Luke 18:35–42 tells the story of a blind man sitting by the side of the road when a crowd passes by him. He is curious about the commotion and is told that Jesus of Nazareth is walking by. He cries out to Jesus for mercy and is immediately rebuked and told to be quiet by those leading the way. In his desperation, he cries out louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus responds and restores the blind man’s sight.
In July 2005, I lay in the critical care unit of a Colorado hospital screaming this prayer. Unlike the blind man, no one could hear me because I had a breathing tube crammed down my throat and no
audible sound could come out. However, I knew and believed with every fiber of my being that Jesus Himself heard me and had mercy on me.
My husband, Aaron, and I were in a tragic automobile rollover that summer. Traveling down a two-lane highway in our rental convertible with the top down, Aaron was forced to make a split-second decision to avoid hitting a truck that had stopped in front of us. Our car rumbled through a field, hit a ditch that launched it airborne, and landed upside down on the other side of the road with both of us trapped underneath.
I was hanging by my seatbelt. My head was pressed on the ground with my chin pushed down on my chest blocking my windpipe. I remember seeing my legs and thinking they had been cut off because I couldn’t feel them. Realizing what happened, I said to Aaron, “I broke my neck.”
My neck was broken, and my spinal cord was crushed, which left me paralyzed from my shoulders down. I was now a quadriplegic.
For nearly six months, I was in a rehabilitation hospital trying to learn the skills necessary for assimilating back into the “real” world as a disabled person in a wheelchair. When I finally came home in January 2006, my physical perspective on the world had changed drastically. I was much shorter in a wheelchair, and much wider! Doors were narrower, hills were steeper, people were bigger, bumps were bumpier, and steps, stairs and barriers were everywhere.
Often people’s attempts at being polite and kind ended in embarrassment for me as I became the recipient of so much curious attention. Any sense of anonymity and independence was completely gone. This was a traumatic change for me as an independent and introverted person who does not like being the center of attention. Just as there are physical and emotional consequences for becoming disabled, there are also social consequences.
I noticed that other people were uncomfortable with me, just as I was uncomfortable being in a wheelchair. As a pastor, I found this extremely difficult. I was used to talking so easily with others, and I was usually
described as an approachable person. But now people didn’t know how to act or physically orient themselves around me. I couldn’t shake hands anymore.
The headrest on my wheelchair made hugging awkward, so a lot of people would kiss or pat the top of my head instead. Rather than stand in front of me to have a conversation, people would stand beside me or even slightly behind me. Because the volume of my voice was affected by my paralysis and because I was so much shorter than before, people often couldn’t hear me.
The church where I was on staff, and still attend, happened to be redesigning the front of the sanctuary at the time of my accident. When my condition’s permanence was realized, a ramp was worked into the design so I could still access the platform when I spoke. I was so touched by the sensitivity of that gesture. It made me realize two things: (1) These people thought I still had something to say in spite of my physical condition. (2) They still wanted to include me in ministry. They gave me accessibility and inclusion.
Jesus said in Luke 14:12–14, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
I really can speak only for myself as there are a myriad of different kinds of disabilities. But as a pastor who has been on the able-bodied side of ministry and the disabled side of ministry, I have observed that often the church does not invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” as Jesus instructed. Maybe if there is a special prayer or healing service scheduled, these people are invited. But including disabled people — simply sharing in their faith journey and being involved in each other’s lives — is not a common experience in many churches.
Most churches make an attempt at physical accessibility. Ramps are installed, bathroom stalls are widened, and parking spaces are labeled. However, because churches are exempt from meeting Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, many churches fall short of having truly accessible buildings. Many older buildings need elevators. Ramps are too steep. Doors are too narrow. Thresholds are too high. Signs don’t have braille. Sanctuaries often have wheelchair seating, but it’s usually in the back, so the view is blocked when the congregation stands up. Making a building fully accessible could be quite expensive, but Jesus said, “Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Improving accessibility by removing barriers and including the poor, crippled, lame and blind is a theme that we see throughout Jesus’ ministry. Zacchaeus was too short so he dealt with the crowd barrier by climbing a tree; the bleeding woman dealt with the crowd barrier by crawling to the hem of Jesus’ robe; the friends of the paralyzed man dealt with the crowd barrier by cutting a hole through the roof!
When we make our churches accessible, we are, in a sense, making God accessible. Our brothers and sisters with disabilities have enough barriers to overcome in their daily lives. Let’s make our churches places that are barrier-free with all people included and valued.
Kari Morris-Guzman is an ordained elder in the Free Methodist Church. She lives in Southern California with her husband, Aaron, and their daughter, Grace.1