Growing up in the church, the importance of Christian community was impressed on me from an early age. I was taught that Christians were like coals heaped on a fire: so long as we stayed together our flame would burn bright but separate the coals and the flames would go out.
My active participation in church began as a chorister at the age of six. At ten I was asked to do bible readings and hand round the collection plate. By fourteen, I was acting in dramas and assisting with Girls’ Brigade. I preached my first sermon at sixteen, served communion at seventeen and was staffing holiday clubs and summer camps by eighteen. Throughout university I played in the music group, served refreshments, taught Sunday school and helped with numerous outreach events. Then chronic illness struck and I became housebound at the age of twenty-two.
The church I attended did fantastic work with students, pensioners, prisoners, overseas missions and local schools but as a young disabled person I fell through the cracks. This isn’t meant as an indictment of that particular congregation; I know of dozens of housebound Christians of every denomination who’ve experienced the same.
At first I had occasional visitors who told me I was still remembered in prayer but as weeks stretched into months those contacts dried up. Despite all I’d been taught about the importance of church, I found myself entirely alone.
Too ill to actively pursue relationships and too sick even to read my bible, my only Christian contact for two years came from hospital chaplains during times of medical crisis. After a lifetime of Christian fellowship, it was difficult to find my support network gone; we are designed to exist in community and life and faith become much harder when we are forced to go it alone.
I struggled to cling to the last vestiges of my faith when my illness had taken all else of value from me. I was bitter, and angry that after all my years of service the church wasn’t there for me when I needed it most. I felt like I had been chewed up only for church to spit me out when I had nothing left to give.
Eventually, a family member took action and emailed several nearby churches on my behalf. Only one church replied, offering to bring home communion once a month. While I was grateful for this small lifeline, it was a far cry from the kind of fellowship that I was used to. I missed the example of older, wiser Christians and the opportunity to share my own knowledge and experience in return. I missed mutual hospitality and the chance to make a positive contribution to the lives of others.
Feelings of worthlessness at my inability to work were compounded by the realisation that even the church saw me as a tragic person to be ministered to rather than having something valuable to give. Other Christians mistook my frustration for guilt and assured me that I wasn’t expected to contribute so long as I was ill. This would be fine if my illness was short-term but if it is truly better to give than to receive, why should I be denied this blessing just because I am ill?
Most books on disability and church focus only on what can be done to help disabled people rather than consider what they can offer in return. It is assumed that all housebound people must be called to ministries of prayer but is this really the sole calling of disabled Christians or is it simply the most convenient?
Of course prayer should be an important part of the lives of all Christians but this is no truer of disabled Christians that it is of anybody. I greatly admire the tireless intercession of prayer warriors I have known but without a true gift for intercession it is hard to know how to pray for others when you are too sick to follow the news and no longer hear anything of the church and community you are striving to pray for. After years of trying to foster a ministry of intercession, I still have days where I struggle to pray at all. For a long time my sense of failure was overwhelming until it occured to me that if intercession wasn’t my primary gifting before I became housebound, there was no reason to expect it to become so afterwards.
You see the bible teaches that we each have unique gifts and the call to use these gifts is irrevocable (Romans 11:29). My own gifts have always been of a practical nature and that hasn’t changed because I am ill. I am still the same creative, empathetic, deep thinking person I have always been even if I cannot demonstrate these gifts in the same way. I find it hard to accept that God would give me these gifts if he didn’t intend for me to use them.
Many of the things I did for others could still be done from a bed or a chair, but I depend on people letting me know what they need to be done and delivering the necessary materials to me. It has been a long hard road to find new ways of using my gifts through blogging and correspondence. With the support of a church community I might have found this path sooner.
Inclusion of people with disabilities is about far more than just getting them through the doors on a Sunday morning. Changes to the fabric of church buildings won’t transform the attitudes of congregants to seek proper relationships with disabled church members. No amount of wheelchair ramps, hearing loops and hi-tech audio-visual systems will change the fact that I am only one of thousands of Christians too ill to attend formal worship but who need that sense of community as much as (if not more than) anybody.
In recent months the church that brings me communion has started to explore issues of what it means to be a community where people of every background, ability, and circumstance can belong and play a valuable part, not just on Sundays but through the whole of their lives.
I am glad to be included in this conversation, and while I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, isn’t it time we started asking the questions?
Over to you:
Has your own experience of illness left you feeling isolated?
Do you struggle with loss of self-worth or feelings of frustration at not being able to do the things you used to do?
What can your church/other religious community/society as a whole do to integrate the sick, disabled or housebound and value them as unique individuals with a positive contribution to make?