Gender in Ministry Forum kickoff: Ministering to disabled persons

by Annika Bjornson | Staff Writer

Whitworth’s theology department kicked off its forum series on gender in ministry by posing the question of how Christians can minister to and learn from people with disabilities from the perspective of male and female identities. The first lecture was given, on Monday, Sept. 30 in the Eric Johnston auditorium. It was titled “Ministering to Persons with Disabilities.” 

Whitworth alumni Daniel Kaufman and Melia Walden conversed with about 75 students who attended the event, which was hosted by the theology department’s Karin Heller, Ph.D., D.Div.

Kaufman holds a degree in theology. In the past, he has worked at a summer camp for people with special needs and at a residential treatment facility for children and youth with mental health diagnoses. Among other experiences at a Benedictarian monastery and at Christ Kitchen, he now works as a caregiver at L’Arche of Spokane, a Christian community of homes for adults with developmental disabilities. 

“On the one hand, being in a relationship with people with special needs has taught me that I have special needs too. We all do,” Kaufman said. “On the other hand, I have to recognize that my special needs and disabilities don’t push me to the margins, and so I have to be careful not to invalidate the special needs of my friends.”

Walden was a peace studies major and theology minor, as well as a co-director of En Christo during her years at Whitworth. She spent time working in low-income, predominantly African American neighborhoods in Philadelphia before returning to Spokane and becoming president of L’Arche of Spokane.

The night began with an introduction by Heller, followed by an interview of the two guests. After this, the room broke into small groups to discuss their thoughts and experiences before sharing any questions or insights with the full group.

In response to one of Heller’s interview questions, Walden spoke about how people with disabilities approach the question of relationships between men and women, people with and without disabilities.

“[Disabled people] have the same capacity to have good relationships and bad relationships as we do. We definitely see plenty of both at L’Arche. One thing that is definitely a major limitation is because they are mostly dependent on other people to help them get out of the house, they have a very small circle of people they see and they don’t meet people like we do,” Walden said.

Walden lives in one of two homes for a dozen persons with disabilities and considers them to be her family.

“L’Arche has taught me the value of just sitting with someone […] There’s just a radical acceptance and welcome. They just are open to you without even knowing you. You don’t have to earn it, and that was the first time I really experienced that,” Walden said.

In one of Kaufman’s responses, he addressed what Christian communities can learn from people with disabilities.

“Learning from those that are disenfranchised, pushed to the margins because of their supposed disabilities, […] that’s our opportunity to learn about Christ himself,” Kaufman said.

Junior Anna Arnholt was one of about 60 students who attended the lecture. She works with disabled young adults at Young Life Capernaum as a leader.

“I loved that this was even an opportunity at Whitworth,” said Arnholt. “It was so cool to be able to share what an experience with people with disabilities is like with other people and have Whitworth students be a part of that […] It means a lot that we are progressing as a culture to be more inclusive and broaden our definition of diversity to include people with disabilities.”

There will be three events this semester focusing on gender in ministry for Heller’s theology and gender minor, which currently encompasses 18 students.

The next lecture is titled “Breaking Boundaries: Mutual Ministry, Mutual Marriage,” on October 22 at 7 p.m. in the Eric Johnston auditorium, room 233. The speakers are a married couple whose relationship reflects nontraditional social norms, including that the wife is an Episcopalian pastor and that the husband changed his last name to hers. 

The last forum, “Ministry Beyond the Gender Binary,” will be on November 12 at 7 p.m. in Eric Johnston room 233. Heller will welcome Rev. Linda Tatro Herzer to speak at this event from her experience of ministering to LGBT+ people.