I flinch when the worship leader trumpets, “Let’s all stand to worship God this morning.” This service probably isn’t going to include me. Again.
I’m physically disabled. I can’t stand for long periods to sing, or pray, or greet visitors, or read Scripture. I have never been to a worship service that clearly takes the physically disabled into account, and I’ve been to lots of churches, as both worshiper and guest speaker.
I didn’t become sensitized to the physically disabled until I became one. That gave me a new lens through which to view church ministry. In my last pastorate, we had interpretation for the deaf, and specialized classes and worship for the mentally disabled; a paraplegic sang in the choir. We conformed to every federal and state recommendation regarding physical accessibility. But we never planned ordinary services with the disabled and elderly in mind.
Most church ministries also exclude people like me. The typical men’s ministry is for guys who bowl or hike. Overnight spiritual retreats are for the mobile and independent, golf outings for the hardy, special training for those who drive at night.
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It wouldn’t be hard once or twice a year to plan things that include the disabled: board games, watching the Gamecocks, an evening of humor, meeting for coffee. And it would be heartening for a worship leader to invite the congregation to join in worshiping God, “standing or sitting as suits you best.” This isn’t political correctness; it’s spiritual inclusiveness.
Before my crippling disease, I had no idea how hard it is to be weak in a world that worships sports. And I had no idea how many of us there are, and how many ways there are to be disabled. I don’t blame others for their insensitivity; I was just like them, and completely oblivious.
The church has always been the center of my life, and of my family’s. That’s where I found biblical challenge, encouragement, spiritual and social community, purpose and service. I don’t want to feel invisible and useless at this stage of life, and I want other disabled people to find a home in the church.
Johnny V. Miller
Seminar professor emeritus
Columbia International University