Wiley Lecture Series Brings Discussion of Disability Justice to PLNU Campus

Wiley Series guest lecturer Sarah Barton. Photo courtesy of

Point Loma Nazarene University’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry invited Sarah Jean Barton, assistant professor of Occupational Therapy (OT) and Theological Ethics at Duke University, to lead the annual H. Orton Wiley Lecture Series, running Feb. 12–14. 

Barton is the author of “Becoming the Baptized Body: Disability and the Practice of Christian Community,” and according to her bio for the series, “her research interests include theology and disability, research in collaboration with people with intellectual disabilities, religious occupations and inclusive education.”

According to Brad Kelle, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, the faculty of the school of theology work together to select speakers with expertise in areas covered within the school of theology including Bible, theology, philosophy and Christian ministry, but also try to diversify lecture series subjects. Last year’s series centered on the contemporary praise and worship movement. 

Kelle said that faculty were familiar with Barton’s book, and were interested in inviting her to speak because of her particular area of work.

“The exploration of disability studies and its intersections with biblical studies, theology, church ministry, is a relatively new thing but there’s a lot being generated on it,” Kelle said. “That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to have it [as a theme for the lecture series]. Not only do we think that it’s a pretty pressing issue for churches especially, but also just people in general to think about, but also it’s kind of a hot topic in a way.” 

Some years, faculty of the theology department find the topic first and others the speaker first, but in either case, they focus on up-and-coming research and things they think students will enjoy, according to Kelle. 

“It’s a very good time for this to be the topic because all faculty have been engaging in how to accommodate students with disabilities across campus. The mission of this matches the mission of the EAC, in terms of making things accessible,” said Pamela Harris, associate dean of the Educational Access Center (EAC) and an associate professor of education. 

The EAC, in accordance with The Americans with Disabilities Act, works to ensure that access to education is equitable for every student.  

“What we try to do is include faculty, students and staff to be able to navigate their disabilities and navigate the classroom in a way that makes it equitable,” Harris said. 

A mentorship program through the School of Education, headed by professor Denise Necoechea, pairs students with disabilities who fill out an application with an academic mentor, social mentor or both. Mentors are also students who apply for the program and take a class with Necoechea in which they follow a national curriculum on how to mentor students with disabilities in college settings. 

Harris said that Necoechea is working with the University to create a concentration in disability studies that anyone can take to add to their degree starting this fall. 

At Seattle Pacific University, Barton became interested in combining disability studies and theology as an undergraduate. She dedicated her time to reading thousands of pages of disability theology as she was inspired to create a solution to the problems she saw.

During college, Barton worked as a caregiver for children with medical complexity and disabilities and noticed the lack of support from communities of faith for these families either because some considered their children’s access needs too complicated or that they were too “disruptive.”

“This really bothered me, as someone hoping to become an OT and who really understood disability not as something wrong with individual bodies or minds, but with inaccessible social structures and stigma. So when I went to OT school, at the same time I devoted myself to reading all the disability theology I could,” Barton said via email.

Barton attended seminary during her first job as an OT and has explored this intersection ever since. 

“What keeps me going in this work continues to be the clients I have worked with, my own disability experience and that of loved ones, and my sense that all professionals need ways to honor the complex lives, gifts, and leadership of disabled people. No one should be exempt from asking these kinds of questions and acting toward disability justice,” Barton said. 

Barton chose the theme of her lecture series: “Beyond Intercession: A Disabled Theology of Prayer” because of questions that came up for her after reading and teaching Amy Kenny’s book, “My Body Is Not a Prayer Request.”  

“I was drawn to the question, ‘if those of us with disabilities aren’t prayer requests, then what? What do the disabled experience, and what do disabled bodies and minds, witness within practices of Christian prayer? How does disability expand and challenge the ways we pray and the ways we know God in prayer? How does disabled prayer enable new kinds of Christian action in the world, toward the work of justice?’” Barton said.

Kelle hopes that Barton’s unique expertise can provide the PLNU campus with a space in which these questions can be discussed in depth. 

“When you think about prayer and disability, you usually only think about prayers for healing, prayers for intercession, so I’m thinking — I don’t know cause I haven’t heard them yet — that she’s [Barton’s] trying to kind of push beyond just thinking about prayer in terms of healing or intercession into: how does the reality of disability shape the way that we think about prayer, and what we do in prayer, what does prayer mean, all those kinds of things,” Kelle said.

Barton said she has considered the Apostle Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians and is compelled to act.

“If we want to honor the diversity of identities that we all bring to our worship, work, and life in the world, we must consider disability, grapple with our internalized ableism, and take active steps to pursuing justice related to disability in the church and world,” Barton said.

Barton also serves as a consultant in fostering church communities that are inclusive of and offer belonging to disabled people and calls for the welcoming of disabled people holding positions of leadership.

“We should hear preaching about disability in our churches. We should have Christian formation offerings that focus on things like ableism and disability justice. We should see disability issues not just as a special interest or niche focus for a few people in our congregation. Disability ministries that are largely separated from the day-to-day life of the church should be reimagined and refocused.”

The lecture series is free and open to the public. Each lecture will be held at Crill Performance Hall and will last 50 minutes. The following schedule can be found online.

Feb. 12

11-11:50 a.m.

Lecture 1: “Lord, Teach Us to Pray: Practicing Disabled Prayer”

Feb. 12

1:30 – 2:20 p.m.

Lecture 2 – “Bless the Lord, O My Soul: Prayer as Disabled Joy”

Feb. 13

9:30 – 10:20 a.m.

Lecture 3: “There We Sat Down and Wept: Prayer as Disabled Lament”

Feb. 14

8:30 – 9:20 a.m. 

Lecture 4: “On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Prayer as Disability Justice”