When COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in the U.S., many cities and states declared emergency stay-at-home orders. Toilet paper because a scarce commodity, masks became common place, schools switched to e-learning, all but the most essential businesses went remote, and churches closed their doors, making a fast pivot to online. It seemed as if one week everything was normal and the next pastoral teams were scrambling to make church virtual. It was heroic how churches big and small made the transition and shifted to new ways to keep communities together. Pastoral teams, you did a seriously good job!
Like so many, we hunkered down in our house, gathering around a computer each Sunday morning, grateful for the connection that the streamed worship service gave us. We logged into Zoom each week for Bible study and had more regular contact through Facebook messenger groups with people in the church, sharing requests and offering encouragement. In those early weeks, this online presence was a spiritual lifeline that kept us centered and moving forward.
As time wore on, Zoom fatigue set in and the daily messenger chats waned. We were left with just online church and like so many, it wasn’t enough. Online church got us through the early stay-at-home orders, but it didn’t erase our need for in-person community. We have longed for the day when things would “return to normal” so we could be with our church family again.
But as churches open, I am beginning to wonder if we have a place anymore in the church. You see, my son was born with Down syndrome. Over the course of his short two year life, we’ve become regulars with the audiologist, ENT, ophthalmologist, neurologist, neurosurgeon, endocrinologist, physical therapist, developmental therapist, and speech therapist. We were fortunate to ditch the cardiologist early on, but after my son’s most recent pediatrician visit, we added a dermatologist. And because of various health issues, my son is considered high-risk in terms of COVID-19. That means no more daycare and much more diligence on our part to keep him safe. There are days where I feel the isolation that only those who walk closely to people with disability feel. We have to think about so much all the time and COVID-19 has only magnified this; it would be nice, just for a day, to have a break. But as churches have begun their return to in-person gatherings, rather than having a communal space in which to find support, care, and encouragement, I have felt more isolated than ever before. Why? Because many churches, in trying to return to “normal” are unknowingly returning to structures that favor the abled.
You see, disability has both medical and social aspects. Disability is such, first, because people are considered to deviate from socially-constructed norms of how we think a body or mind should work. In my son’s case, an additional chromosome affects the speed of his cognitive and physical development. Right now he’s a 2 ½ year old with the mental development of a 21-24 month old in the body the size of a 1 year old. While he is not “typical,” he is very high-functioning and is developing extremely well and evenly, even if he’s behind his peers.
However, disability also has social aspects. As evangelical theologian Amos Yong helpfully describes, “…people with disabilities are not only individuals who have physical or mental/intellectual challenges; they are people who confront challenges made worse by the attendant social stigmas and attitudes which subjugate them. Hence, people with disabilities not only suffer physically (although some really may not suffer in this sense at all, but non-disabled people impute suffering to them based on normate assumptions), but also are afflicted by the social prejudices that they have to deal with every day” (2011, 12). When a society functions according to a norm defined by those who are “abled,” the society is said to promote ableism. Again, using Yong, ableism “names the discriminatory attitudes, negative stereotypes, and sociopolitical and economic structures and institutions that together function to exclude people with disabilities from full participation in society” (2011, 11).
And it is here that I want to focus – when enforced, ableism excludes people with disabilities from full participation. In pivoting to online, churches did a truly noble thing – they utilized available technology to minister to the whole church and keep the whole church together. The problem with COVID-19, however, is that it complicates a church’s ability to return to in-person. What rules do we follow? Do we enforce masks? How do we distance people? Where do we hold services? How do we balance living in faith with maintaining wise health practices? In the case of COVID-19, a wide-range of people in our churches are now marked as “vulnerable.” For some, this was to be expected. But for many this has come as a surprise since they don’t otherwise consider themselves as having a disability. For still others, perhaps, the pandemic has “outed” them and made public aspects of their lives they had previously kept within more private realms. What is a church to do when there are so many more “people with disabilities” in the congregation?
While it’s not across the board, what I have observed in most churches I am familiar with is an attempt to return to normal, which means doing church like we used to always do church, but now with a little more social distancing and hand sanitizer. But if online church was meant to minister to the whole church and keep the whole church together, the return to in-person should do this as well. And this means putting the vulnerable in the center of the planning, not the periphery. Online church is great as one option for serving people in this time, but when this becomes the sole means to minister to the vulnerable, churches unintentionally contribute to ableist structures and disability mindsets. After all, if online church didn’t work for the church body as a long-term solution, why do we think it should work long-term for the vulnerable within the church body?
When in-person gatherings are unsafe places because people do not wear masks (especially during the singing) or honor the six-foot social distancing rule, or when churches provide separate services for the those who want to wear masks and socially distance and those who don’t, the vulnerable are excluded from full participation. Online church was a life line for us in the early days of the pandemic. But now as we watch people singing without masks and fellowshipping together in a room in which we have no place, we are moved from being participants to spectators. And in this, we are made disabled.
But this doesn’t have to be the last word. There is still time for churches to do a “reset.” Instead of setting the bar at the most abled, what if we set the bar at the most vulnerable? This is actually quite biblical. Though there are many places I could go, let me just mention one.
In Matt 25:31-46, Jesus famously says that in the last days, the righteous will be welcomed into the Kingdom because when he was hungry they fed him, when he was thirsty they gave him a drink, when he was a stranger he was welcomed, when he was naked they gave him clothes, when he was sick they cared for him, and when he was in prison they visited him. “But Lord,” they replied, “When did we do all this?” And Jesus says, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.” Notice something about this list. It is very physical and personal. You can’t do these things virtually. Offering food and drink and clothing, welcoming someone into your home, tending the sick, and visiting the imprisoned are all acts that can only be accomplished in person.
So what does serving the least of these look like in a time of COVID-19? What can churches do to make their in-person spaces a place of full participation? When spaces are only safe for the healthiest, the vulnerable can only look over your shoulder to the table of the Lord— they’ll never get close enough to taste. But, when spaces are safe for the most vulnerable, everyone has the ability to eat together. This will mean that pastoral teams have to be willing to reframe how they talk about the church community and pastors will have to be willing to face the push back from those who think their individual rights as a healthy person should trump the full participation of the most vulnerable. But this simply must be done. Inclusion of the vulnerable is following in the way of Jesus.
Two weeks ago we found a church who invited everyone to come. In their words, they deliberately put “the most vulnerable to COVID-19 in the forefront of [their] planning” and “set the bar at the most vulnerable.” As we joined together for an in-person worship gathering—the first in five months, we felt wanted and loved. And as we ate together at the table of the Lord, we did so in the joy and embrace of full inclusion because we were provided a place to fully participate.
Churches, crises afford us opportunities to evaluate our norms and envision the new. Let’s not waste this crisis but rather use it to become churches where people of all abilities enjoy opportunity for full inclusion. After all, this is a win-win for the Church because when you set the bar at the most vulnerable, you set the bar for everyone.
Yong, Amos. 2011. The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.