"The Lighthouse" by Keynote Speaker Joni Eareckson Tada

APU Hosts Summer Institute on Theology and Disability

by Evan R. Cain

“A vision of a place where everyone is welcome, everyone believes, and everyone belongs.” These words capture the vision of Erik Carter, Ph.D., vice chair of the Collaborative on Faith and Disabilities and professor of special education at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, for the 2017 Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. The weeklong multi-faith conference hosted by Azusa Pacific Seminary, June 5-8, included scholars, clergy, seminarians, and laity. The Institute included presentations, panels, discussion groups, morning and evening meditations, and workshops.

For eight years, the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability, under the leadership of Rev. Bill Gaventa, has explored how the gifts and needs of people with disabilities and their families contribute to academic and ecclesial faith communities. The conference explores two primary questions: how does God see disability and how would He have us serve? “At APU we are developing future leaders, social workers, and educators to think and live like Christ, who affirmed the beautiful and valuable image of God in all people,” said Carol Hines, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education. “In pursuing Christ, we find that disability is a creative piece of His diversity. By coming alongside people with disabilities in solidarity and support, we honor and celebrate Him.”

Keynote speaker Joni Eareckson Tada, founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center and renowned advocate for people with disabilities, spoke on disability empowerment from her experiences. At age 17, a diving accident left Tada a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, unable to use her hands. Since then, Joni has become a published author and an artist, creating detailed paintings and prints by using a brush held between her teeth.

“Friends, God sees the injustices faced by people with disabilities,” said Tada, opening her address. “God is preparing the Church to continue His movement of liberation, justice, and hope. As His hands and feet, it is our responsibility to join Him in this redemptive work, including inviting fostered and abandoned children with disabilities into our homes and churches, and advocating on behalf of every man, woman, and child with autism, Down syndrome, Alzheimer's, or spinal cord injury in need of love and support. That is the mission of the Kingdom of God: to share His good news where the bad news can seem overwhelming, to be the light of the world.”

According to the Collaborative on Faith and Disabilities, 84 percent of people with disabilities say that their faith is important to them, yet only 10 percent of faith communities promote congregation-wide disability awareness. People with disabilities around the world face myriad difficulties, including accessibility, acceptance, and affirmation. In cultures that value independence and self-support, these challenges increase.

“This conference aligns exactly with APU's vision for diversity and inclusive excellence,” said Paul Shrier, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Practical Theology, and creator of Messengers of Hope, a film about a Christian athlete, his church, and achieving his dreams in the Special Olympic World Games, which screened at the conference. “For both APU and the Christian Church, people with disabilities are prophetic voices—reminders that God's goal for humanity is not productivity and efficiency. Instead, it is community, relationship, and neighborliness.”

Evan R. Cain '18 is a senior public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. He is a biblical studies and humanities major in the Honors College.