Struggles for liberation are long. While rooted in ancient traditions, they always require new people and new thinking to push the edge. As Howard Thurman, the black theologian and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., stated,
Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. Such is the growing edge. It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men and women have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. Such is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge.
On October 30, I got to stand for a while at the growing edge at a symposium on “Black Liberation Theology of Disability” at Union Seminary in New York City. This theology, developed by Kendrick Kemp, overcomes the fusion of abelism and racism.
Kendrick, a master of divinity student at Union, was an all-county running back in high school in upstate New York. He made all-state in basketball and still holds several track records at his high school after 30 years. Then at age 21 he suffered a stroke. The doctors told him that he wouldn’t walk or talk again. “It was like I was riding on a magic carpet and somebody snatched it from me,” said Kendrick. He wrestled with God in the hospital and beyond. “If I can walk and talk again, I will go anywhere you send me,” he said.
His mother stood by assuring him that it would be all right. “But I didn’t know what all right would mean.” After months of struggle, he regained his ability to walk and talk, but “people were scared of me and I was scared of myself.”
Two years later he suffered another stroke, wiping out all of his gains. While angry and confused, he knew that God had given him resilience and an inner drive. He started exploring why such catastrophes had happened to him. He has never found the answers. But at Union Kendrick did find Dr. James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, who helped him get out of the pit and gave him a theological language to imagine a new theology of liberation – liberation that emerges from tragedy, defies the status quo and supports everyone in finding his or her own unique voice. For in the United States, many blacks and those with disabilities often experience humiliation and suffering along with their accomplishments.
Race and disability are starting points for redemption. God is a God of the oppressed. The conditions of the oppressed are the conditions of God: God has a disability. The church is troubled when it preaches wholeness and healing instead of proclaiming that we all are incomplete. There is a lot of shaming in the healing stories. Disability liberation stresses the acceptance of our incompleteness in its entire splendor. It is a place of radical inclusion that defines God’s kinship to all.
Rabbi Julia Watts Belser of Georgetown University, one of the speakers at the October 30 symposium described how her God is the God in the book of Ezekiel streaking across the sky in a chariot: “Just like me, God depended on wheels,” she exclaimed. “My wheels set me free and open my spirit!” Disability liberation theology demands a place to testify to the ways that the Spirit flows through bodies and minds.
Dr. Cornell West, called the symposium a “historic gathering,” reminding us how Kendrick comes from a long tradition of black people with disabilities including Harriet Tubman, Fanny Lou Hammer and Art Tatum: “We need to recapture the language and run to disability; not away from it.” He said, “Ableism is as evil as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and anti-Arabism.” In recalling the black spiritual, Lift Every Voice and Sing, West emphasized that every voice must define itself.
Those of us who are temporarily able bodied were also challenged to examine our own internalized dominance. In reflecting on the symposium a few weeks later, Kendrick remembered listening to spirituals and the blues during his early recovery. “When I heard those songs, I was in a room of people like me. They sang stories of tragedy and overcoming and the gladness was still there.” He talked about creating a place where people could tell their truths and not feel shame, yet even when those feelings come up, they know that God is with them.
Kendrick laments that so many people are still in the shadows and not getting the resources they need. “It’s hard to accept yourself in a society that’s always pushing you down.” Black Liberation Theology of Disability provides a sacred space of radical inclusiveness that pulls people from the shadows into the sunshine of loving and proud acceptance. “Violence is coming at us. If we don’t have something to fight it off with, we will succumb to it.”
On a sunny afternoon in late October, I was allowed to glimpse a growing edge of profound change. Like the blues, Kendrick had created a huge, permeable and incomplete space that embraced tragedy, overcoming and gladness and loudly proclaimed to all who could hear, “You are not alone!”