Many times around town we overhear conversations that go something like this: “Guess who I ran into the other day? You know the wheelchair guy we see around town all the time?”
Or maybe like this:
“So I was shopping the other day and the MRDD kid bagged my groceries.”
“Did you hear the news story about the Down syndrome kid who was picked as homecoming queen?”
“Did you see how that autistic kid made a basket in the last game of the season?”
We have a tendency to talk about people with disabilities, maybe even more than we talk to them. And we tend to describe people by their disabilities, as if they are defined and known only by their disabilities.
In the Gospel of Mark (10:46-52), we find the story of “Blind Bartimaeus.” The text reads that Bartimaeus is the son of Timaeus. At first glance, this may seem significant, because many people with disabilities in the Bible do not have names. They are defined only by their disability, similar to what we still do in our time and culture. And yet here we have an individual with a name — Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus.
However, in Aramaic, Timaeus means unclean, defiled, polluted and impure. So Bartimaeus is described as blind and by association, also defiled, impure, etc. Thus, even though we have a person with disabilities, who for once has a name, unfortunately his name accentuates his disability. As if that weren’t enough, Bartimaeus is also a beggar by the side of the road. Overall, he is a person with a disability, separated from society because of his disability.
We would like to think that in the 21st century things are different. We like to think that we have made progress. Unfortunately, even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act and support organizations like Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities and the Delaware County Board of Developmental Disabilities, what we really have is still a separate but equal status for persons with disabilities.
For me, the beauty of the Bartimaeus story is this: The encounter with Jesus restores and re-integrates Bartimaeus as a full member of society. Because of this story, I believe that followers of Jesus, and the church as the body of believers are likewise challenged to reach out in restorative ways to those who have been sidelined in our world. I believe we are called to honor the dignity and worth of every person, created in the image and likeness of God.
Maybe it begins by getting to know the name of the person who is bagging your groceries. It might then continue by asking the person who uses the wheelchair downtown how you can be a friend. Maybe then we can find ways to involve our faith community, too.
Bartimaeus called out to be noticed. There are people with disabilities today still calling out for restoration and re-integration. How will we, as people of faith and communities of faith, respond?
The Rev. Gunnar Cerda is the chaplain for OhioHealth’s Grady Memorial Hospital and secretary for the Delaware Ministerial Association. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ and board-certified through the Association of Professional Chaplains. He lives in Delaware with his family.