Missionary work in Zambia goes as far back as the 19th century. Today, about eighty-five percent of Zambia’s population is estimated to be Christian. Naturally, Christian beliefs and values have a significant influence on Zambian culture so much such that constitutionally, Zambia is a Christian nation. However, Zambia continues to struggle with issues of marginalization of persons with disabilities. So a country with such a long standing relationship with the church, a significant Christian following and a constitutional affiliation to the church simply begs the question, what does the church have to do with disability in Zambia?
The bible’s representation of disability and disability management informs most Zambians’ perception on the subject to a larger extent than most would like to admit. At one end of the spectrum are the ‘disability is a consequence of possession by evil spirits’ school of thought/healing ministry while on the other hand are the ‘disability is a cross/test/gift to be borne in gratitude’ school of thought/care ministry. However, central to both factions is the principle of faith.
Faith is the bedrock of Christian life. By faith, many men of God in biblical times are documented to have done great exploits. And only by faith many disabled and infirmed are said to have been healed. Furthermore, the biblical exclusion of documentation on alternative interventions in disability management has led to, in my view, a misplaced perception in the church that the church is the sole gateway to disability management. Subsequently, the church has sometimes been marketed as an infallible authority on disability management.
Nevertheless, here in Zambia, one notable credit to the church especially those that are in the ‘care ministry’ is the long standing commitment of faith-based organisations to the care of persons with disabilities. Many, if not all, special schools are the brainchild of faith-based organisations. These churches believe the disabled are a gift from God and it is a Christian duty to love and care for them. The idea of disability as a gift/test/cross etc to be borne with a cheerful heart has had its own positive influence especially in deflecting stigma.
However, the continued marginalization of persons with disabilities and challenges of successful integration of persons with disabilities into mainstream society, especially in a country like Zambia with such a long historical affiliation to the church and a significant Christian community, is an obvious failure by the church to communicate and transfer their appreciation of the needs and potential of persons with disabilities to society at large.
In other words, the ‘care ministry’ churches have a care centred approach towards disability management at the expense of a care/empowerment approach. And the question is why? Does that not imply the church believe persons with disabilities are only to be cared for and not empowered an attitude that reinforces negative perceptions of the potential of persons with disabilities’ and a promotion of dependency among persons with disabilities themselves?
The ‘healing ministry’, on the other hand, fosters the idea that disability is neither to be acknowledged nor embraced an attitude drawn from the biblical presentation of disability as possession by evil spirits. An idea, unfortunately, that promotes stigma. Some churches believe persons with a disability are a guaranteed miracle waiting to happen. Accordingly, persons with disabilities and or their families are incessantly nudged with the idea that if only they prayed hard enough or trotted from one pastor to another for anointing their misfortunes would disappear in a flash. In my view, this obsession with ‘if you are disabled then you must need fixing’ comes off judgmental, promotes stigma and erodes motivation to attend church because personally I do not wish to be repeatedly reminded I need ‘fixing’. It feels like healing was some kind of special qualification to be part of the church family.
Similarly, the healing faith crusade in the church has in some cases led to a dangerous risk of increasing the probability of more people ending up with impairments. For example, because of some people’s position on the issue of faith, they choose to snub health warnings of risks of exposure to debilitating viruses such as the polio virus and ultimately miss out on vaccinations in the name of they are ‘covered’ by faith. I am not here to discredit people’s beliefs nor the power of prayer and healing, but we must acknowledge that there are documented cases of children, in the 21st century, that have contracted polio and similar debilitating illnesses because somebody believed they were ‘covered’.
Similarly, post impairment, some people adamantly believe only by faith they will be miraculously healed and in the process block out any alternative interventions outside the church’s prescription. This behaviour arises from a culture that assumes that any approach to disability management outside the guidance of the church is not only ineffective but of the enemy. Thereby, making any person that seeks any external but complementary intervention to prayer to be branded as the proverbial ‘ye of little of faith’ and perceived as of the enemy. And that in itself is a foundation for stigma.
For example, there is of a family with a young girl with learning disabilities whose parents have adamantly refused to acknowledge her condition because doing so is tantamount to backtracking on their faith and entertaining the devil’s plans against the family. The poor child has repeated grades enough times for most of her younger siblings to catch up and surpass her. It is obvious her general temperament has since been negatively affected. With our Zambian mainstream schools swamped by abnormal student/teacher ratios, it is simple to imagine that a child with learning disabilities has little to zero chances of getting the attention and support he/she deserves in class. Acknowledgement of her challenges, however, would promote understanding and exploration of better means to help her through her needs adequately. For example, by law special needs students are entitled to extra time during examinations a consideration that this child could benefit from if she was certified as such and put in the right environment.
Similarly, I once attended a church service at a friend’s invitation and all went well up until the altar call. One lady in a wheelchair requested to be prayed for. Apparently, she was suffering from an undisclosed illness but was advised she may temporarily experience difficulties walking as side effects of the medication she was under. With regular exercises, however, she was told she had nothing major to worry about. And so she sought prayer as a complement to science.
The pastor obliged and the entire church prayed for her. Then, to my horror, the pastor went on to advise her to pay no attention to her paralysis and the doctor’s prognosis. He told her she was already healed by her faith. He further but firmly discouraged her from seeing herself as disabled and to stay away from disability related organisations. He contended, disability is a manifestation of possession by evil spirits and people running disability focused organisations are equally possessed hence they encourage the idea of embracing disability.
Like many documented cases of HIV/Aids patients dying prematurely because they have been dissuaded by their ‘spiritual advisors’ to take any medication in exclusive preference for prayer, so have some disabilities been contracted, deteriorated and others developed because people have been advised to do nothing but pray. Equally, out of frustration for the non-arrival of the long awaited miracle some people have taken their lives while others have missed out on the benefits of proactive rehabilitation thus contributing to challenges of integrating persons with disabilities in mainstream society.
By Georgina Mumba