Some years ago I was the pastor of a venerable congregation in Ohio with a name you would recognize, mostly because of the vegetarian meat analogs that were manufactured there.
The congregation had outgrown their old church, and we were building a new one. As we were planning the new church, I remember asking one of the elderly saints who’d been on the building committee of the church we were moving out of, “Why, when you built this church in 1952, did you include so many steps?” (I’d already seen that many of the older saints didn’t come to church because of the high steps, and there had been a few serious falls on them. Bathrooms were down narrow, steep stairs.) He chuckled and said, “At the time, most of us were young. Our legs were strong. It didn’t cross our minds that people would ever have difficulty getting in and out—because we didn’t.”
The new church we built was, of course, quite different: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made sure we built with access for people in wheelchairs. Folks returned to church who hadn’t been able to attend for years.
(Parenthetical note: laws such as the ADA are, I think, why Paul said that sometimes governments enforce God’s will. As much as people complain about the extra expense, the ADA has been an amazing blessing to churches.)
When we talk about inclusiveness, we usually mean the moral imperative of including women, the young, and people of different races and languages and education levels (and a few, like me, would even include LGBTQ+ folks in that list) in the life of a religious movement that has for centuries been dominated by older white men.
That situation has improved—though a surprising number still fight, openly or in the background, against certain aspects of inclusiveness.
But let me now remind you to place on this list of those who need specific inclusion people who are, in some way or another, physically disabled. I don’t mean just providing no-stairs access to church or hearing aids in the pews. I mean a more sensitive appreciation that goes beyond helping them get around—though that is meritorious—to accepting and appreciating them as they are.
I read a piece recently by a woman with a partially incapacitating disease who related how often fellow church members communicated with her largely with health advice. “If you would only try…” hydrotherapy, heat, cold, large doses of vitamin x, “following the Spirit of Prophecy,” “a positive attitude,” and, of course, prayer. “The ethos of Christianity,” she wrote, “is that everyone needs healing. Thus, often conversations with me are unnecessarily about how my body needs fixing (which, of course, I already know), rather than them treating me as an interesting person who just happens to have a unique set of challenges.”
I wonder if Paul, were he writing to the Galatians today, might say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, sick nor well, physically strong nor disabled, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Executive Editor, Adventist Today
October 7, 2023
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