Talking about faith is always tricky. The risk of offending believers is high, even if we, ourselves have once been on the inside. Inside the church walls. Close to the priests and pastors. To God’s people. I think, though, it’s important to take the risk. To talk about the way faith shaped me as a woman with CP. Ways it helped, and ways it hurt.
WHY DO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT FAITH?
I am not a Biblical scholar, and I don’t speak for everyone out there with a disability. (As I like to say, my blog is called Tonia Says for a reason.) I am a layman, with a commoner’s understanding of what the Bible says. My desire is not to offend people, nor is it to debate the validity of my own experience. I’m sharing now because I believe there are more disabled people out there than just me who have known experiences like this. I also think it’s important to talk about because if pastors and other church leadership finds these posts, perhaps they will find that there is something to be learned. Disabled people are one of the biggest minorities in the world, and Christianity is the primary religion in America. The majority of my experience with faith has been that the community does not embrace me, or that I do not fit.
I was late coming to faith. First accepting God as my savior at fifteen, without much understanding of what I was doing, only not wanting to be left out. At eighteen, I was saved again. And again, it was largely the desire for acceptance that drove me, not a spiritual desire of any kind. I went to church until the age of 26, when I left. I didn’t know my last time was my last time, until I could not bring myself to go back. The rejection was just too much.
THE WRONG FAITH:
I wrote about my sister’s and my early birth back in 2009. I also shared the details about what happened, according to my grandma, when a priest was called because we were so premature at nine weeks early, that our survival was unlikely:
[Image is: My sis and me - I’m not sure who is who - being held by our mom. We are one month old.]
No one expected us to live beyond a few hours, and a Catholic priest at a local church was called to baptize "Baby A" and "Baby B".
The priest came, by accounts, annoyed at the early Sunday morning call. Apparently, he looked at my 16-year-old mom, exhausted from twelve hours of labor with two premature daughters and asked her, "Are you Catholic?"
When my mom said no, he refused to baptize us, and left the hospital.
Admittedly, I do not know all the ins and outs of the Catholic faith. I’m not Catholic. Perhaps it was wrong for my grandma and mom to reach out to this priest in particular, as neither were Catholic in the first place, but we were so tiny, and not expected to make it. I imagine my mom and grandma were quite desperate, especially because we seemed at death’s door.
The fact that this particular priest had no apparent compassion for my family’s situation - on the brink of losing two babies - has always rubbed me wrong. I feel there are so many other ways he could have showed love to my family and to us. If baptism was not a possibility by him, he might have gently referred my family somewhere else, or offered to sit with them while they waited for someone who could legitimately baptize us.
We were baptized, as the story goes:
An Episcopal priest was called instead, and he baptized us. We were both so tiny at two pounds apiece, that he could hold my sister and me in the palm of his hand.
FAITH IN HINDSIGHT:
Today, my sister is the person who knows me the most deeply. While planning for these posts, she observed: “As your first experience with religion was essentially rejection, is it any wonder that you were willing to go to any lengths, endure any humiliation, to find acceptance?”
She isn’t wrong.
I do wonder how much of the experience, at two hours old, coupled with a more visible disability that caught people’s attention, informed my eventual experiences with faith.
Over the next few months, you will see just what she means. Just how desperate I was to find acceptance, to find a place to belong. Every Monday, from now through early September, I will be sharing a new post in this summer blog series. I will touch on everything from pre-church experiences to experiences in leadership as an adult. Names and places will be changed.
Feel free to read along, and if you like, share your own story.
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