What does hospitality have to do with church and people with disabilities? Neil Cudney of Christian Horizons speaks with Karen Stiller of Faith Today.
Faith Today: Can you tell us a little bit about your work with Christian Horizons? I think it’s unusual and people will benefit from hearing about it.
Neil Cudney: Sure, I’m the director of organizational spiritual life here at Christian Horizons, and a big part of my role is working with church communities and faith communities to understand what it means to truly create a space of welcome hospitality and belonging for people who may be experiencing physical and cognitive disabilities, and how they can become a part of the vibrant life of the Church.
FT: What kind of need is there in the Church to think better and do better with welcoming and being hospitable to people with disabilities?
NC: People with disabilities are living lives of isolation. The world is now experiencing a life that they daily experience, which is the life of isolation, the life of being alone. One of the strange experiences that we’ve all been having is when we go for a walk, somebody sees us coming toward them and we, or they, cross the street to avoid. This has really been part of the lived experience for people with disabilities. [The need in] the Church is to really begin to understand that, and recognize that Church is to be a place of welcome, to be a place of belonging, to create that space of hospitality for people with disabilities that welcomes them into that space, not where they’re just being received as recipients, but there is a reciprocity. That is opened up in a relationship that [includes both] giving and receiving, [based on the assumption] that they have gifts to contribute. People with disabilities want to be part of the community in meaningful ways.
FT: I think that is so powerful that you’ve compared it to our experience of living in isolation right now. I know I have found that profoundly lonely. Tell me more about how that can help us understand better what it might be like to live with a disability?
NC: It’s one of the things we need to understand and engage in as a Church. For me so much of this is rooted right back into the story of creation itself. God recognizes when Adam is in the garden. It’s not good for him to be alone, and He creates for him a partner. And one of the things Adam says right at the beginning when he sees Eve in her difference, he makes this following statement. He says, "Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh," even though he recognizes Eve as being distinct and different from him.
There is this recognition of similarity of belonging, and that’s what so many people and families impacted by disability are looking for. They’re looking to be part of a community that looks at them and says, "Bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. You are us." You are part of us.
It’s not that the difference is bad and we’re wanting to eliminate or ignore difference. Difference exists. But differences are not what primarily define us. Our primary definition is that we are created in the image of God and there is a sameness that connects us as a Body.
FT: Sometimes it’s our fear of making mistakes, or just our crankiness, that stops us from seeing people with disabilities as being part of our Body and the same as us, even as we are different. Can you help us understand how we can be better at that? And how it goes right to the core of the conversation of hospitality itself?
NC: We have such a distorted understanding of what hospitality is, it’s become commodified, where I purchase hospitality and there’s a level of service that I expect. But biblical hospitality is entirely different. It’s a welcoming of the stranger. It’s bringing them into the midst and creating that space where people can be part of that. One of the things we struggle with is the difference between pity and compassion.
Often we are driven by pity. It’s more of a selfish response, because what pity does is it alleviates my guilt. It is the cost of me feeling better. So I’m walking down the streets of Toronto and I encounter somebody sitting on a street corner with a cup in front of them. I feel compelled to do something, so I reach around in my pocket and find a loonie. And so that’s the cost of alleviating my pity.
Compassion is different. It’s dangerous because what compassion compels us to do is enter the journey of the person. That’s what we are to do if we are to truly be the Body. If we are truly to demonstrate hospitality, we must become people of compassion and justice as God defines justice to be where we’re in the relationship, that we’re engaging with people.
We are opening up space for them to truly become part of us. We’re not expecting them to look like us or sound like us, or to be transformed into us. But we are truly accepting them where they are, and creating that space where they can flourish and become part of who we are.
FT: So it occurs to me, Neil, as you’re speaking that my own image of myself must come into play with this, that when I am honest about my own brokenness and my "less than wholeness," it must be easier for me to shift from pity.
NC: For me, one of the most powerful encounters in the Gospels is when Jesus is walking along, He’s going somewhere – to the synagogue or the next city. He has a destination. And then there are a couple of little words that we gloss over very quickly, but they are so powerful. It says that as Jesus was going along He saw the man. He saw the woman. He saw the child. He saw the person. And so often in our work, we are so busy that we forget to see the person. And when Jesus stops and sees the person, He restores to them their humanity, He restores to them their personhood, and one of the things we need – and this is the beginning point of hospitality and belonging – is to actually see the person and enter into a relationship with them.
FT: What do you say to people who read this and just feel like they’re too busy for another relationship?
NC: Think of the patience God takes with us. And the encounters of Jesus with people that were broken and vulnerable and weak and seen as outside. I mean, if anybody should have been busy, right?
FT: That’s a good point.
NC: The problem is not our busyness. The problem is we have a very skewed understanding of what truly has become important. God sees the relationship, God sees the person, God sees the connection of the community as those things that are truly important. And often we allow ourselves to get busy as a method of avoidance, right? Because if I’m busy, I don’t have time. And that’s when that pity rather than compassion comes into play, because I’m looking for what can I do in the immediate to alleviate this discomfort I’m feeling within myself?
How many times did Jesus have to change His direction in order to be with the person? Disability and people who are vulnerable will bring disruption into our lives. And we need to be able to take those moments and allow those holy disruptions to occur because those are the places where we truly begin to experience what it means to be the Body [of Christ]. So we’re talking about far more than, you know, making sure our sanctuaries are wheelchair accessible.
"Often we are driven by pity … Compassion is different. It’s dangerous because what compassion compels us to do is enter the journey of the person."
FT: And that we don’t get upset if there’s disruption in our services for some reason. We’re talking about really a movement of our hearts toward welcoming.
NC: Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, making our places accessible are critical because if we are not physically able to enter a space, it’s pretty hard to feel truly welcomed into that space.
I rely so much on 1 Corinthians 12 about the Body being many parts and how it is that we welcome and bring people into that space. One of the images that has really stuck in my mind is the idea of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit being in this internal relationship. This is facing toward one another eternally. And God brings us into the midst of that. He is ever toward us. I believe that part of the image of God is that He has called us to be with one another as well. How do we bring people into the centre of our communities?
One of the exciting things we have been witnessing here at Christian Horizons is that the Covid experience has forced churches to change, and quickly. I was talking to a pastor friend the other day who said there are changes happening in his church that would have taken ten years in normal times, but because of this, we’ve had to change in the moment. And one of those important changes is the online community that is being created and the accessibility that has been created for people who are unable to attend church, to still be part of the faith community. People with disabilities have been able to join with those services in new ways.
So one of the things I’m hoping does not change is the commitment of churches to make sure its members, its Body, and those who aren’t able to be physically present, are able to be meaningfully connected by continuing with online opportunities.
FT: Can we end by returning to the idea of hospitality?
NC: There’s a reciprocity that has to happen in hospitality. That’s one of the things that we’ve lost in this modern idea of hospitality – it’s something I must always do for the other person. But true hospitality opens up the space of reciprocity where not only am I a giver but I’m a receiver, and it changes that relationship. So the first step of hospitality is welcoming a stranger into your community or into your home.
Well, the intention is that the person does not remain a stranger. There’s a change in that relationship. And so that whole relationship of host and person receiving the hospitality is a fluid one. It changes over time, when the stranger can then become part of the hosting and can be part of the contributing. That’s what people with disabilities are looking for and families are looking for. They’re not looking for programs. They are looking to be part of the regular things that are already happening in the community.
Think for yourself for a minute. If you spent your whole life receiving services, being a recipient of care, what would that do for you? How does that impact you? Over time it creates loneliness. It creates depression. It creates isolation. It creates disempowerment. Christian hospitality is all about how we empower the other. How do we help them discover their full image in God and their place within our community? One of the key points of hospitality is creating that place of home for people who do not have one.
Belonging says that if you are not there, we will go looking for you. Wow. What kind of community do you want to belong to? You want to belong to a community where you are known, where you are noticed, and if you weren’t, you are missed.
FT: That’s beautiful. Thank you, Neil.
True hospitality opens up the space of reciprocity where not only am I a giver but I’m a receiver, and it changes that relationship.
Listen to our full conversation with Neil Cudney, coming soon at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts.