Discernment and Disability | Forum for Theological Exploration

Discernment and Disability

By: Allison Connelly
August 21, 2019

As a disabled woman, the decision to attend graduate school was not an easy one for me to make. My undergraduate academic experience was rocky, to say the least; my then-misunderstood disability complicated my ability to be fully present to my academic work, and by the time I scraped together the academic credits I needed to graduate, I promised myself that I would never put myself through school again. However, in the several years immediately following my college graduation, I grew into a political, social, and theological awareness of myself as a disabled woman. I found and surrounded myself with people who supported and advocated for and with me as I re-learned to navigate the world. I became more open to the future that my community imagined for me: a future in which I went to seminary, developed my academic, theological concepts of disability, and worked to spread those understandings to others who, like me, were desperate for a disability-inclusive church community.

It was at this point in my discernment that I first encountered FTE. During the FTE discernment retreat, I connected with other young, disabled theologians, activists, and ministers who were working for the same sorts of justice—both ecclesial and political—that I was.

We celebrated, mourned, and collaborated with each other, and I returned home from that retreat secure in my decision to attend seminary.

This past spring I finished my first year at Union Theological Seminary, where I am pursuing my Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in interdisciplinary approaches to disability theology. It was an intense year for me, both academically and spiritually, and at the end of the year I was exhausted. And yet, the week after classes ended I attended the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability (SITD), thanks to funding from an FTE Ministry Exploration and Mentoring grant. SITD is an international conference for disabled and temporarily able-bodied scholars, pastors, activist-educators, and service providers who work at the intersection of theology and disability. I was excited to attend the conference to learn from academic colleagues who ask the same academic questions that I do, but, perhaps more importantly, I was drawn to the conference because I am disabled. I knew that at the conference, scholars and practitioners would be deciding amongst themselves what I, as a disabled person, could and couldn’t do, believe, and experience. My call echoed a classic disability activism slogan: “Nothing about us without us is for us.” I wanted to attend the conference to join my disabled colleagues in ensuring that the “us” of the disability community was represented at the table – or, perhaps more appropriately, in the classroom and at the altar – where theological and dogmatic decisions about “us” were being made. I felt a deep call to attend the conference to be a witness, and to join the other disabled folks present in challenging, supporting, or nuancing the decisions being made based on my lived experience in my disabled body-mind.

I returned from SITD with renewed energy to pursue my academic and pastoral vocation of exploring and expanding the field of disability theology.

I feel that SITD provided me with clarity and focus around my particular area of study, and allowed me to make connections with scholars, pastors, and practitioners – especially those who are also disabled – who can further support me in my discernment and vocation. I am grateful to FTE for providing me with this opportunity to be further drawn into the work that the Spirit is truly calling me to do in this season of growth and discovery.

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