The Eighth Summer Institute on Theology and Disability was held, June 5-8, at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California with Fuller Theological Seminary serving as a co-host. What a four days! About two hundred people attended various parts of the Institute, with about one hundred and twenty for all four days.  They included professors, graduate students, clergy, seminary students, people in ministries and faith based services with people with disabilities, laity, professionals working in disability services, and others…including people with disabilities and family members in all of those roles just listed.  Participants came from multiple Christian denominations along with several Jewish attendees and speakers, and one plenary speaker on Islam and disability.  About forty states were represented, a significant number of Canadians, five people from Australia, and others from China, Korea, the UK, Netherlands, and Norway.

The highlights of the week included:

  • An opening “Community Day”, designed as a one day event for area clergy and laity, with four “SI-TED” talks by Summer Institute faculty, a opening keynote by Joni Eareckson Tada, workshops with presentations from both Azusa and Fuller faculty, and a terrific closing panel with speakers from a variety of ministries with people with disabilities in the greater LA region.
  • Powerful Tuesday plenaries featuring Dr. Brian Brock, exploring the issues of his talking about, and trying to represent, the voice of his son Adam, who has Down syndrome and autism, followed by a presentation by Brad, Elena, and Jacob Artson. Brad is a rabbi and seminary dean; Jacob is a young man with autism who communicates through typing and an Ipad. His opening remarks were read by Elena, his mother. It is fair to say that audience was transfixed as he responded eloquently to questions from audience. Then, to top off the day, an evening interview of Kay Warren by Summer Institute faculty member John Swinton on the church and mental illness.
  • Wednesday presentations on Islam and disability by Dr. Suheil Laher and one on Roman Catholic perspectives, Aquinas, and disability by Dr. Miguel Romero, integrating their perspectives with his own convictions based on his relationship with his brother who is disabled. Wednesday night featured a film, Messengers of Hope, about a church in Southern California for whom involvement in the Special Olympics is one of their key community ministries.  The film was made by Paul Shrier, a professor in Film Studies at Azusa, who had a whole class of film students assisting him in videotaping the plenary sessions (on the web later this summer) and doing taped interviews with both speakers and participants of the Summer Institute for a documentary about faith and disability.
  • Benjamin Wall was the Jean Vanier Emerging Scholar Lecturer on Thursday morning, speaking about L’Arche as a frame of mind and spiritual “rule” as much as a place. Dr. Monica Coleman, from nearby Claremont Seminary, closed off the plenary sessions on Thursday afternoon with a presentation on learning how to “fail,” at least in the eyes of the world.

Along with the lectures were thirty other workshops led by Summer Institute attendees, a seminar for Ph.D. students led by Dr. Hans Reinders, and a four-hour course on Jewish foundations for inclusion led by Rabbi Chaim Hanoka from Chabad in the San Gabriel valley.

Morning and afternoon meditation times were guided by Summer Institute chaplains Stephen Weisser and Lisa McKee, with most of them led by people with disabilities.

In some ways, though, the magic of the Summer Institute happens in between these structured sessions.  Shared meals in the Azusa Dining Hall were full of conversation, as were the break times, and people seeking one another out because of shared interests and dreams.  A key vision of the Summer Institute is to connect those in the ivory towers with those living and ministering at the grass roots, and everyone in-between, for the purpose of learning from each other.  It seeks to be a big tent, in terms of roles and in terms of ecumenical and interfaith traditions, to learn from others working at the growing number of intersections between faith and disability, understand new perspectives, sharpen individual commitments and capacity, and celebrate the gifts and contributions of everyone involved. Friendships have been made. New colleagues have been found. This year, thirty-six scholarships were given to seminary and Ph.D. students.

If you would like to be part of this growing network of people who have either attended an Institute or are committed to these same goals, like the Summer Institute Facebook Page. For power-points, handouts and other materials from this Summer’s Institute, go to our Dropbox site.  By the end of the summer, we plan to have the plenary videos up on the Summer Institute section of the website of the Collaborative on Faith and Disability.  Those from past years are already there.

And next year, 2018: Hosted by Duke Divinity School in collaboration with Edenton Street United Methodist Church, in Raleigh, North Carolina. June 11-14.  Like the Facebook page for news and updates.