Covid-19 has impacted us all; there is no question about that. Whether you have suffered with the virus yourself, watched as loved ones suffer and possible die, struggled with the uncertainty and restrictions or been revitalised by the change of pace and space from other people we have all touched. In the early days of the pandemic arriving on our shores church, like every other entity, frantically closed buildings and reimagined worship, discipleship, pastoral care, mission and more using the various technologies that have become synonymous with the pandemic. Some churches primary focus was on meeting the practical needs of those in their community – the demand for foodbanks and community stores grew as people were unable to afford to pay the bills and in many cases it was churches stepping forward to meet these needs. For other church communities the focus was initially making sure that their members and those connected with the church were staying safe – did those in the most vulnerable categories have access to essentials as the run on toilet paper and tinned goods swept the country? Could they get their medication or access finances and services they needed. The third category of church looked to make sure the Sunday worship service was available to be watched online – pre-recording or live streaming songs, prayers and preaching through YouTube, Facebook Live or Zoom. Small studios were constructed in churches of in people’s homes; cameras, lights, sound equipment and back drops were purchased, technology was utilised to bring multiple feeds into one screen so musicians could play from where-ever it was safe for them to be. Debates ensued about whether communion could be practiced with people gathered on screens but not in person, theological differences became weapons of division or opportunities to learn and celebrate the diversity of the Christian church. Finally, some church communities felt unable to do anything and all activities ceased and may or may not start again as the restrictions ease.
Across all of the different approaches to the pandemic there were some voices coming from the fringes of the church of people saying “welcome”.
Welcome to our world.
Welcome to our lived experience of church always being difficult or impossible to attend in person because of disability.
There was a portion of the church who experienced a wonderful fresh wave of welcome and acceptance finding that what they had been told in the years prior to covid were impossible, too much work, too costly, were all suddenly possible, easier than expected and put into place. People with disabilities were celebrating on social media that they were part of their church community again. People who had been unable to attend worship services, prayer meetings, Bible studies, social gatherings found a whole new sense of belonging as churches could be accessed from their homes.
As the first lockdown was implemented in March 2020 I was writing up some research I had conducted based on information gathered in the months just prior to the pandemic arriving in the UK and found that disabled people very rarely heard from or received any kind of contact from church officials (pastors, priests, deacons, elders, etc) with only slightly better contact from others from the church (presumably friends who chose to stay in touch) when they could not attend the church building in person. Weeks, months, even years, would pass and they would feel forgot by their church community, unloved, unimportant and insignificant. Rarely will churches talk about, preach or teach about disability (unless in relation to sin, healing or lacking faith – all rather unfortunate as usually placing the blame for disability on the disabled person) and so the feelings of rejection and dejection are very real. Imagine then the joy and the hope when churches moved online and those who had been excluded could experience a sense of inclusion and being in the same boat as everyone else. Suddenly the world met them where they were at.
What has since followed is a fading hope, and for many a fear, that those who were overlooked before the pandemic will be overlooked again. There are a myriad of discussions to be found on social media, in online conferences and ‘visioning’ opportunities whereby church leaders are talking about the return to the building (or not to the building but to new forms of “being church”). There is talk about new opportunities, church being different, free from what it was in the past with certain traditions and rituals, old hang-ups and naysayers left to the annuls of history, thrown away and discarded like disposable PPE.
As disabled people cry out “please don’t forget us again” they fear their cries are falling on deaf ears. There is a fear of a return to exile (using the biblical analogies of the Israelites being forced out of the land the inhabited in to live in a different land under the foreign regimes of the Assyrians and later the Babylonians). This analogy falls down because it is a foreign regime which forces the people to leave and prohibits access to their homes and land. I suggest that a more accurate biblical analogy is that of the ancient Levitical laws such as:
“Suppose someone has a skin disease that makes them ‘unclean.’ Then they must wear torn clothes. They must let their hair hang loose. They must cover the lower part of their face. They must cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as they have the disease, they remain ‘unclean.’ They must live alone. They must live outside the camp.”Leviticus 13:45-46
The problem with this is that it is not about disability but about infectious disease. We all know the significance of isolating because of deadly infection virus, at the time of writing we’ve lived through a year isolations, personal protective equipment, testing and so on and so forth. For people with disabilities there is a genuine fear that as the restrictions ease the gathered church will return to a building and they will find themselves cast out as though they are unclean and infectious, or worse insignificant and not even worth a thought.
Some churches have announced they will continue to stream their services, which is a wonderful first step. However, just watching a church service does not compare with the interactions around that worship service. Be it the conversations before or after the service on Zoom as people share about their lives, the opportunity to ask for prayer, being asked to share a reading or participate in the service, joining in the typed chat of a streamed service. As the majority of people return to gathering in a building the sense of community for those on Zoom or watching a streamed version will wane. Before long churches will say “but we are streaming our service, what more can we do?” We must not be defensive of our actions or inactions but we must rather look at the whole of the body of Christ that is the church.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27 describes the church as a body with many parts, none of the members are more or less but they do each have a unique role. In a body the eyes, hands, feet, all play a different role for the benefit of the whole body. People with physically disabilities can tell you about the challenges of lacking the use of a part of the body but they will also demonstrate how challenges can be overcome. Within 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 its speaks of the unseen parts, the parts seen as weaker actually having special honour and being treated with special care.
The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honour. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honour to the parts that didn’t have any. In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy.1 Corinthians 12:23-26
Too often disabled people are not seen and rather than being given the God ordained special treatment that enables equality, not a taking of sides but of sharing and caring for one another. The church (and society at large) has an opportunity to listen, to learn from those in their midst who society labels as disabled and to ask, to listen, to hear and respond positively. Church is more than watching some singing and a sermon, church should be the earthly representation of the body of Christ, a family, a community, a place of acceptance, welcome and belonging. Whilst disabled people are overlooked, ignored or considered too much of a burden the body of Christ is being disabled by those who fail to honour, fail to offer the special care, fail to allow disabled people to speak into the life of the church and fail to allow them to bring the gifts, skills and care they offer. If churches return to gathering as they did before the pandemic and neglect disabled people it is not a return to exile it is a casting out from the community with a message that disability is unclean and in doing so the body of Christ is disabled and made unclean. As the church we can and must do better. The conversations about what God is calling his church to be and do must include the voices (and other means of communication) of disabled people.