As I watched my Annual Conference’s Disability Task Force’s presentation, I was so proud, and so inspired. I watched it from the comfort of my home because my autoimmune diseases have destroyed my “thermostat,” and I can’t tolerate heat, so going to Redlands in June is impossible. The last time I was there I collapsed and my husband had to come pick me up and take me home. I don’t remember anything that happened for the next three days.
But that’s not my point. If I had been at Conference, I would have been sitting at the very back of the Chapel, because that is the designated wheelchair seating area. There are a couple of wheelchair cutouts within the Chapel, but they have been set aside for the ushers, and in any case a couple of cutouts aren’t enough for the number of wheelchair users who attend Annual Conference. And that got me to thinking about wheelchair seating in general.
Last Holy Week I attended several churches in my town for special services. My home church doesn’t have any cutouts or special wheelchair areas, but I am free to sit where I wish without fear of blocking anyone else. Before I joined the Praise Band, I sat on the outside edge of the second row, which adjoins an open chapel area. My husband and I like to sit close to the front, and anytime I am not singing, that is where I sit.
For Maundy Thursday I went to a church that had one wheelchair cutout at the rear of a very large church, on the outside edge of the pew. It was extremely difficult for me to see anything. Since it was a very sparsely attended service, I asked if I might move closer, and was told “No.” This was the wheelchair space, and this was where I could sit. (Later someone came up and told me I could sit in front of the first row if I didn’t mind being so close. I gladly accepted.)
Good Friday was observed at another church. This time I was again at the back of the church, behind the good padded chairs, and behind the metal folding chairs, near the rear doors. There were no bulletins and no hymnals on the metal chairs, and I was so far from the front of the church I could barely see or hear what was going on. It was very difficult to participate in the service this way. There was no consideration given to my wheelchair at this church. No one greeted me, no one asked if I wanted to move up, and there were no cutouts, or empty spaces where a wheelchair might fit in.
I compare these experiences with the church next door to the seminary where I studied. They were so excited when they pulled out an entire pew and replaced it with a full row of wheelchair seating, and invited me to be the first to try it out. It was slightly front of the center of the sanctuary, so that one could see and hear comfortably, and there was room for more than one wheelchair, so one wasn’t isolated. Extravagant hospitality, indeed! It always reminds me of the four friends in Mark 2, who dug a hole in a roof to lower their paralyzed friend on a mat down to Jesus to be healed. These were people who believed in accessibility! Can we do any less today?
I have never been a fan of being relegated to the back of the bus, whether it is black people on public transit in the South, or people in wheelchairs in churches today. We deserve a seat in the midst of the congregation, not behind everyone else, not at the outer edge, not somewhere without hymnals or bulletins. Isn’t it time the church that boasts of “open hearts, open minds and open doors” offers “open pews” as well?
Dear Lord, Help us to be like the good friends of old, bringing our sisters and brothers into worship in the middle of our congregations. Open our hearts and minds to find ways to open our worship spaces, so that all can freely worship you. In the name of your Son, the Great Healer and Redeemer. Amen.