Rev. Evy McDonald is the recent past co-chair of The United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities (UMAMD). She has been a member of UMAMD for about 10 years, and is the group’s official representative to the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC). She is also an elder in the New York Annual Conference.
According the UMAMD’s website (http://www.umdisabledministers.org/210.html), the organization has a three-pronged focus:
- Advocating: raising awareness regarding persons with disabilities and how ministries might be enhanced by the challenges that ministers work with in everyday life;
- Educating: helping others to understand disabilities and the way in which such is a means of being “otherly gifted” for serving God in ministry;
- Supporting: being together in an association to support one another and provide community wherein we join together to address the needs and opportunities that are presented by disabilities.
For General Conference (GC) 2016 in Portland, Oregon, UMAMD and multiple annual conferences together wrote and will offer five pieces of legislation. This legislation includes a number of topics.
- Removing discrimination toward ordination candidates with disabilities; confirming that the ordination process ensures non-discrimination;
- Dealing with discriminatory actions that occurred in the 2012 GC in regards to mental-emotional disabilities;
- Securing non-discriminatory insurance coverage in relationship in to long-term disability policies and disability compensation, as well as non-discrimination in the UMC’s denominational employee disability benefits;
- Ensuring accessibility at all annual conference meetings. Current legislation in The Book of Discipline only guarantees accessibility to general agency meetings.
The Association’s primary goal for GC 2016 is to get this legislation passed, and participation in LYNC assists in this potential passage. McDonald also said that UMAMD’s participation in LYNC broadens every member’s “overall sense of how much discrimination is out there” and how “discrimination comes guised in many different forms.”
McDonald described that the particular aspect of discrimination that people with disabilities face is silent. “It’s the largest unspoken discrimination in our country. Discrimination happens every day, so many times in our lives. People don’t want to admit it and they don’t want to talk about it.” Many times people with disabilities feel they are invisible.
She described the some of the deep-seated, unconscious ways people in the church think about people with disabilities. Church-goers may think about ending discrimination against people with disabilities by doing things that make it possible for people with disabilities able to sing in the choir and read from the pulpit, making the bathrooms as accessible as possible but, far too often, they believe that such changes will cost a lot of money that they will not get back. In talking with people in churches there is an unconscious belief that most people with disabilities are poor and uneducated. McDonald explained that as a group, one of the largest percentage of people who live below the poverty line are people with various disabilities. The stereotype, however, is that “we are not talking about people who can’t be employed, but rather people who can work but aren’t working, for whatever reason.”
Then the discrimination moves into “What about the safety of our children? There’s an unconscious, media-driven fear that people who deal with intellectual disabilities are dangerous people and people who have emotional-mental illness are all going to be mass murderers. People still pull their children away from disabled people in the grocery store without recognizing what they are saying non-verbally and the discrimination they are perpetuating.”
The primary challenge of working in Coalition is “learning to trust one another. As that trust has grown we have discovered that all of us are desirous of finding ways to support one another that will enhance the whole.” McDonald expressed that at the last two General Conferences the LYN Coalition felt less viable. It was not truly working together across issues. Increasingly the Coalition feels like it is coalescing around a larger agenda. She said, “The way we’ve be talking about working together is that as each of the many issues come to the General Conference floor [for voting], the Coalition will be ready to support or do whatever is necessary at that time.” She further commented, “I see this coming into reality. When we work together, we are stronger. And it’s biblical. When one group is honored instead of ignored, it strengthens other groups, because it opens GC’s eyes about discrimination. We are creating a unified effort that will startle the GC participants.”
The challenge of trust comes in “when we show up to support someone else, and then it’s our turn to be supported, there is a fear that others will not be there for whatever reason.” Individual and group members of the Coalition have all dealt with different kinds of pain and discrimination. That experience can help all parties to remember “that each of us will say and do something wrong. Together we can all learn.” When something difficult happens among group members our first tendency may be “to write them off and decide we’re not going to trust them anymore.” The harder task is “to learn how to heal and grow together. It doesn’t mean we won’t also unintentionally inflict pain on one another but we can model intentional healing for the whole denomination.”
Therefore, the other primary challenge is communication. “We need to communicate, communicate, communicate and not make assumptions; ask for clarification.” When there is conflict among parties working together across differences, all parties have to “see where our own prejudice and blocks are, and be willing to move through them, or at least put them down temporarily.”
McDonald thinks that the greatest challenge of ending discrimination against LGBTQ people in the UMC is dealing with delegates from other continents. She remembers hearing in 2012 from one of the African delegates, who explained, “You people came over and told us that we were wrong to have multiple wives. You told us it was one man, one woman. And now you want us to believe something different?” U.S. Christians created this problem. In McDonald’s opinion, if a portion of the delegates outside of the U.S. could be brought into a new way of understanding, there would be no problem with ending the discrimination. McDonald believes that we need to move all people “to fully realize that discrimination is discrimination is discrimination.”
Clearly, the matter of the exclusion of LGBTQ persons is a central concern of the Coalition. “The language in The Book of Discipline, particularly for an LGBTQ person who wants to be ordained, is atrocious and a black smudge on United Methodism. But if you don’t think there’s any chance in hell of that being removed this time, where in the heck do we put our efforts in order to have an impact? I don’t have an answer to that question.”
Everyone will know the Coalition works when it stands behinds whatever needs to be stood behind in that moment. McDonald described an example of this kind of Coalition work that happened early in this quadrennium. It was originally decided that the Coalition-based Convocation gathering would be held in Atlanta. The Native American member of the Coalition, said the Native American caucus wouldn’t participate because of the offensive native mascot used by a major sports team in Atlanta. So the Coalition decided not to have the meeting there. “And that’s how it works. Instead of saying “well, that’s just one part of the Coalition, the rest of us don’t have that issue. It’s really hearing someone’s issue at a point in time when it is critical to hear it. And then putting force behind doing what’s right.” When a coalition doesn’t work it looks “like we’re all just scattered behind our own issues and just gotten behind walls and hunkered down in our own little forts.”
This is the fifth in a series of interview reports that Love Prevails is conducting with representatives of every member group of the LYNC as a part of preparing for General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. We share what each group brings to the Coalition, their particular emphases and concerns for GC2016, and the challenges and benefits of working across various kinds of differences related to identity, opinion and action. While Rev. McDonald represents the UMAMD to LYNC, the opinions expressed in this interview report are entirely her own.