By Ericka Short
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1
“Why don’t you go to church?” Is a question a lot of people with disabilities are asked. For lots of people with disabilities, it is not the doctrine that keeps them out of worship. More often it’s the attitudes of the people in the building. The wrong attitude can be more of a turn off than someone constantly passing the offering plate. Beyond attitude, transportation to church isn’t always widely available and people are not always willing to provide written materials in accessible formats. I have been blessed in my life; but I understand that for many people with disabilities, this isn’t the case. Whether we were created by God or Allah, we are all created for enriching the life of the congregation. While I write from a Christian perspective, my goal is to show you that with persistence and a strong mentor, you can become a valuable member of a congregation with a disability who makes unique contributions.
I grew up in a church that is for the most part very liberal. I didn’t have large print materials until I was confirmed, but as a kid it mattered less because I could “sniff” the Hymnal, and choir materials could be run off larger on the copier. Why modify for all? Later a senior who needed large print made this happen. Now large print hymnals and bulletins are available every Sunday.
As a kid I was busy assisting in the kindergarten Sunday school room, singing in choir and reading occasionally in the service. I had the most fun in our “Loaves and Fishes“ group in which one kid wrote the scripturally based plays and we performed them for worship, Sunday school, and other church events. Everyone involved had known me for most of my life so I was accepted like any other kid, which was important for those crummy teen years. Who else can say they played Lois Lane in a church production? I also have funny pictures of me doing a mime act in college with the “Foolish Wisdom” clown troupe. We passed “peas” instead of peace!
Much of my acceptance in church can be attributed to the support of my mentor, Laverne Springer. She expected me to do the same things in congregation as everyone else. I volunteered. I sang in the choir. Some people are very scared to put people with disabilities on a stage, but she took me in. Without her support and encouragement, I probably would’ve been much more fearful about being a part of society in general. I call her my mentor because she’s one of those people that didn’t look at me as someone with a disability. She looked at me as a person and without knowing it she built that bridge from the sighted to the not-so-sighted world. As she got older she started to lose her vision, and she would call me sometimes or ask me at church, how do you do this? She could see herself in me. She understood wanting to remain active.
I’ve taught Sunday school, led bible study for adults, and served on committees as well as taken communion to the home-bound and even served communion in church and lectured. But this isn’t. something that happened overnight as an adult. My Lutheran church has been good to me and the one I joined when I recently moved to Madison promises to be the same. I had some pastors tell me I couldn’t teach Sunday school because I am disabled. “Why can’t you just be happy singing in the choir?” It never occurred to me I couldn’t do something!
After taking a year off I got back into teaching. Kids still tell me I am their favorite teacher! I bypassed the need to read print by working with the preschoolers and we did lots of active things, and when I worked with the older kids we let them help by reading to the younger kids. I had great people who believed in my abilities and didn’t ask how I was going to do something even though I carry a cane. Kids didn’t care either. We talked about differences and it was ok. I told them God made us all different, otherwise the world would be dull with just purple crayons in the box. They were still rowdy and sneaky but they knew who was boss. I taught alone many times when we couldn’t get someone to fill in. Parents trusted me and wanted me to be on the church council to represent education, but I declined. I write this not to brag, but to show you that you shouldn’t give up. People are going to eventually let you do something. Be persistent. Be cheerful. Be proactive. Don’t be afraid of those that walk by and talk about you, thinking you can’t hear. They aren’t ready to learn what gifts God gave you yet. If the congregation doesn’t feel right, check out others. Your needs and gifts will bless the congregation that is ready for you.
I have also used my gifts of writing, reading in public, emotional support, caring, teaching and access to help others learn about the abilities of people with disabilities, deepen their faith, and pass from this life to the next joyfully. I have also learned things about myself that I have used in work situations. I knew I could be a part of God’s amazing world even if my sight disappears, but I never thought I would be doing Habitat for Humanity work, leading bible study, asked to be on a council or representing our congregation in the local faith based human rights organization, advocating for transit issues, immigration issues and fair wages. All I wanted to do was help somewhere. God really does work in mysterious ways. I am proud to be His child.