Luke Olsen, a first-year master of divinity student, initially came to Durham, N.C., to work at Reality Ministries, a community ministry that brings together people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. Olsen, had received his bachelor’s degree in theology and minored in both French and Peace Studies at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. He even spent a semester at Oxford University. But he felt like he needed a break.
“I needed to step away from the academic world,” Olsen says. “It wasn’t the healthiest place for me. So much of my life was about being evaluating and getting good grades.”
At Reality Ministries, differently abled people work, play, learn, and grow together. Olsen found himself asking how theology affects people who are often marginalized in society. He had questions, such as what does health mean to someone unable to talk or for a person in a chair with a feeding tube?
How does one minister to a person with disabilities?
Theology and ministry should respond by treating the disabled as fully human. “Everyone is involved within the community,” Olsen says. “The ministry is not a one-way street. And that was certainly the case for me. It’s one big web. We really strive to focus on relationships, recognizing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities often don’t have organic friendships. They have a lot of relationships with people who are trying to help them or do things for them or to them. The first principle of the organization is the reality that God loves every person.”
After completing his internship at Reality Ministries, Olsen decided to stay in the area and attend Duke Divinity School. He is a fellow with the Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) initiative. As part of his fellowship, he works at Duke’s ALS clinic. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It’s commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
At Duke, Olsen has found a place that encourages him to pursue the range of his theological interests. “My specific interest in the TMC program is to think theologically about issues related to medicine, technology, and what it means to have a human body,” says Olsen. “I am especially interested in Patristics and hope to think about how patristic concepts of embodiment, among other things, inform the way we think about community, health, and salvation.”
Olsen feels a call to service, but he’s not sure where that’s going to be. When he reflects on his time at Reality Ministries, he says, “I didn’t feel like I was bringing a lot to the table in terms of experience. It was all really new to me but this has been such an incredible experience for me.”
“Theology challenges the sort of narrative of the perfect person,” Olsen says. “Every human person has vulnerabilities and strengths and ways in which they require help from others and their communities. There’s no difference between people with or without intellectual and developmental disabilities. We have a myth of what the normal person is. I have my own insecurities in the ways I struggle to love and give love to others.”
Olsen wants to practice academic theology in a way that serves the church. The TMC initiative creates opportunities for students, clergy, and health care practitioners to reimagine and to re-engage contemporary practices of health care in light of Christian tradition and the practices of Christian communities.
He plans to explore what it means to be healthy in a human body. How do you embody the love of Christ in a body that has physical limitations? Olsen wants to find language that better reflects, includes, and celebrates all of us.