In the introductory pages of Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities, Benjamin Conner writes: "This book is about the witness of the church and how a plurality of voices and perspectives enhances our understanding of God and our community's witness to that God." The premise of the book and Conner's work as a youth minister is that practice-centered ministry—in which friendships can develop—witnesses to the love and character of Christ with those within the church community and those beyond.
Conner talks of creating spaces within our youth ministry where youth can be introduced to new ideas and can collaboratively investigate, evaluate, experience, and challenge the reality of God's faithful presence. If these "spaces," which are relational, not physical in nature, are safe for all our youth, then authentic relationships among our youth—and more broadly, within the community of faith—can develop, relationships in which youth with disabilities are full participants. Conner asserts that Christian friendship is "the central practice of a ministry of affirming presence." What this means and what it can look like are explored in depth in the second section of the book.
This book is not about disabilities but about ministry. So specific types of disabilities receive little discussion, and accommodations, specific supports, or any of the other topics common to books on disabilities are not included. What Conner does address in a very direct manner is the issue of labels: how they can harm those who are being labeled and how they serve to separate us from each other. As he ends his exploration of what labels can do to individuals, Conner writes:
One of the things I fear about this book is that someone might read it in hopes of learning what they can do for adolescents with developmental disabilities. That is not my purpose at all. The challenge of this book is that we need to learn to be for adolescents with disabilities by being with them. If we desire to minister with adolescents with developmental disabilities, then our relationship with them . . . needs to be one of Christian friendship. When we offer ourselves as friends . . . we are giving them a new label, "friend." (p. 27, emphases mine)
Conner is a theologian, and his writing style reflects this. Though not as dense as many books on theology, I found some parts to be a bit challenging. Fortunately, these relatively short sections are offset by the fact that Conner's writing style is engaging and reflects his passion for youth ministry. The book also includes stories of individual youth, which add to the power and readability of the book.
As a person involved in youth ministry, I found Amplifying Our Witness helpful and encouraging. It affirms the value of engaging youth in the practices of Christian life together: shared prayer, meals, work and service, and learning. When we are the church together, we embody Christ for each other and those around us. When each unique individual's voice is welcomed, we enrich the witness of the whole.
Cindy Warner Baker is one of the founders of Anabaptist Disabilities Network and attends Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana.
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Originally published here: Amplifying Our Witness