Architecture, Theology, Disabilities, and Scotland: A Bit More about Topher’s Next Steps

Architecture, Theology, Disabilities, and Scotland: A Bit More about Topher's Next Steps

It’s never easy leaving a place where you feel welcomed and cared for, nor is it easy to leave a city like Austin (what with the incredible urban green space and all those delicious breakfast tacos). So, it may seem like a surprising move to many to hear that I’m leaving not just UCC or Austin, but the country completely. I’d like to share a bit more about the lead-up that went on behind the scenes so that everyone can not only see how I fell into this PhD program, but also see what I hope to accomplish by jumping back into the realm of academia.

To start, many people likely associate my father’s accident with my concern for disabilities in the church. It’s a fair assumption, but not completely accurate. For those who perhaps missed my sermon on this event, in college I went hiking with my dad in the Smokey Mountains. A few miles from the trailhead, he tripped and fell, resulting in spinal cord damage from his broken vertebrae. He is now a full quadriplegic, though with the support of friends, family, and technology, continues to participate fully in church. In fact, it was a few years before his accident that I began working with a high school student with several disabilities while doing ministry in college. Those years spent with him, and other students that joined our “typical” ministry, helped spark a series of questions for which no one has been able to provide me sufficient answers.

For starters, why do people have disabilities? At the time, I assumed that as broken people living in a very human world, disabilities were simply the by-products of a sort of Fall. ‘Maybe there isn’t anything sinful about having a disability, but it clearly isn’t God’s plan for us,’ I thought, a product of being raised in the mainline Protestant church and reared in the Evangelical. As I went throughout college, though, I began to question whether disability is really sort of a ‘divine oversight,’ or if perhaps I was missing a bigger picture. The guys I ministered to were often some of the best people to be around (of course, there were also times when they very much were not.) I began to question the nature of disabilities and the relationship between faith and embodiment.

As I continued on in ministry, I began seeing that churches and ministers didn’t have answers, either. Most had simply never thought about it. When we would go to summer camp, we would get questions looks from other leaders and staff, each wondering why we weren’t at the week designated for “special needs” instead. Ministers would make disparaging comments unintentionally, and these families would be excluded from full participation. I wanted to know why.

As I entered seminary, I was confronted with concepts like social definitions of identity. “You are who you are because of the way your personhood is reflected back by your society.” It means something to be Black, something beyond a higher amount of melanin in your skin, because the world treats that is a meaningful difference. It means something to be a woman because the world see that as a role with defined behaviors, language, dress, and activity. In short, we understand who we are because we are social creatures, and we all play some sort of role in the lives of those around us. These new ways of understanding who we are, and how we relate then to God, were eye-opening in a way that led me to believe that I was uniquely called to something I hadn’t yet seen – disability theology.

Throughout seminary, I became known as “the disability guy.” At the time, there weren’t other students with identifiable disabilities (though there were some who were keeping quiet, for fear of social or academic backlash). I was the one who chose to write on disability themes, I was pushing for changes in curriculum, I was doing building audits and telling the deans that we had to do better. And while these were met largely with nods, the fact remained that there simply weren’t qualified teachers in this field.

I came to UCC willing to learn about congregational ministry (which I had done in intern and part-time positions before), but with my gaze looking towards academia. I knew I cared about providing more information to future ministers than what I received, and I knew that would lead me to writing/researching more than a ministry job could allow.

I had known about the University of Aberdeen’s program for a few years – they are one of the few institutions with a stated (and well-financed) interest in disability theology. So, when I met with a professor this summer and we shared an interest in the overlap between architecture theories, disabilities, and the theology of church (ecclesiology), it seemed downright ordained. I wrote my thesis proposal, which I have attached below for anyone foolish enough to want to read it, and managed to get accepted.

I won’t just be turning that proposal into a thesis, however. I’ll also be a Fellow in the Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability. The University has funded an experimental cohort, tasking us with one internal focus and one external. To begin, we will be co-living with people with disabilities directly. Meals, trips, spiritual retreats, etc., all designed to help us truly be in community with those who rarely are seen as equal. Most theology is done in a token ivory tower which excludes those with disabilities, so we are to open our own work up to their lives and be truly impacted by our experiences. Additionally, we’ll be tasked with carrying those stories, and our own work, to churches across the country to better address the vast discrepancy between current church practice and true inclusion.

I am personally incredibly excited by the prospect of studying ecclesiology. I have participated in typical churches, house churches, Bibles studies that involved worship, group gatherings that felt like church but weren’t, church gatherings that didn’t feel like church but ostensibly was. I’ve always questioned why churches did what they did, why people chose to gather, are what the purpose and outcomes of “church-ing” really are. Putting these together with disability theology is a no brainer – especially when so many are excluded based solely on the physical shape of most church buildings. It means something that our chancel is raised and is thus inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. I want to study what it means, what we truly believe instead, and how to design a space to illustrate that difference.

Naturally, this work comes on the heels of many who do great theology, but it also stands on the shoulders of those who do great ministry. I wouldn’t be looking at this project if not for the ministers in my life, and I wouldn’t care so much about making the church accessible if I didn’t believe leaders in my life who showed me that there was something truly worth finding inside. A lot of what I’ll be tasked with, from pointing out building flaws to editing papers, falls in the realm of “critique.” As such, I will be forever grateful to UCC for the ways you have shown me that underneath all that criticism, behind all the pointing out of problems, there is something truly good, truly right, and truly worthwhile within the church. My task now is to help ensure that all people are given the tools to find it, too.

Aberdeen Research Proposal (1)