It was the end of 2004 when Liam finally convinced me to travel to an out-of-state conference that I’ll call TheOnly. Liam had gone previous years and really wanted Tara and me to join him. In fact, the previous winter, he had even offered to take over our commitments so that we might have the chance to go to this conference.
By now, the word “conference” alone conjured a bitter taste in my mouth and anxiety in my heart. The first botched healing attempt I had ever received had been at a conference, and I was not excited to go. Liam knew this, so he worked and worked to convince Tara and me this was an experience we needed to have.
Attending a national conference with thousands of young adults who spent all day for three days worshipping, praying and listening to Bible teaching did not sound like fun. But my close friend, Sally, lived in the same city where the conference would be held, and I very much missed her. I figured seeing her would be a good reason to go, even if that was the only redeeming factor.
Liam was thrilled.
I was thrilled because I had gotten to spend an eight-hour car ride with Sally (who had been in town for the holidays) and Tara, where we all screamed along to Kelly Clarkson songs until we were hoarse.
Once we arrived, though, I felt totally overwhelmed. I don’t like crowds or a ton of noise, and there were over 10,000 people at this conference. It was very easy to feel lost in the shuffle, which I did, instantly. Tara and I had previously been to a regional TheOnly conference, when we were in college, but this was so different.
FAITH AND REJECTION:
I had brought my wheelchair for the conference, because the venue was so big. (Liam had assured me it was not a problem to transport it, and I was glad to have it along.) That first evening, Sally, Tara and I lined up to enter the convention center.
We were immediately motioned aside by an usher:
“You need to clear the aisle.”
Surprised, we did as she asked. All the while, she kept talking:
“There’s no place for that here,” she said brusquely, dismissively motioning to my chair (which I was obviously still occupying.) “The only place for wheelchairs is under the bleachers.”
There are no words in the English language that adequately convey what her words did to me. How they felt. How deeply they wounded. Nearly a dozen years later, the shock is still palpable. The anger that masks the hurt underneath is still quick to rise. To be so obviously dismissed, so clearly objectified and dehumanized at an event I had traveled eight hours and paid to attend made me feel like dirt on the bottom of her shoe. I felt unworthy to go inside. I felt like my disability meant I had to be hidden away, so I did not distract all the able-bodied people who traveled, who paid, who came to experience God here. I felt humiliated and ashamed.
I felt forsaken.
Tara and I immediately turned around and went back to the main doors to seethe in anger. Sally had disappeared inside, determined in her quest to find us seats, not letting the usher deter her.
“What. The hell. Was that?” Tara demanded. “What was she even thinking?”
“Whatever! I knew I shouldn’t have come! This kind of stuff always happens!” I replied, trying desperately to distance myself from the pain.
“She said the only place for your chair was under the bleachers!”
“I know! I hate this! I hate her!”
“Like, ‘Bye, Tonia! Have fun in the dark hole of a cave we stick you in while the rest of us worship God?’”
“Pretty much! How am I supposed to see anything from under the bleachers? What does she want me to do? Sit under there alone while all you guys are literally on top of me, enjoying everything?”
“Oh, I’m not enjoying anything!” Tara reassured me. “This whole thing sucks! I want to leave!”
“I wish we could drive! I don’t even want to stay here at all! I just want to drive back right now! I don’t care how long it takes! Obviously, they don’t want me here!”
After a good ten minutes of ranting by the main doors, which were opening and closing to the late-December chill, I was freezing and reluctantly moved closer to where the horrible usher had singled me out, in an effort to get warm.
Just then, Sally reappeared. “Hey, I found us seats! Come on! ...What’s wrong?” she said, registering the anger and hurt on my face.
“I’m not going in there. Why would I? So that woman can yell at me again?” I insisted. “No. There are no seats for me! There’s no place for me here! They said there aren’t seats!”
Sally was unused to my anger but did not shrink back. “Yes, there are seats, and if you would have stayed around and not gotten so pissed off, I could have shown you that there were.”
We finally got inside and Tara and Sally sat down. Seeing that I was still upset, Sally began talking, trying to combat the negativity I’d heard:
“It’s such a blessing that we found seats for all of us! Tonia, you could totally add this to your list of ways God has been faithful to you this year!” She moved behind me and began to rub my shoulders. When that didn’t work, she came around in front of me and kept trying to encourage me. “Just let it roll off your back. We got seats. Everything is okay.”
But everything wasn’t okay. Us finding seats did not negate the tremendous pain I experienced at the usher’s words. Though I was trying, I could not get it together.
“Are you okay?” Sally asked.
All I could do was shrug. I hurt so bad inside.
Sally put an arm around me and that was all it took for me to break. I felt like I had no business being there at all, according to those in charge. And, for the most part, Liam and my other friends had hardly spoken a word to Tara or me since we arrived. All that mattered was that we had come, that we were there, where they wanted us to be.
Nobody considered what might happen to us when we got there. None of our friends were physically disabled. They didn’t know the kinds of things I had to think about when I traveled, how overwhelming crowds could be, or how easily place-blindness could cause me to become lost. I had no idea I was going to be treated like some dirty, broken object that no one wanted to even see there.
So, I cried. And Sally held onto me, and did her best to reassure me that Jesus did want me to be there. That He had prepared a place for me. After five or ten minutes, I felt a little better, and Sally stood up to worship. Seconds later, she turned around, and asked, “Did you want to stand up?”
I said yes, so we stood together. She supported me, so I could stand and raise my hands, worshipping God through my pain.
|[Image is: a cropped picture of me, on the last day of the conference, smiling a rare smile.]|
FAITH AND DYNAMITE:
I wish I could say it was different the rest of my time at TheOnly. But over the three days I was there, three or four complete strangers approached me. They either told me, straight out, that God was going to heal my legs or “I don’t know what’s wrong, but can I pray for your legs?”
I said no to the prayer, now confident that there was nothing wrong with me. I took refuge in the prayer room while everyone else was in the convention center, wanting to be somewhere people would not bother me. I had a journal with me at the time, and wrote:
“I don’t know why, but I just felt incredibly unsettled in [the convention center]. My gut [says] that it was [because of] the people who kept randomly touching me. Because now I’m so tense and I couldn’t spend another minute in there...I don’t know what’s up with me. Hopefully, I can relax and settle down.”
The single exception to all those people who could not resist putting their hands on me without consent, or asking to pray for my legs was, ironically, another stranger. I was just 23 and he was older than that, perhaps, in his thirties. It was the final day of the conference and I could not wait to get out of there.
“Excuse me…. Can I talk to you?” he asked, in the hallway outside the convention center.
“Sure,” I agreed. I didn’t want to write off every single person as a rude jerk, especially if they weren’t. So, I still had faith in humanity, but my guard was also firmly in place.
“I just wanted to tell you that God showed me...”
I braced myself. I knew all about what God “showed” people about me. My legs. My chair. I wanted to cut him off, with a brisk, “I’m not perfect, I know. Can we just move on?” but I didn’t. I held my tongue.
“...That you’re a really strong intercessor,” he finished.
“Really?” I said, surprised.
“I just see dynamite in a small package when I look at you.”
I was floored. It was the first time in the five years that I had been attending church again that someone came up to me with a message from God that had nothing to do with my disability.
By the end of the conference, though, I still felt disillusioned and bitter. There was no redeeming moment for me. Even the comments from Dynamite Guy could not rectify or justify the things that I had experienced.
FAITH AND FORGIVENESS:
The Sunday after we returned home, the service at The Edge was informally dedicated to hearing about what God did at TheOnly, since a lot of people from our church had attended. The acting pastor that day simply said if anyone had anything God was laying on their hearts to share to come and share it.
Sharing in front of the congregation about TheOnly was, frankly, the last thing I wanted to do. However, in the culture of this church, it was believed that being uncomfortable was a good thing, and it meant that God was at work in your life. So, I went up and sat in the long line of people at the front of the sanctuary and waited for the microphone to get to me.
“I...really don’t want to be up here. I’m really shy. I don’t like speaking in front of people...but God wants me to, so… I have to ask for your forgiveness. I have a lot of bitterness toward you. I’ve stopped coming to church. I’ve stopped worshipping the way I love to, going up front with some of you to sing and dance. Instead, I sit. I worship in a pew, because you won’t notice me there. Because if I stand and worship, I’m afraid that you will come up and want to heal me, or say I inspire you. I’m really sorry for my attitude and I hope you will forgive me. I hope you understand that I do appreciate the prayers you say for me, but my physicality is not all there is to me.”
(At the time, “physicality” was my code word for disability, due to the fact that I held so much shame around my CP.)
Immediately, the pastor took the microphone from me. I was worried he was going to put me in my place. (The only conversation he had ever had with Tara and me previously was to ask if Liam had given us a ride to church. When we said yes, this pastor said, “That’s so nice. I hope you said thank you.”)
“Tonia,” he said. “On behalf of the congregation, I want to ask your forgiveness. We’re so sorry. Do you forgive us?”
“Of course,” I said, stunned, and never expecting such a turn of events.
After the service, a man I’ll call Steve (one of only a couple physically disabled church members) approached me:
“I wanted to thank you for speaking up," he said quietly. "Thank you for telling them that, because the same thing has been happening to me, and for a lot longer. Thank you for saying something, because nobody else knows how it feels, or how it impacts us.”
FAITH TO TAKE MY POWER BACK:
It seems particularly ludicrous today that I ever asked forgiveness of the people who wronged me.
The truth is, I was functioning within a very specific system. By asking their forgiveness, it meant that I had the floor. It meant, for a few moments, they were willing to listen to what I had to say. And I got to address something really important.
I don’t know that my former church would have ever apologized to me on their own.
I am by no means suggesting that apologizing to people who hurt you is the best course of action generally, and it absolutely is a personal choice. There is no handbook that details how to cope when people in your religion discriminate against you and treat you poorly.
That Sunday morning did not fix everything, but never again did anyone at The Edge ask if they could pray for my legs.