Early in my Contextual Education II placement at a local Methodist church, I shadowed a communion visit. Bread was broken. News was shared. And, in minutes, the lay minister was ready to leave. I took more time. I opened a conversation about feelings of depression and the struggle to accept care. Tears came, then truth. The congregant’s wheelchair was new to her. There was no real reason she could not come to church, but she feared no one would take her where she needed to go. She was used to caring for others, not being cared for. I made clear we needed her back, that she was as important to our church community today as she ever was.

While some people were thinking this congregant would never return to church, my training pushed me deeper. I had learned the power of depression and identity crisis. I also knew from my pastoral care class that advocacy is part of care. In my Contextualized Education Elective on Church & Disability, I was learning how control of a wheelchair is sensitive, and that it is not healthy to be “shut in” because of disability. I did not let it go. I had the church van on standby. I found someone she trusted to invite her each week, promising to be with her at all times. There were more tears the morning of her reunion with the congregation. Happy tears.

linda-story-3.jpgA semester of rich theological reading on disability transformed my understanding of pastoral care and gave me the drive in Con Ed II to evaluate everything from children’s ministry to the physical plant. With help from my preaching class, I framed these efforts in theological terms from the pulpit. Every level of my theological training came into play. In fact, academic analysis I did in my first year on understandings of sin and salvation among the church’s oldest members led to a combined study with Millennials the next year. The younger group had a chance to hear how Wesleyan faith can and does sustain people in times of depression and poverty, war and sickness, grief and aging. Elders felt heard and valued, and were inspired by the energy of younger members. Today, a full year later, I am no longer serving as a pastoral resident, but I have been gratified by reports that efforts are continuing forward. The two Sunday School groups have again decided to join up for a six-week study. This time, the joint study was entirely member initiated—a request from the older group and supported wholeheartedly by the younger one. Not only that, Church Council leaders report accessibility concerns continue to be discussed regularly. 

I left Con Ed II in May of last year and returned to my home congregation in Michigan for the summer. Through the Candler Advantage program, I had the chance to launch a new liturgy specifically designed for families with young children and those with disabilities. It was a short project, just ten weeks, but those weeks altered how the church worships, and how it interacts with a seventeen-year-old member who has autism. A concurrent directed study in evangelism under Arthur J. Moore Associate Professor of Evangelism Wesley de Souza also allowed me to open conversations with people from my home community about evangelism practices that harm those with disabilities, and those that heal. The result was a four-episode podcast designed to help future evangelism students to consider evangelism more holistically, thanks to disability perspectives.

Summer led to fall, when I had the opportunity to study abroad through Candler at the Stockholm School of Theology. In a largely secular country, I saw how the church continues its presence, lives into its parish-call, and sees itself as key to the life of the whole community—not just for church members and regular attendees. More actively than ever, I am preparing for my own call into parish ministry. I am thinking about how I can be a light to the community where I am being sent. I hope and pray my new church will find creative ways to reach those who need more access to the love and support they have already found in their fellowship together. Excitingly, my Bishop is sending me a place where the desire to do this work is already evident. An accessible building renovation is in the works.

I pray earnestly for the ability to articulate the love of God, in all its rich complexity, in ways we all can draw hope from. I pray I can help my new community express the love of God compassionately with one another and with the world. Please pray for me as I transition and bring these skills and passions into full-time ministry. And thank you—again and again.