My first day attending North was uneventful. The second marked a turning point not only in my choice of church but also in my life and relationship with God. Three things happened that day; and I have come to realize that they had to happen in this particular order. They paved the way for a transformational experience in my thinking about church and my understanding of my calling. It has taken nearly eight years for me to understand the experience well enough to put it into words and be able to act on it with maturity. I'm glad that I gave myself and God time to reach this point!
Dad and I picked up a student from AU that morning. When we arrived, he dropped us at the door and went to park the car. As I entered the church building, the greeter handed a bulletin to the student. After we had located a place to wait for him, the greeter approached us and began asking me questions about blindness. She did not introduce herself, ask my name, welcome me to the church, or ask if I minded the questions. Down the hall, a child shouted, "Mom, she can't see," probably pointing at my dog guide. His mom responded loudly, "I guess not."
Later, my mom said that I should have treated the incident as a ministry opportunity. I didn't want to treat it as a ministry opportunity. I had been frightened and lonely. I was the one in need of ministry at the moment, and I had decided never to return there. I would not attend church where I was expected to serve as Exhibit A on blindness. I was a person with feelings and needs, and I needed and wanted to be treated as such!
God had other plans for me, and He designed the day so that my heart would be softened and then opened wide to embrace the very church where I was sure that I felt so unwelcome. Unable to read the bulletin, I was unprepared for any of the participants in the leading of worship to be familiar to me. Someone did a narration that morning about "tiny Jesus" (because it was Christmastime). Her speaking style was something I can never forget. She is passionate about whatever she says, and she enunciates very clearly. People use the word "soulful" to describe her presentation. But besides that, she was an old college friend who used to converse in French with me. So I just sat there in amazement that anyone who had been friends with me at AU was even still in town. If she was there and still interested in getting together occasionally, maybe I would try this church again. I made a bit of a scene with my dad about finding her after church--it turned out that she was the children's ministry director and we found her surrounded by five-year-olds. We exchanged numbers, and she did make time for me. Her name is J.J.
The other thing that happened that morning was that an elderly couple saw me and made a point to speak to me. That was important because they were one of the families who had given me rides to church at East Side. Jean Blocker had also worked as the secretary in the disabled student services office. AU's DSS office was much better at dealing with learning disabilities than with blindness; but they did make a good effort to learn about my needs, and Jean made a lasting impression on me because she always cared about how I was doing and spoke to me just as she did to any other student. How they ended up at North I don't know, but they are still there and actually serve as greeters. If I had gone in a different door, they would have been the ones to greet me. But I think that God meant for me to have that negative experience so that I wouldn't be complacent, and He meant for me to have the positive experience so that I would be willing to persevere.
I always believed that my painful experiences had some kind of value; but before this experience, this belief was very abstract. Someday, I believed, the experiences would teach me something, would be things I could count worth going through. On this day, I began to learn that what I was experiencing was instructive for me right now. Many people with disabilities, when confronted with a situation such as the incident with the greeter, would do exactly what I did: make up their minds not to return. The wound of non-personhood can be inflicted so quickly! It takes the J.J.'s and Jean Blockers to heal it; and many people don't find J.J.'s and Jean Blockers when they go to church. I found them because I had known them in the past. Without that history, I would have had only the negative experience.
So the experience was eye-opening for me about the "normal" experience of people with disabilities who might dare to come to church seeking to find Jesus and instead find that they are expected to serve the curiosities of the church membership. The experience also served to show me what is needed to address the problem--and to awaken my heart to my calling. My interests are not separate! They are all part of the same puzzle that God is putting together: a puzzle about breaking down barriers of accessibility and relationship in the church.