Imagine with me that we are gathered together in church on a Sunday morning. The melodic sounds of the people singing together in worship are ending. As I look around, it is a beautiful sight. The people of God are bearing each other’s countless joys and many wounds. We may be singing, praying, lifting our hands in surrender or sitting in silence. We may be in awe of or wrestling with the One who is the Wounded Healer. Depending on the particular “brand” of church I am in, either the music stops or the piano plays in the background as the scripture is read. The people of God join their voice in unison with either a hearty “Amen” or a mellow “Thanks be to God.” As I stand up and begin to walk to the pulpit, the sanctuary becomes silent. All I can hear is the sound of my “good legs” (my crutches) echoing as I take intentional steps to the pulpit and sit with my crutches beside me. The possible thoughts in the minds of those gathered are what has caused me angst for so long.
I received my call to preach during the end of my sophomore year of college. I was on the education tract.I was going to complete student teaching and become a certified teacher, teaching English Literature for the rest of my life. Surrounded by the beauty of the Hudson River Valley, of New York, on the path from my dorm to the registrar, I was stopped by one of the few professors who knew I was struggling with my calling. In that moment, in the middle of the road, I was encouraged to take small steps toward God’s call to the ministry. I started by simply taking a homiletics class. On the way to class to preach my first sermon, I had an anxiety attack. It was in that moment, I wondered how I was going to preach. It hit me. I was going to have to preach sitting down. I knew I was not going to be the fiery black preacher who moved around and grabbed the audience’s attention. Yes, as a pastor with a physical disability some of my biggest concerns surround a stool. Will a stool be available for me to sit on? Will the stool be sturdy enough for me to sit on? Will the stool have a back so that I won’t be falling on the floor? As I continue to live into my calling as pastor and preacher, other thoughts flood my mind. How will I serve communion? The thought of spilling, what is to be for us the body and blood of Jesus, is horrifying. I have discovered that the best way to serve is to sit at the table and offer the sacred meal. I imagine this to be the way Jesus shared the sacred meal with his disciples. When I am sitting and serving communion, I am reminded that it is not about me. All are equal around the table, pastor and congregant alike. All are in need of the One who is the Wounded Healer.
Each time I take my “four-legged walk” to the pulpit, my mind wanders to the questions forming in other’s minds. Is she really a pastor or is she coming to give an inspirational message, which has become common for people with disabilities? Can she relate to me?
However, what brings me peace, as I begin to preach the Good News, is the truth that God is the One who has called me to do so. It is my hope as a pastor, who lives with a disability, that I point others to One who is the Wounded Healer. As a pastor who lives with a disability, it is my hope that I contribute to the image of what a “pastor” looks like. As a pastor who lives with a disability, I hope to help give the church a more humanizing language when speaking to or about those with disabilities. Realizing, along with the rest of humanity, we also bear the image of God. It is my hope as a pastor with a disability that I help to expand our theological language to include “The Disabled God.” (A term borrowed from Nancy Eiesland). The broken body, the nail pierced hands of the Wounded Healer, brings healing and wholeness.
As a pastor with a disability, I often imagine myself being surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” being cheered on by the many who have gone before me. As I envision the holy cheering section in my mind, I see some cheering me on in sign language. Some are holding up signs in Braille. Some are seated with crutches beside them joyfully clapping. I also envision people without disabilities cheering me on. This sacred crowd is not cheering me because I have a disability. They are cheering me on because I have answered the call to embody the gospel in a way that reveals the accessibility of God.
Letiah Fraser received her B.S. in Adolescent Education with a concentration in English in 2005 from Nyack College in Nyack New York. She also received her Masters of Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2012. Letiah Fraser has spent the last eight and a half years working as a disability rights advocate. She is passionate about seeing people with disabilities fully integrated into all aspects of Society; which should most certainly include the church. She also serves as a hospital chaplain and is the Pastor of Community Life at Trinity Family Midtown Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City.