The Spirituality of the Mentally Disabled

January-February 1991By Brett Webb-Mitchell

The Rev. Brett Webb-Mitchell is a Presbyterian minister and Associate Professor of Education at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. During the 1987-1988 academic year he was a care worker at L’Arche Lambeth in London.

In my Father’s house are many rooms… (John 14:2 RSV)

In recent years the church has begun to confront the issue of how best to welcome and include people with disabling conditions into congregational life. Some churches have built wheelchair ramps and brought in skilled peo­ple to use sign language. But when focusing on the issue of including a person who is profoundly mentally retarded or a person with schizophrenia, there has been little progress.

As an example, in one congregation where I was working as the minister to young people, the church staff was grappling with the situation of a 12-year-old boy who was severely mentally retarded and disabled with cerebral palsy and scoliosis. When meeting with the boy’s mother, one staff member talked about setting up the nursery area for the boy while the family was in worship, while I suggested moving pews so the boy could attend worship with his family. In the end, the boy was placed downstairs in the nursery and never did attend worship.

When confronting the challenge of in­cluding a person with mental retardation or mental illness, one persistent question is: Will that person understand and appreciate wor­ship? But the underlying question is: Will that person do something embarrassing in worship, and what will he or she get out of worship if he can’t do anything during worship? If the answer is that we don’t know how much the person understands in worship, and we can’t control the reaction of the person in worship, and the person can’t do anything in worship, like sing hymns or recite the creeds, then of­ten he is taken to the nursery (or not brought to church at all).

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