Summer Institute on Theology and Disability: a place for learning, formation, celebration

By Bill Gaventa

The eighth Summer Institute on Theology and Disability was held June 5–8 at Azusa (Calif.) Pacific University with Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif., serving as co-host. Approximately 200 people attended various parts of the event, with approximately 120 attending all four days.

Participants included professors, clergy, graduate and seminary students — 36 scholarships were given to seminary and Ph.D. students — those serving in ministries and other faith-based services as well as laity and professionals, including people with disabilities and family members in each of these roles. Attendees included Christians from various traditions, several Jewish participants and speakers, and a plenary speaker on Islam and disability. About 40 states were represented, along with Canada, Australia, China, Korea, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Norway.

Highlights of the week included:

  • An opening “Community Day” for area clergy and laity with four “SI-TED” talks by Summer Institute faculty, an opening keynote by Joni Eareckson Tada, workshops with presentations from Azusa and Fuller faculty, and a terrific closing panel of speakers from a variety of ministries with people with disabilities from the greater Los Angeles region.
  • Tuesday plenaries featured Dr. Brian Brock, who explored issues related to 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 Apple iPad. His opening remarks were read by his mother, Elena. The audience was transfixed as he responded eloquently to their questions. An evening interview with Kay Warren by Summer Institute faculty member John Swinton on the topic of the church and mental illness topped off the day.
  • Wednesday presentations included one on Islam and disability by Dr. Suheil Laher and Roman Catholic perspectives presented by Dr. Miguel Romero, who integrated those perspectives with his own convictions drawn from his relationship with a brother who has a disability. Messengers of Hope, a film by Paul Shrier, professor of Practical Theology at Azusa, was featured Wednesday night. The film about a church in Southern California — whose involvement in the Special Olympics is a key community ministry — was made with the help of film students who also assisted in videotaping the plenary sessions and taping interviews with speakers and participants of the Summer Institute for a documentary about faith and disability.
  • Dr. Benjamin Wall, the Jean Vanier Emerging Scholar Lecturer, spoke on Thursday morning about L’Arche as a frame of mind and spiritual “rule” as much as a place. Dr. Monica Coleman, from nearby Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology, capped off the plenary sessions on Thursday afternoon with a presentation on learning how to “fail” — at least in the eyes of the world.

In addition to the lectures were 30 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, San Gabriel Valley. Morning and afternoon meditations were guided by Summer Institute chaplains Stephen Weisser and Lisa McKee, with most others led by people with disabilities.

In some ways, though, the magic of the Summer Institute happens between these structured sessions. Shared meals in the Azusa dining hall were full of conversation, as were the break times with people seeking each other because of shared interests and dreams. A key vision of the Summer Institute is to connect those in academia with those living and ministering at the grass roots and everyone between for the purpose of learning from each other. The gathering seeks to be a big tent, in terms of roles and of ecumenical and interfaith traditions, to learn from others working at the growing number of intersections between faith and disability, to understand new perspectives, to sharpen individual commitments and capacity, and to celebrate the gifts and contributions of everyone involved. Friendships were made. New colleagues were found.

To be part of this growing network of people who have either attended a Summer Institute or are committed to these goals, visit and like the Summer Institute Facebook page, where news and updates are posted. For PowerPoints, handouts and other materials from the gathering, go to our Dropbox site. By the end of the summer, plenary videos will be available on the Summer Institute section of the Collaborative on Faith and Disability website. (Past years are already available there.)

The 2018 Summer Institute will be hosted June 11–14 in Raleigh, N.C., by Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., in collaboration with Edenton Street United Methodist Church, Raleigh.

Bill Gaventa is director of Summer Institute on Theology and Disability.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.