Please don’t be distracted by disability or afraid to approach. Look at me. See me as a person. I want to belong for who I am. Sadly, this doesn’t always happen.
Back in the fall, I was away for a month. I had never really left the Church of my childhood. After college, I came back to the familiar. I stayed for years. I was comfortable. People knew me. But I needed to go for a time, to branch out, see some new faces, and practice facing moments I fear, barriers related to having a physical disability. I visited a few churches and reflected on my experiences in other faith communities in recent years. This is a sampling of what happened when I was a visitor:
- Sometimes I was told exactly where the wheelchair seating was…In the very back corner…On an aisle off to the side. But it ended up being my bad side and I didn’t say a word. I sat there awkwardly turning my head the whole hour, thinking about how I’d approach the conversation next time.
This made me feel excluded.
- Sometimes there was a giant ramp up to the building, but no solution over a tall marble step.
This made me feel frustrated.
- Sometimes people didn’t greet me. They greeted my friend.
This made me feel invisible.
- Sometimes people turned their eyes away as they walked right by me. Why is a disability such a thing to fear? Does a wheelchair mean you can’t say a simple hello?
This made me feel rejected.
And then I returned to you, dear Church. I didn’t realize how special you were, and are, until I left for a time. I came to an event on a Friday night because I needed to see familiar faces, to be surrounded by people who really know me. Oh you did not disappoint that night. There were so many hugs and “hey Laura”s. One of you asked me to dance. Four of us walked over to see the horses. I joined a bunch of you around the bonfire. I felt your love and care deeply that night. I didn’t know how much I had been missing you until I took some space.
A week later, I returned on a Sunday. I had a profound sense of belonging. I was reassured that I am exactly where I belong. You are my Home Church.
My hope is the Church, as a whole, can grow and learn what it means to include. Disabilities and being visibly different does not lessen the worth or value of a person to be an integral part of the Church. Start real relationships with people. Get to know them beyond the weekly service and you will learn their perspective. This will cultivate a welcoming atmosphere. And this will mean more to the person with the disability than you realize.
Having a Church family that extends beyond the building is such a gift. Since that Friday night and Sunday morning, I have watched God deepen my community even more. I have my people. They found me in the crowd. With their actions, they remind me — I am not invisible. And dear Church, I met those people right here within your walls.
Thank you for being the most welcoming place I go.
I feel comfort.
Thank you for allowing me to teach the kids for years.
I feel included.
Thank you for saying hello and giving me hugs every week.
I feel seen.
Thank you for always accepting me, loving me.
I feel known.