Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Forest

Going anywhere for the first time has an added, um, degree of tension, when you are a wheelchair user. Being told that a space is accessible, you learn about 12 seconds after beginning to use a chair, is no guarantee of accessibility. As we parked on Sunday, outside the church where Ruby was to take her first communion, I wondered what we'd face. Many churches I've been in have wheelchair spaces right at the back or right at the front, either would do for me. When I first saw the church and noticed it was fairly new, I did relax somewhat.

When we went into the sanctuary I saw an approach to accessible seating that I'd never seen before. Imagine a room with pews on either side of a large aisle. Imagine that the pews have a gentle curve to them making them form a semi circle around the alter. Now imagine half way round the curve a cut out row is made such that it looks like a little narrow aisle. When you roll down it, you end up dead centre in the middle of the section, with people sitting on either side of you. Clever.

Or so I thought.

I liked the fact that I was sitting 'in' the congregation, not behind it, not in front of it, but in the congregation. I was able to sit right beside those who were with me. Great. And so it was, until the service started. There was a lot of standing. Whenever the congregation stood I felt isolation like I'd almost never felt it before, I was low down in a forest of legs. I could see nothing. I knew, then, that I would not see Ruby's first communion. But, I told myself, it didn't matter, she knew we were there, she knew we had driven up to be part of the day. That's what mattered.

I did catch a glimpse of her going by holding the candle and I did know when she was up front because the kids names were called. I'd have rather been up front or off to the side, the cool looking accessible spot wasn't actually cool to experience.

But there was another thing.

During communion, which I did not take because I'm not Catholic and I'm kind of unrepentantly gay, everyone stood and the priest said to the congregation, something like, "We stand together as a symbol of our membership in the community of God."

Now I know, or at least I think I know, that he didn't mean that I, sitting in the forest of knees, was not a member of the community of God. But ... that's what the words said. And as much as you can shake those words down, that's what they say.

The priest seemed like a genuinely nice guy and I'm sure that he'd be appalled to think that I thought that he might have meant what the words said. But ... that's what the words said. And as much as he may have protested, that's what they say.

I left there having really enjoyed being there, seeing Ruby so happy, having Sadie make and land a perfect jump and twist to land right on my lap, seeing Mike and Marissa so proud of their daughter. Wouldn't have missed it for the world. But I was also left to think about accessibility, community and the power of words.


Like inclusion.

Like isolation.

Like community.

Like communion.


Anonymous said...

I know you don't want to hear it - for you must get so tired of it - but...I would really let the church know how it felt. It would be nice to have other options. Have the middle seats - a treat in many ways - but also some aisle and up front seats. That way you have a choice like everyone else. I have confidence that you being there meant so much to Ruby - it could have held a bit more for you - as in a visual record to stamp on your heart.

Anonymous said...


I'm glad to know you're Catholic, too - and appalled at many of the 'choices' our church makes. I'll leave that there. For now.

I sing at 4:30 Mass at the Princeton U. chapel, which is a mini-Gothic cathedral. I am now using my walker all the time - and I sing sitting down. It just is - and I think that it's very important for other people to see me, as little as I like being on display. I used to try to stand for some of the things we sing - I don't any more. The chapel is accessible - if you don't mind doing an extra long walk - which I do. I won't be able to sing once I can't go up the few steps to the choir seats in the front. I told the director I will now cantor, when it is my turn, sitting.

One day I won't have the energy to climb up and down to the non-accessible crypt where we practice - and I always get the stool. I'm not looking forward to that.

I'm so sorry you didn't have good choices, and couldn't see Ruby.


Glee said...

Some may say that when we notice these little words that exclude us and situations that exclude us ("but they did try"), that we should just "take a break from this activism". But it HURTS and it EXCLUDES and it OTHERS.

Hugs for your hurting Dave :(

JaneB said...

Coming late to this one, doing a catch-up read as a leisurely weekend treat.

I wanted to offer empathy, and I selfishly wanted to tell my church story because I still don't know how to resolve it. I have a tangle of health conditions around depression, anxiety and stress-related physical problems (including far, far too much weight. I honestly think if I went to my GP with a broken finger it would be attributed to my weight...). I have had chronic, long-lasting bouts of laryngitis most winters for the last few years, and although my speaking voice is pretty much fully restored following each bout, my singing voice is just gone. I'm a non-conformist Protestant, and every single darn service involves a lot of standing and singing. As a rather socially awkward person (and single and at the age where nearly all my contemporaries are busy with husbands and babies) the 'music group' or choir or whatever was the only place in the church where I felt like part of a community, not just a visitor. Going and not singing - going and hearing 'lift up your voice' type exhortations and not being able to make a noise - the way that well meaning people kept saying how nice it would be when I was back in choir - well, I did the cowardly thing, and I quit going to church. Crying through every hymn from embarrassment and isolation is not an option, and needless to say losing my voice was pretty depressing... I ought to find another church to belong to. I go occasionally to formal evensong in a denomination whose structure and politics and the actions of their leaders make me really uncomfortable, but at evensong I can be part of the worshipping community because the congregation speaks, it doesn't sing, and I can whisper or speak depending.

So, I empathise. And thanks for 'listening'. I hope I can grow up to be as grown up as you about these things one day!