There is rampant ableism that exists in certain churches and in certain Christian mindsets. I am not speaking of every church, nor of every Christian. I am well aware that there are some Christians who think that what I'm about to discuss is as abhorrent as it is. The very first church I attended at age nine (that I was later confirmed in, at age 14) was a lovely place. While it didn't have many kids my age, it had adults who loved and valued the kids. I also never heard a word spoken about my crutches, which I used all the time there.
Once I graduated high school, though, and was experiencing personal difficulties, I reached out to a friend, who invited me to church with them. At first, it was exactly what I needed: community, people who cared, that sense of belonging. Once I started attending outside of Wednesday night youth group, though, I felt a shift.
One thing that very much attracted me to this church was the freedom in it. People were encouraged, not only to sing, during the worship time, but to move around. People jumped up and down, or danced by themselves. Being quite short, and having the lyrics of the songs projected on a screen at the front of the sanctuary, I was often drawn there out of necessity, so I could see the words without being blocked by tall people. But that's when I began to be approached by fellow congregants after the service, who told me how inspired they were to see me during praise and worship. Now, I wouldn't call what I was doing dancing, but I definitely moved and it was this that caught people's attention. They commented on how inspiring it was to see me dancing or standing, or anything, really. Anything that had to do with my physical body, and what it could do.
It happened so much I began to feel self-conscious about expressing myself, for fear of being a distraction to others. There were signs all over church that read “There are no wheelchairs in heaven.” I didn't routinely use mine in church, but I did use one. And seeing that sentiment everywhere made me feel like I was not worthy to even be there. A dirty look and an accusation when I slowly passed a Bible study group on a stairway at a nearby church, because their elevator was out of service.
They’d tell me, “You’re going to dance one day,” despite the fact that I was dancing already. As if it didn't count unless I did it unaided. People in church and outside of it became obsessed with praying “for my legs.” They asked invasive questions. (“Can you walk without crutches? Not even a little? Not even if I hold your hands? You know God is going to heal you.”) I was harassed by the same woman during a meeting to the point where I left the sanctuary and went outside because she would not leave me alone. When there was prayer for healing going on and I didn't go forward, I was the subject of children’s questions: (“Why isn't she going up there? Doesn't she want to be healed?”) Sometimes people didn't ask at all before they moved chairs forcefully away from me and began praying. And when I started saying no to the ones who asked, they got very offended.
I’d naively gone forward at a conference very early on, less than a year after joining the church. I didn't know what to expect, only that I was desperate for acceptance, and if I was able to walk without crutches…if I didn't need a wheelchair…maybe I’d be more acceptable to these people. Less of a distraction. Maybe they’d feel more comfortable around me. So, I endured it when a man took my crutches away from me and leaned them against a seat, in front of a room full of expectant people. They believed God would perform a miracle. I wanted to believe, too. So, when he started walking with me back and forth in front of everyone, holding onto my hands, I went with it. At that point, I didn't feel I had a choice. And as the walking progressed and I realized he was trying to let go of my hands, I was terrified. Cerebral Palsy for me means tense muscles and poor coordination in my legs, as well as a general lack of balance. If this guy let go of my hands, I knew I was going to fall. So, I was determined to hang onto him. He stopped at one point and thrust a microphone in my face:
"Do you believe that God can heal you?" he asked.
I hesitated. “I want to,” I admitted, but couldn't put out of my mind how much of a realist I was or how much of a fantasy this seemed to be. What were the countless surgeries I had endured for? What about the hours of physical and occupational therapy that punctuated my childhood? Were they all for nothing? If God could just take away my disability? So, we went on. And on. And on. Eventually, he gave up.
The pastor of this church told me God had already healed me, but it was my lack of faith that kept it from actually happening. I was crushed.
Is it any wonder that, eventually, I started turning down people’s offers to pray for me?
But it wasn't just at home. I went to a nationwide Christian conference out of state, with a bunch of church friends. While there, four separate complete strangers approached me with messages God gave them about me. All of them related to God healing me physically. And I couldn't help thinking that if God really is speaking to all of these people about me, why wouldn't He tell them that I don’t want to be fixed? And maybe give them an idea of some areas I really could use prayer for? It became very clear that their wanting to pray for me wasn't about God. It was about them. It was about their discomfort with anything or anyone different from them. The first night of that conference, in fact, I wanted nothing more than to leave and never come back when a person in charge at that conference looked at my chair, not at me, and said, “There’s no place for that here. The only place for wheelchairs is under the bleachers.”
What can you take away from this?
If you're disabled or chronically or terminally ill, you can take the fact that you are not alone. After attending that nationwide Christian conference, I went forward and spoke to my congregation about my disillusionment about being constantly asked if people could pray for my physical body. Afterward, an older gentleman came up, one of the only other disabled people in our congregation. He thanked me for what I had said because the same thing had been happening to him for years. So, you are not alone. You don't have to continue going to a church that does not support you and love you. There are other places. There are other people, Christian people, who know that you don't need to be fixed.
If you are an able parent or family member or friend of a disabled person, first pay attention to how people at church interact with your child or loved one. Are they respected? (Their physical space as well as their personhood?) Pay attention to how disability is framed in the church you attend. Often, in Biblical times, things viewed as negative were thought to be brought on by sin. In the New Testament there is quite a bit of "This person's not disabled because of sin but so that God's power can be seen at work in him when he gets healed." That is also damaging and detrimental. Focus instead on chapters like Pslam 139, which resonated deeply with me as a young teenager. Tell that person in your life that the Bible was written at a different time in history when little was known about disability or how to help those with it. If your child or family member or friend confides in you and tells you they are uncomfortable with the way they are being treated, or that they are being discriminated against, please believe them, and don't pressure them to stay somewhere they don't feel safe, loved and valued for who they are.
I hope, someday, to feel at home in a church again, but it is not my top priority. It is, as Rachel Scott once wrote, to: "Create in me, the church, so that wherever I go, I will find sanctuary."