Chantal Huinink is a motivational speaker, author, and social justice advocate who lives with cerebral palsy. Chantal is completing a double-masters in Divinity and Social Work through Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Chantal serves as Coordinator of Organizational and Spiritual Life with Christian Horizons and is a certified trainer of Joni and Friends Beyond Suffering curriculum.
This reminds me of what it means to belong to the Church. The Bible uses a lot of “green” imagery, from the tree of life in Genesis to Christ being a vine and his followers the branches. Do we think of God like a cold, hard trunk – looking for everyone to fit into an identical slot in the church?
By Chantal Huinink
As I stowed away my Christmas decorations for another year, I recalled helping my grade one teacher set up her fake Christmas tree in our classroom. The trunk of the tree was cold and hard. The branches all looked the same. My job was to fit each branch into their predetermined slots. When we were finished setting up the tree, I can remember feeling like something was missing, because it did not have the unmistakable smell of a real evergreen.
This reminds me of what it means to belong to the Church. The Bible uses a lot of “green” imagery, from the tree of life in Genesis to Christ being a vine and his followers the branches. Do we think of God like a cold, hard trunk – looking for everyone to fit into an identical slot in the church? Is Christ’s church like a fake tree, where every branch looks the same? No, the Church is like a real evergreen. We carry the ‘fragrance of Christ,’ as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:15. We serve a God who is warm and loving and who supplies the nourishment we need to flourish. The branches of this tree are beautiful and diverse, rather than identical and inauthentic.
This analogy is meaningful to me because I was born with Cerebral Palsy, which causes difficulty coordinating my arms and legs, along with significant visual impairment. As a result, I rely on the use of a power wheelchair, electronic reading devices, and several assistants to help me with the tasks of daily living. As a child in church, I thought that something went wrong with the way God created me. It was my responsibility to find ways of doing what everyone else could do and to become “normal” somehow so that I could fit the “Christian mold” – just like everyone else. I assumed that this was the best way to fulfill God’s plan for my life.
Thankfully, I came to realize that the Church of Christ is not like a fake tree where everyone needs to look and act the same. Canadian disability advocate, Judith Snow, reminds us that God does not categorize people as able-bodied or disabled. These categories are arbitrary human constructions. God sees us in light of the gifts and abilities He has entrusted to us. Eventually, my church began to nurture my spiritual gifts and encourage me to serve in various capacities from children’s ministry to pastoral care, even if it meant partnering with others to do so. As part of this “flourishing,” I came to see that belonging is not simply about being welcome or included, but also having a valued role.
Do you long for your church to be a living and welcoming place for people of all abilities? Christian Horizons’ EveryBody Belongs service guide and resource materials will help equip you to foster communities of belonging with everyone. We are happy to come alongside you to explore next steps in ensuring that people with disabilities and their families fully contribute and enjoy fullness of life in your church community.
Chantal Huinink is the Coordinator of Organizational and Spiritual Life with Christian Horizons.