Seeking the Hidden Voices of God

By Melody Escobar

Searching for a way to help Raphael, my three-year-old son, develop his speech while also encouraging his love of animals, I discovered the benefits of equine-assisted therapy—the interaction of horses with persons who face physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges. Raphael realized immediate transformative effects, found the power of his voice by saying his horse’s name and simple commands like “walk on” and “whoa,” and increased his upper body strength. He flourished in a welcoming community, experiencing solidarity with peers, other families, and volunteers. This equine center, located in the tranquil Texas hill country, provided a restful, nurturing setting for humans and nonhumans alike.

Mystical Moments

I was struck by the community hospitality extended to all creatures, regardless of ability. Each Saturday during Raphael’s one-hour sessions, I learned essential practices of love and mindfulness that heightened my sensitivity to his needs, profound truths of our interconnectedness and interdependence, and a strong sense of accountability to all of creation.

One in four adults lives with a disability affecting cognition, hearing, mobility, vision, self-care, or independent living. Approximately one in six children age 3 to 17 has a developmental disability. Why are we not seeing, hearing, educating, and ministering with these valued community members?

Those “mystical moments” expanded my awareness of God’s immanence and an appreciation of how God might view the world in all its glorious diversity, beauty, and suffering.

Raphael’s horse, Bo, was rescued at age seven by the center’s founders. A retired American quarter horse bred for racing but labeled “too lazy” by his previous owners, Bo was highly esteemed for his gift of “walking with children.” In Bo, I met God’s calming presence and gentle, warm eyes as he willingly shouldered our burdens every week. I credit that experience, where the praxis of inclusivity was braided into the mission, for schooling me in the divine welcome and what it means truly to make space for another. Spirited interactions between horses, other children, and caregivers stirred gratitude for everyone’s unique differences, gifts vital to the life of the community.

Research Epiphanies

At that time, I was completing my doctoral studies in Christian spirituality. These experiences with the horses set me onto further exploration of this sense of the sacred by studying the connection between spirituality and equine therapy. Twenty mothers whose children participated at the center shared their invaluable wisdom and insights into this phenomenon. Among the emerging themes were the apparent health and spiritual benefits of equine therapy for children and families, as well as broader issues around stigma and social isolation associated with disability and the inadequate supports languishing in place. 

I experienced moments during the research when I was invested beyond investigator and became involved more as a concerned parent living the difficult journey of raising a child with a disability. My feelings often united with those of the mothers. Together we contemplated what the future held for our children, the mystery of diagnoses, the need to advocate for resources, and the search for hope in unusual places not necessarily “spiritual,” like horse stables. All the while, I was obliged to acknowledge that my own assumptions about caregiving were often challenged or intensified by the parents’ experiences and revelations.

“I Want to Talk!”

Perhaps the most illuminating encounter came during an impromptu puppet show graciously performed by a seven-year-old boy with autism at the close of my interview with his mother. Perched atop a dining room chair, he dramatically declared his desire to be heard: “I want to talk!” Then he recited by memory the “Little Mermaid” and “Cinderella” fairytales. These are the epiphanies in research when time is kairotic, and barriers between the secular and the sacred collapse. I was deeply grateful to undertake such a study, which underscored the urgency of highlighting the remarkable hidden voices of these children and the necessity of furthering just practices.

At a time when the national discourse is fixated on debating who can legitimately participate in the life of a church because of sexual identity or political ideology, might we, instead, combine our efforts to seek out those who have long been missing in the everyday picture of faith communities? Statistics in the US indicate that one in four adults lives with a disability affecting cognition, hearing, mobility, vision, self-care, or independent living. Approximately one in six children age 3 to 17 has a developmental disability. Why are we not seeing, hearing, educating, and ministering with these valued community members? 

We need further ethnographic research and advocacy from community, church, and government agencies to increase funding and advance the availability of timely health care, therapies, respite, and inclusive education support services. A point often repeated by my research partners was inadequate access to government-funded programs and treatments. Some reported prolonged wait times of more than 10 years for some essential therapies. It is urgent to consult with caregivers and persons with disabilities themselves if we are going to improve policies and dismantle patterns of exclusion and structural discrimination. Most recently, they have felt the disproportionate impact of Covid because of chronic conditions and weakened immune systems, disruptions in critical medical and in-home care, and job loss. This confirms a harsh, widely noted pattern of our communal life: inequities increase for vulnerable members during a social crisis and remain largely unrecognized.

Seek, Listen, Act

In our congregations, the mandate of inclusive love compels us to liberate ourselves from old habits and complacencies and eliminate the social and physical obstacles that exist in worship and ministry. These prevent persons with disabilities and their caregivers from participation and leadership. Citing past and present injustices in our churches and traditions related to disability requires more space than this reflection allows. The following, however, are some beginning practical measures to embolden full involvement in the mission:

•       Seek input from persons with disabilities and caregivers about ways to be more inclusive of their individual needs and gifts;

•       Invest funds and personnel on those church members and visitors with disabilities;

•       Place persons with disabilities in central, meaningful leadership and ministry roles;

•       Review ministry initiatives and communication formats to ensure they are accessible to persons of all abilities;  

•       Tour church grounds and all interior spaces with persons with disabilities and create a barrier-free environment;

•       Forego rigidity in worship and embrace difference, unexpected movements, and noise; 

•       Break down glass walls and “cry rooms” to accommodate all members in worship; 

•       Increase awareness of disability by building relationships and sharing stories;

•       Communicate the vision for inclusion and solicit everyone’s support in forming a community of genuine openness and welcome.

As one mother passionately conveyed to me, exclusion in our places of worship where parents and their children with disabilities have long been members—even for decades—happens far too often:

We’ve been going to the same church for years since I was young. I got married there, and we helped support the construction of the big building. They’ve known Taylor [her son who has Fragile X syndrome] since birth. … It’s sad because they still don’t get it—even those who have been around us for years and years. They did a big banquet for the seniors and their parents with a slide show. It’s nice that they wanted to include Taylor, but have they not been paying attention all of these years? He is not going to go to this and sit through it and be able to handle it. He’s not going to go up on stage. Things like that just make me know they’re not paying attention. They’ve known me and Bob before Taylor was even a thought, and after all these years of knowing our family, they still don’t get it.[1]

Are We Listening for God?

May this pandemic and the new era following it awaken us to a deep call to action, to view all of God’s children in their goodness and glory as one Body, to acknowledge how we contribute to the suffering of others, and to turn to one another in solidarity and boundless compassion. It is then, I believe, that we will be able fully to mine the wisdom found in lived experience and practice, transforming us, making us of service to others, so that we abide in communal hope in the challenging course of this life.

Melody Escobar, a doctoral student in Christian spirituality at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, is a lecturer in educational leadership and ministry at YDS during the 2021-22 academic year. She will teach the course, “Spirituality and Disability,” in Spring 2022.

[1] Cited with permission. Pseudonyms are used here for confidentiality.