we do run into the fact that we know we have a limitation, we try to cover it. We try to hide. We try to pretend that we're not human.

Sy Hoekstra: So I think this probably goes well into another bit of theology that you talk about. You draw on the work of Nancy Eiesland, who is a theologian from Candler seminary- the late Nancy Eiesland- and her book, The Disabled God. And you talk about the fact that, I think probably a lot of people have not thought about, that God has disabilities. And can you explain what you mean by that and kind of what that means for disabled people and the church?

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah, so Nancy Eiesland, the late Nancy Eiesland, was great. I actually went to Candler, and so she's a big influence, but I pick up on her work where she talks about, primarily about the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. So I think one of the [00:27:00] things that I've noticed is that we tend to preach and teach a Sunday school sanitized version of that experience, right. But when you look at the fact that Jesus comes back in his resurrection still bearing the marks of his disabled, uh, disable and torture, right.

So I sort of break it down, like actually what a Roman crucifixion would have been like. A lot of the visual depictions that we show is not actually how the Romans did it. But when you, when you study that you realize if those things weren't healed, because you remember, he goes back and Thomas asked to see those wounds, right. And he's fully back, but he still carries with him those marks. And he actually leverages those marks of impairment as a way of identifying himself, right.

So the nine-inch spikes would have gone through his wrists. I can't [00:28:00] recall exactly, but I did medical research on that and the number of tendons that that would have severed. Okay, so those are not healed. The way that the Romans would have crucified you, they would have turned the legs to the side and driven a spike somewhere around the Achilles tendon. And I talk about that in the book. I've torn an Achilles tendon. And to come back without that being healed, like it took me a year to learn how to use my body again. So, you know, for that to not have been healed meant that those marks would have been disabling. That's just God's honest truth.

And then if you, even if you flip over to Revelation and it gives the image that, you know, we believe is an image of Christ, and it says the Lamb that was mortally wounded yet standing. And so there's like this tension between these disabling marks that should have killed him and did- it’s mortally wounded, but still functioning- it's sort of a nod to the [00:29:00] fact that he carries with him back into, you know, the heavenly realm, this body that was brutally disabled through the torture.

So that stuff doesn't go away, right. And I think because we, again, we have such an aversion to suffering that we sort of believe that those things went away, right. And one of the things that I talk about is that, okay, we've got to wrestle with that. We have to wrestle with that, and we have to wrestle with the fact that Jesus uses those marks as a major identifier of who he is after he's resurrected. And so that's just picking up on the work of Nancy Eiesland and some of my own thoughts about, okay, you know, if Jesus is God then we have to, we have to wrestle with the fact that he carries with him these marks of impairment that would’ve been brutally disabling and doesn't get rid of them. And, you know, [00:30:00] from his resurrection to his Ascension, to all the way to Revelation, those things still remain as a part of who he is to the extent that they're used to identify him.

So I think a lot of the things that we believe is because we just want to believe it. We want to believe that those things are gone, but if they're not, what does that say about God? What does that say about his ability to identify with the disability community and everybody in between? What does that say about what we believe? And what does it say about our idea of sacred spaces, right? I talk about that in the book that if that's true, we've got to really wrestle with why is it that when we have this ideal sacred space, it never includes disabled bodies?

Sy Hoekstra: You actually ask at one point in the book, whether or not people who are disabled will continue to have disabilities in heaven. Which I think again, some people will probably think is a pretty radical [00:31:00] question to ask. And you don't necessarily give a definitive answer, but you do say that it's an important question for the church to ask. And it affects specifically how we think about inclusion in the church. Can you talk about why that is?

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah, because, you know, so I talk about where a lot of that, or at least a couple of sections where that new body belief comes from. So I researched them cause I want to know where do we get that from? I know a lot of it is because, again, we have an aversion to suffering. And so like we view heaven as this great escape plan, right. To escape the things that we don't necessarily like about ourselves, or the limits that are placed on us because we're human. But the two places, or a couple of places, rather, where we get that from is from some of Paul's writing. But when I researched it, it didn't feel like that's what he was saying at all.

[00:32:00] And so that then led me to believe that, you know what? We've got to step back here, because for Christians the ideal is heaven, right. That's our ideal sacred space. But I’d ask myself, when we, when we think about our ideal sacred space, do we think if it includes disabled bodies? So the connection I'm trying to make is that whatever our ideal sacred space is, we try to recreate those moments in our churches and that's historical. I didn't go into it a lot in the book, but it's historical. Even if you look at, you know, how the Tabernacle was built, how the Temple was built, like there were ideals there about what a sacred space looked like.

So I think, you know, like I said, I didn't, like you said, I didn't come to an answer, but I think it's a [00:33:00] question that nobody asks, or at least a lot of people are not asking. Why is this so difficult for us? Well, we have this ideal.

Suzie Lahoud: Another really powerful point that you make in the book is rooting your argument that the church should actively include disabled people in a broader theology of diversity. And could you also share why you believe that the church is called by God to seek out diversity?

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah, so I talk about it in a couple of places. You know, one, that Jesus, when he tells Peter that “I'm gonna…” you know, after Peter says, “You are the Christ,” and he says, “I'm going to build my church.” After that he says, “I'm going to give to the church- you all- the keys to the Kingdom.”

So one of the jobs of the church has always been to give people access. And so by nature, even if you look at Jesus in the, what we know as the Great Commission, he says, “Go out, [00:34:00] and make disciples. Give people access,” right? Teach them about this kingdom, this new way of living, and do it among all ethnic groups.

And then you go over to what I call the opening day of the church in the Book of Acts when Peter's preaching, and they're like, you know, “You guys are drunk.” Which I think is so funny. And he says, “Look,” he says, “it's only nine in the morning. The liquor store is not even open yet,” right? It's like, we're not drunk like that. But then he says, “This is what the prophet, Joel prophesied.” And in that message from Joel- Joel, I think it's chapter two, verse 28- he says, you know, it's going to be all genders- men and women, all generations. So he eventually says all genders, all generations, all cultures, all conditions, right?

And so this outpouring of the Holy Spirit begins to help the early church understand that diversity [00:35:00] is actually at the forefront of what it means to build a church until you establish God's Kingdom. And that includes all genders, all generations, all conditions, all cultures that are now being made into one people group. So it's important for the church to understand that that's, that's been our job is to pursue diversity, is to bring in different kinds of people from different backgrounds.

The connection to the disability community is that, you know, our culture has been pushing a lot for diversity and inclusion, as it should, because we're realizing that much of what we have believed to be right and true has come from primarily one set of voices. So now we're saying we need more minority voices at the table because everything from education, to faith communities, to employment has been shaped primarily by one set of voices. We need other minorities to weigh in, to have a seat at the table.

The connection is that the disability community is actually the largest minority group in the world- about [00:36:00] 20%. So for me, as the church is trying to catch up to the culture and saying, okay, we want diverse churches. What I'm saying is that we've all got to back up and say, I appreciate the ethnic and racial diversity, but we're missing an entire population of minorities that is actually the largest minority group in the world. And that's persons with disabilities. And I tell people that the disability community is the only minority group that you can join, and you can join at any time, for any reason.

Sy Hoekstra: At any time.

Lamar Hardwick: And if you live long enough, you'll become part of it.

Sy Hoekstra: Yep. [chuckles]

Jonathan Walton: [chuckling] When I read that, I was like, “Wow, he's so right. This is true.”

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. I was just going to say, that's also just so, so profound because that just relates back to this concept of, it's really about the human condition. This is all of us. And we just need to realize that [00:37:00] and embrace that as the church. Yeah, so thank you for sharing those insights.

Jonathan Walton: I realize like I am, I am exceptionally limited, and COVID has revealed our corporate limitations, right. And our just, inability and unwillingness to learn across difference, and then the radical dismissal that happens when people are no longer able to produce, no longer able to do the thing that we were quote unquote expected or agreed to do. And so I'm just marinating in, in my own stuff as you're speaking.

So I, that's why I was pausing, I was like, I don't, I don't know what I wanna ask… But you talk about, like, the return on investment that happens when we make space, and ministries make space, when churches make space. So could you explain how you advise church administrations to think about the return on [00:38:00] investment in that context?

Lamar Hardwick: Yeah. So, one of the things that I often hear, and I guess it's a good question. I can say that from a pastor’s standpoint, but from a theological and spiritual standpoint it’s not a great question. And usually that question is, you know, how much is this going to cost? Like, how do we fit this in our budget? Because there are some real practical things that need to be done, you know, if you're going to make your church more inclusive. A lot of it really starts with building the culture, having the right attitude. You know, really just being obedient to the teachings of Jesus, which, you know, is a novel idea. [All chuckle] But, one of the things that I challenge churches to do, and I say in the book, is that we've got to get a better understanding of value versus cost, right.

So in the Parable of the Banquet, Jesus says, you know, to go out and invite the lame, the blind, the cripple, and the poor. And he admonishes them then, don't [00:39:00] invite people who can repay you, right. Because that becomes your only reward. So in a simple way, Jesus is saying, well, you're getting what you invested in. Like the reason why they're not there is because you've never actually invested in them. And, as it stands, the way that you’ve built your table, and the way that you’ve built your banquet, that's your only reward. You get to hang around people who are just like you. But he says, when you invite the disability community and the poor and the marginalized, those who society has pushed away, he says something interesting. He says, “Then, at the resurrection of the righteous, God will repay you.”

So it's almost like he's saying that there's a level of blessing that comes from making this initial investment. Because even though you're trying to figure out how do we get able-bodied people in our churches, because they're working, they're going to be able to pay tithes, they're going to be able to pay for this building. Let’s just be honest, that's a lot of the thought process. But Jesus says, “Okay, but you think your church is great?” And I say this to people- we think our churches are great, but they're only as half as good as they could be, right. [00:40:00] Because Jesus says that God is then responsible for the repayment. And there's a level of blessing on your organization that does not exist when you build it backwards. So as great as you think your church is, if you’ve built it backwards by not reaching this community first, then it’s at best, only half as good as it could be. And so, but a lot of that is we've got to get out of this mindset, again, about who can produce and who can pay for what we're trying to do. That's a way of building the church totally backwards.

And you read Luke 14 and Jesus will have none of it, right. He's like, “No, that's not how we're gonna do this thing.” And he's, you know, and if you choose to do it, just know that you have received your only reward. And God's not the one who's giving it to you. It's the people that you've invited.

So I think we’ve got to have a conversation about value versus cost. Just because it may [00:41:00] cost something doesn't mean these people are not valuable. Because actually it just, it brings a whole level of blessing that you can't conjure up. You cannot kinda manufacturer God's blessing on your church, your organization, and the way that, if you actually do it, the way that he says to do it.

So, and then there's practical things too. Like I tell people, Jesus is very clear in the New Testament- heart follows treasure, right. And so if you want to have value for it, if you want your heart to be in serving this community, you’ve got to put some money into it.

The church that I, I pastored for nine years before I went to my new church, when I left I tied up nearly two years’ worth of funds for disability ministry and designated it so they could do nothing for two years with that money but disability ministry.

Jonathan Walton: [Sy laughing in the background] That's awesome.

Lamar Hardwick: [chuckling] I said, “You could do whatever you want with the new pastor.” Cause someone asked me, [00:42:00] “How do you know they're going to continue the work after you leave?” I said, “Well, I've set up a couple of things. We have elders and, you know, staff members who are personally impacted by it- a few staff members that had disabilities. So we had people who it was personal to. But then the reality is is that heart follows treasure. If you want your heart to stay with this mission, put some money in it.” And I actually allocated that money and designated it. And that's the only thing they can do with that money for almost two years. So it's like, after that, you can do whatever you want. But, you know, this is where we're going to place our value, and make sure our heart stays in serving that community.

So, and here's the thing- you mentioned COVID. And I'll say this: when accessibility became an everybody issue, we saw the church get really creative didn't we? We saw it come up with money to do all sorts of things, right? And I tweeted about that. Like the disability community is watching. What you're saying is it could have been done all along. That it’s not a money [00:43:00] issue. It's just been a willingness issue. Some of it's just been ignorance, but it's a shame that it took for accessibility to become an everybody issue for the church to get creative and start financing ways to give everybody access to its programming and to the things that it's doing.

So I'm hoping that, you know, the people who weren’t able to access their church buildings, for some of us a year now not accessing the programs, will understand what it’s been like… I tweeted this, that the distance that COVID created between pastors and parishioners is analogous to the distance that has always existed between the church and the disability community. So now that you feel it, do something about it.

Sy Hoekstra: And one practical step might be, you know, so many churches now have figured out a way to do so many of that, so much of their ministry remotely, right. And so there is a way actually, in which like, especially people who can't leave their homes for the past year have had access to stuff that they've never [00:44:00] had. Like a breadth of access to ministry that has never been available before. So maybe keep that.

Lamar Hardwick: Keep it. I talked about this in a conference that I did recently where I said, I likened it to the pool of Bethesda, right? All the people gathered there because they believed that there was a place where they could experience God and, you know, because they felt like, you know, the legend that the angel would trouble the water.

What I said is I feel like God is troubling the water and not to heal disabled bodies, but to heal the disability community’s faith in the church, because now they've seen what we can do. And I'm hoping that we will, we will take this as an opportunity to bring some healing to their faith in the institution that has let them down.

Sy Hoekstra: So just going off of that, Pastor Hardwick, you have actually a lot of faith in, and you describe yourself as an apologist for the local church, [00:45:00] despite the fact that it has been so exclusionary of you and me and you know, everybody like us. Why? Why are you such an apologist? What keeps you going, you know, advocating for an institution that has been so exclusionary?

Lamar Hardwick: Simple answer: because Jesus didn't leave us with a plan B. [chuckles] He said, “I'm going to build my church.” He meant it. And he said, “I'm going to give the keys to you all.” And there's no plan B. Like he put all his eggs in that basket, you know. So the keys to the Kingdom don't belong to the government, or to Hollywood, or the school system. He only gave those keys to the church. So it's always been on us. But also the church has, most people don't realize this, a rich history of doing this work. Somehow or another we've moved away from it.

And I talk a little bit about in the book where Paul writes in [00:46:00] Galatians that because of his, he calls it physical brokenness, that he landed in the province of Galatia, which by the way, is an early letter. So you get Paul's most unfiltered experience with the church after his conversion, right. And he says, he says, you know, I didn't choose to land here. My body chose this for me. Which is often the life of somebody with a disability. Your body makes choices that you wouldn't necessarily choose. But Paul says, “When I, when I landed here, you guys were good to me. You didn't consider me a burden. Some of you,” he says, “were even so kind to me, you would have given me your eyes, if you could.” Which is a nod to just maybe what he was dealing with as far as going blind, amongst other things he had that were, that we believe were disabilities, but he says, then something changed.

So if you look at the rich history of the church between the first and third century, the church was always on the forefront of it. A lot of medical innovation and ethics and the way that people were cared for, the way that the [00:47:00] disabled were cared for, a lot of those ideas and ethics came from the Christian faith and like Paul, he says, “You started off good. And then something happened.”

So I continue to have faith because I know the history. I know what the church is capable of, I know how it started off. And I also know that there's no plan B. There's nowhere else that is going to be able to swing the doors wide open to get access to God's Kingdom and the type of loving-kindness and gentleness and the affirming of all human life. That, that's the church's job.

So I, I'm almost forced to kind of, to have hope because Jesus didn't give me another option. He says, “You guys are it.” So either you're going to do it right, or people are just not going to experience what God has always designed them to experience. So I have hope because we're it.

Jonathan Walton: Lord have mercy. He's right. [all laugh]

Sy Hoekstra: Lord have mercy is a good reaction. [00:48:00] That's as good as any of, of a note to end on I think.

You know, again, for everybody, the book is Disability and the Church. Cannot recommend it enough and Pastor Lamar Hardwick, thank you so much for being with us today. This was a fantastic conversation.

Lamar Hardwick: Thanks for having me.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Suzie Lahoud: Thanks for listening. You can follow Dr. Hardwick @autismpastor on social media, and remember to pick up a copy of Disability and the Church. You can subscribe to our blog [00:51:00] at www.ktfpress.com. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @KTFPress, and please remember to subscribe, rate and review wherever you're listening.

Our theme music is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra and our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam.

We'll see you next week!

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]  

Jonathan Walton: I pop my knuckles all the time directly next to the mic, and you never hear it.

Sy Hoekstra: No, I do hear it. I edit that out. [Suzie gasps]

Jonathan Walton: Oh, you do? Oh, that's funny. Sorry…

Sy Hoekstra: You don't hear it.

Suzie Lahoud: Truth comes out…

Jonathan Walton: Whelp, nevermind then. I’m sorry.

Suzie Lahoud: [laughing] That’s actually so funny! Jonathan’s like, “And you never hear it.” And Sy’s there like scrubbing the… [all laughing]

Jonathan Walton: [00:52:00] Sy’s hearing like, crack, crack, crack, crack! I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I apologize.