July 01, 2021
One of the crucial things to remember about the people that we strive to honor and advocate for on the synod’s Diversity and Justice Task Force (people of color, LBGTQ+ folks, women, and people with disabilities) is that we are ALL different, both from folks in the general population AND from each other. We have different politics, skills, experiences, and personalities. On the one hand, it can be helpful for folks on the margins to band together for resources and support. On the other hand, being a part of such groups can tend to make your life all about one thing, and we are all about many things. As a pastor who serves from a wheelchair, I am one of the very few like me in the whole ELCA. I am both disappointed and relieved that there is no such thing as a “Disabled Clergy Group” in our synod.
As human beings, we are naturally nervous around people who look or act differently than we do. One of the greatest sources of isolation and misunderstanding is our difficulty in asking our questions out loud. When it comes to people with disabilities, I gladly make myself available as a resource for pastors and congregations, but in a nutshell, my advice is ASK!
Ask before jumping in to help somebody with a task. Sometimes disabled people greatly appreciate your help pushing a wheelchair, opening a door, etc. But other times we prefer to do the job ourselves, even if it is harder or takes us a little longer. And sometimes your jumping into help us throws us off balance and makes the job harder than if you never showed up. Over the years, I have learned to receive help graciously (mostly), but sometimes letting someone else help us is the hardest thing ever!
Ask people about their stories. This is good advice for any new person you meet. Almost everybody likes to talk about themselves, especially to a sincere and caring audience. Don’t whisper and point. Just ask me straight up, and I will tell you. Kids are great models for this. They have not learned to be afraid like most of us adults. They put their questions right out there. I would much rather that people ask me than be afraid of me. At the same time, if you ask me to share myself, please be willing to share yourself as well. It’s called friendship.
Ask people to help you. People with disabilities have lots of other skills and interests other than their disabilities. Learn about our hobbies and passions, just like you would anybody else. In a congregational setting, don’t forget to ask the person with the disability to consider serving on the Youth Ministry committee, the Stewardship committee, or the Church Council. And don’t assume that a person can’t do something because of their disability. We are almost always the best judges of what we can and can’t do. When I was a Campus Pastor at Georgia Tech, one of my interns happened to be a little person. Max is physically strong with a servant’s heart. When the students and I would go on outings in downtown Atlanta, Max regularly volunteered to push me. It took me a while to realize how funny it must have looked to others to see a little person pushing my wheelchair. We didn’t care. Every time we crossed the street, Max would say, “if somebody runs over us, it’s definitely a hate crime!”
How should you treat a church member on crutches, a female pastor, a black Council President, a gay parent of the youth group? Like a person! From there, ask them about themselves and listen. You’ll learn everything else you need to know.
Pastor of Spirit of Peace, Richmond Hill, GA
Chair, Diversity and Justice Taskforce