Telling Encounters was a day-long conference on the stories of disabled and neurodivergent people, hosted for the first time online in partnership with HeartEdge via Zoom. The theme of ‘Telling Encounters’ centred on the stories and experiences of disabled and neurodivergent people in how we encounter God, including our ministry as disabled and neurodivergent people, and encounters since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns since March 2020.
One of the sessions was a pre-recorded reflection from Donald Eadie. Donald spoke about different places to encounter God, including: ‘I learned that my body, which is so marvellously made, become a hermitage when embraced as a place I will actually meet God’. Donald finished with: ‘In one sense I know less and less about this call to follow. I have to be content about a God who is leading me into darkness’. I have found this point to be very reflective of my own journey as an autistic and disabled Christian, and also the journey I am taking with my own PhD research exploring and lifting up the stories and experiences of belonging among autistic people in religious and humanist groups.
Naomi Lawson Jacobs then shared their story of experiences in churches and faith. Naomi is a member of the Disability Conference planning team, social researcher and a professional storyteller who is autistic and disabled. The central crux of Naomi’s presentation can be summed up with this quote from them: ‘Where are the stories of disabled people in church? … so many of the people are reluctant to tell their stories, yet their stories are so beautiful’. This is a question which I too often find myself asking – where are disabled and neurodivergent people’s stories in a church context? We are often not empowered to speak up and tell our stories. As part of the body of Christ, our stories are just as valuable and inherently beautiful, and given how neglected they have been, they deserve to be heard, shared and digested.
Dangerous prophets came through as a theme throughout the day in the discussions in the chat and also in the discussions over Twitter and in our Facebook group. One particular example was the exchange between Emily Richardson and Jane Wallman-Girdlestone. Jane ended their conversation on ‘learn to see yourself as a prophet, not a problem’; this led to a flurry of tweets and responses in the chat box in the Zoom session regarding dangerous prophets throughout the rest of the day, and become one of the take-home messages. This is something that many of us feel like we are, as people who ‘go against the grain’ who challenge current power imbalances and status quo, just through our presence and voices. I have often found myself in the position of a ‘dangerous prophet’ when others in churches are confused or uncomfortable with an autistic Christian who challenges the idea that I am only comprised of ‘deficits’ which need remedying, and therefore, a problem to fix.
To conclude this blog, I’ll share some words from Naomi that underpin not only the ‘Telling Encounters’ conference, but also the disabled Christians movement that is emerging more broadly: ‘There is something powerful about us being able to tell our stories ourselves as disabled people’. I believe that is true for so many of the people who attended the conference this year, and those who attend it every year. The annual Disability Conference is full of prophets whose voices need to be heard.
By Krysia Waldock; firstname.lastname@example.org ; PhD Candidate in Intellectual and Developmental Disability at Tizard Centre, University of Kent and Disability Conference planning team member.
You can read more on the annual Conference on Disability and Church in partnership with St Martin-in-the-Fields in the Disability section of our website.