In the fall of 2004, I moved back to Anderson in the wake of the active hurricane season, still carrying my dream of opening doors and building bridges in the body of Christ for people with disabilities. I thought that perhaps I could get plugged in at North right where I left off. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way; and by January, 2005, I was looking for a new church, frustrated by intense feelings of isolation and frustration. I was about to have more eye surgery, and I wasn't sure if I should stay at North and take advantage of pastoral care available or if I should trust a new church to "be there" for me. I ended up staying at North, deciding that transition would not likely go well while I was healing from surgery and feeling emotionally vulnerable.
On the day of surgery, no pastor had shown up by the time I was taken in for preparation. I was very disappointed, and this disappointment was cementing my decision to find a new church. But unexpectedly, the room where I was being prepped was too full. I was returned to the other room, where my mom was waiting--and Jim Rogers was sitting there with her! I wasn't thinking about Libby at the time. I was thinking that I was surprised that it hadn't been Steve who had come since he knew me best among the pastoral staff. We prayed, and I was whisked off to surgery. When the nurse brought me back, Jim was still there. I was surprised about this--usually the pastors came and prayed and left. I was good and awake since I had had only a local anesthetic, and I made a mental note in big red letters when my mom told me what she and Jim had been discussing. They had been discussing Jim and Jill's feelings of frustration about difficulties with integrating Libby into church activities, and they had been discussing Jill's observation that "there are no people with disabilities here." Actually there are a couple, but they are people who are elderly and whose disabilities are accepted as part of the aging process.
I decided that before I wrote my decision to find a new church in stone, I needed to try one more time to see if there was an open door regarding disability ministry at North. My discussion with Jim Lyon took place before Libby came to Jim and Jill Rogers. When Libby was a baby the need for disability ministry might not have been something people could understand. When a baby has delays, it's easy to think that she'll eventually "catch up." Libby isn't going to catch up. I'm a stubborn adult, and I will make do with what I have to work with and go to church anyway, even if it's not accessible. I can do that for a few reasons: (1) I'm an adult with the ability to understand hardship and make choices to endure; (2) my disabilities are such that alternative accommodations can be made; and (3) my disabilities are such that lack of accommodations does not result in total isolation from the body of Christ. Libby is a little girl. She can't buck up and do her best, and she can't ask for what she needs--she can barely say "Mama." The children's classes are in the basement, and our church has no elevator. So Jill carries Libby down the stairs and into the classroom so she can be with other children. Libby's disabilities aren't such that she can "make do" without accommodations. Without accommodations, she is completely dependent on the goodwill of the body of Christ for access to fellowship with her peers--and that goodwill is coming primarily from her parents. What does that cost her family? What damage does this do to the body of Christ? Jill doesn't have the option of quietly bowing out of church as many caregivers do when their children are wounded by lack of access and inclusion--she's the associate pastor's wife.
Over the last 18 months, I have persevered at North and have joined a Sunday school class and a small group, attempted again to participate in a women's Bible study on Tuesday mornings but was unable to complete it due to lack of transportation, sang in the choir when my health permitted, and have again begun the process of preparing to lead a small group. Recently, my difficulties with transportation have opened some doors of discussion with one of the other associate pastors. Because the church is outside city limits, paratransit costs double what it would normally cost. Paratransit also fills up quickly during the week due to the limited number of vehicles; and it stops running at 6:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and does not run at all on Sundays. The bus stop near the church office is across the street, and there is not a crosswalk for a mile in either direction and no sidewalks along the road. So working at the church day care was and would be difficult. Getting to church for various activities is very difficult, even though I am eligible for this service. My parents drive me most of the time, even if they don't want to attend the activity I am attending. Members of my small group pick me up for our small group activities even though they all live on the other side of town.
Most people with disabilities--and most of their families--do not continue to attend church when confronted with barriers to access and fellowship. When they perceive that they are set apart or unwelcome, they assume that they can just as easily worship God at home--and sometimes they are even sent home because disability-related symptoms or behavior make them disruptive or difficult to accommodate.
A friend who was in town for the convention a few weeks ago asked me when my passion for disability ministry began. I started to tell him that it began in 1998; but it really began in 1990, when I was at AU. One of the associates at East Side back then told me that 95 percent of people with disabilities are unchurched. It occurred to me in that moment that we have a huge mission field right here in North America that we do not touch. Why? Because it's difficult physically to transport them to church. Because we don't know what to say to them. (How ridiculous! How about, "What's your name? I'm Sarah Blake. Do you live here in town? Tell me about yourself.") Because because because... Ignorance and busyness need to stop being excuses. If they are explanations, then we should move past them and start doing something. A pastor from Michigan wrote to the Church of God email list on June 29 and expressed wonder at why we only experience an average of three conversions per year in the Church of God nationwide. We might experience more if we intentionally built relationships with all these unchurched people...
So why am I going to seminary? Because it is finally time to act on the passion! Fear and laziness need to stop being excuses, and I need to move past the explanations and get out and do something about the mission field! I have a mission, and it's here in America. My mission is:
- To equip the church to reach people with disabilities who have not heard the good news of Jesus by meeting practical needs, making disciples, and including people with disabilities in the community life of the church
- To meet practical needs, make disciples, and devote myself to the building of community in the church
That's as far as I've gotten at this point.