Keeping the Faith

Photo by Steve O’Connor

It was the Lenten season of 1987. In the sanctuary, Pastor Tim Zingale sat in his wheelchair in front of his congregation, right at the edge of the chancel, which, like the sanctuary, was inaccessible. Sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows and pooled in bright reflections on the red carpet that ran the length of the aisle. In his lap, a manila folder held his sermon. Zingale’s white alb, or robe, was accented with the purple stole traditionally worn by Evangelical Lutheran ministers to mark the 40-day period Christians believe Jesus struggled with Satan in the wilderness.

That Sunday Zingale was weighed down with his own struggle, his wilderness the gray-brick church with the blond pews–the last church he would ever pastor. A polio survivor, he had begun using a wheelchair just that year, and his congregation was having a rougher time adjusting than he was.

He took a deep breath, said a silent prayer and began his sermon: about struggles with faith and the will of God–and how God accepts him in his wheelchair even if his congregation couldn’t. “I am tired of those who play games with my faith by accusing me that because God’s glory has not been manifested in some visible way, in total healing, that I am any less a Christian, or have a weak faith, or have a hidden sin, which an anonymous tape sent to me accused me of, since I remain in the brokenness of chronic illness,” preached the gentle, soft-spoken man. “Through Christ, all people, in whatever state they find themselves, are equally children of God. I am no less God’s child in my wheelchair than you are walking on your own two feet.”

It was his last attempt to once again explain his experience, his faith, to the church. Upon the recommendation of the Mayo clinic he had begun using a power chair for long distances and a manual chair for preaching on Sundays. He had to, just to be able to do the services. “People could lift my chair into the sanctuary, chancel, and all that stuff. I did that for a year, but then my bishop wouldn’t support me any longer and the people didn’t want me there. I felt awful, and I was mad. That’s when I wrote this sermon–saying God accepts me in my wheelchair even if you don’t.”

Even pastors who use wheelchairs are subject to the negative assumptions many Christians make of those who can’t just get up and walk after a serious injury or illness–that somehow continued disability of any kind is linked to lack of faith, willpower, right living or blessing. Yet wheelchair-using Christian pastors say that while disability can certainly cause suffering, the cause of much of that suffering is rooted in the attitudes of good Christians who subscribe to what Zingale calls a theology of glory– “that if you’re right with God, then everything’s right in your life, that you have health, wealth and prosperity.”

Zingale’s theology is quite different: “I believe in the theology of the cross, because Jesus died on a cross and through the brokenness of the world we do have strength from God to go on. How did Jesus die on Good Friday if he didn’t have any kind of strength in faith?”

Sue Sterling Montgomery, pastor of the Nickleville Presbyterian Church in Emlenton, Pa., says resurrection and transformation in life are integral parts of her faith journey and her ministry. “I don’t mean in death, because I’m really frustrated with people who say when you die then the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and the blind will see.” She says that kind of emphasis is not healthy–she even calls it sickness. “It totally says to those of us who are disabled that we don’t have any worth until we’re dead, and that our bodies must conform to society’s standards of normalcy in order for us to be accepted. My faith says that Jesus accepts me for who I am and as I am, not with perfect legs … or a perfect figure like Barbie’s.”

She remembers the day she finally admitted she needed to use a wheelchair for her bilateral osteoarthritis–at the 1992 Presbyterian general assembly meeting in Baltimore, Md. The hotel her family stayed at kept offering her a wheelchair. “The more it was offered the more I refused. We were on our way to worship, and our son was 5 at the time. My husband was chasing him and I was trying to keep up.” She was 45 minutes late to service and burst into tears. “I couldn’t go anymore. I just had to sit, the pain level was intense.”

She bought a wheelchair not long after that and said using the chair was like getting her life back. “Suddenly I could keep up with everybody else. Actually I left them in my dust, and I learned I wasn’t alone on that journey. But then people started judging me as having given up, and that was hard.”

Montgomery even endured people questioning her faith–although not people in her congregation, who she says have always been supportive. “I don’t know why people think they have a right to enter into my private life and make their judgment, but then I also realize that as a pastor the way I express my faith is a witness and I express my faith by the way I live, by the way I deal with adversity.”

The Bible Tells Me So
The connection between faith and healing is considered rock-solid to many Pentecostal Christians, which creates considerable conflict for Bob Forte, senior pastor of Hope Ministry Family Fellowship in Allentown, Pa., a church he and his wife, Coleen, founded in 1998. In fact, he’s been told to rebuke the demon of cerebral palsy his whole life.

“Many times people who are Pentecostal believe you claim a healing and it’s done,” says Forte. “Being Pentecostal, I truly believe that if you claim there is a healing it shall be done, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the healing you’re looking for. When I talk about a healing, I talk about a healing of spirit and a healing of perception.”

Forte remembers a conversation he had with a fellow Pentecostal wheelchair-user. He related his belief that Christ has been through every pain known to human beings and she informed him that’s impossible, because Christ never rolled in her wheelchair. “I told her Jesus did take a roll in your wheelchair, because when he was on the cross he cried out, ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’ He felt forsaken by God, too. … He knew what it was like to be alienated.”

Bob Molsberry, senior pastor of United Church of Christ in Grinnell, Iowa, lay in a coma for six weeks after a bicycle accident in 1997 left him with an incomplete L1 injury. Like most other people with SCI, Molsberry’s adjustment to his disability isn’t always easy, but he says his injury never shook his faith. “My family has been through a lot of loss, lots of changes and stuff,” he says. “We always knew things were going to work out, God was with us. Even in disability, even in death, faith was not in question.” Molsberry and Ann, his wife of 26 years, have lived through losing one child to a stillborn birth and almost losing another child to leukemia. Molsberry’s injury and subsequent use of a wheelchair was just one more big life-changing incident to deal with.

Molsberry holds a unique view of scriptures dealing with disability, healing and cure. “I think you need to throw out the primitive worldview of the Bible,” he says. “The Wisdom literature from the Old Testament very clearly equates disability and sin … unworthiness, unsacredness. You defile the altar if you approach with a blemish or lameness. That’s specific, that’s clear, but that’s a world view you have to set aside.”

What about all those New Testament lepers, blind men, hemorrhaging women and paralytics who pick up their mats and walk off? “I disregard them, in terms of disability,” he says. Those scriptures have no bearing on his life: “I’m not looking for healing, I’m looking for adjustment to where I am.” He finds himself in the scripture passages where Jesus subtly speaks for inclusion, “where Jesus talks to women and sinners, and to people who you normally wouldn’t talk to. … These passages also refer to acceptance of people with disabilities, even though it’s not spelled out.”

Bible studies with Molsberry can sometimes become wrestling matches. “People resist me. They say we all need spiritual healing, and I say, well, yeah, of course, but it says the lame guy got up and walked. Where does that put me?”

But throwing out scripture misses the point, says Forte. Once a man told him he shouldn’t be a pastor because pastors must fit a certain mold, be of no blemish and so on. “I said, ‘What reality are you from? I have news for you–that’s what scripture says, but let me just tell you that all the people God used [in the Bible] were losers!” Look at Moses, Forte told his detractor. “The guy did God’s work and he could hardly talk.” But Moses was Old Testament and ministered before Pentecost, the man replied. “So then I said, ‘What about Paul?’ and then he’s like, ‘Well, his issue isn’t really well described.'”

Forte chuckles, recalling the debate. “I’ve heard every theory of what it [Paul's condition--the 'thorn in the side'] could be, but obviously he had some kind of issue. It’s just too bad he didn’t put down what it was. Boy, that could make life so much easier if we just knew.”

Like Forte, Montgomery doesn’t set aside the scriptures dealing with disability and healing. “As a pastor, I believe scripture is the heart and core of the word of God, and in the Presbyterian church the scripture is central,” she says. “Therefore if it’s in the scripture, people are going to have to struggle with it.”

Her issue isn’t with what scripture says anyway, but how it has been interpreted over the years, and that’s changing. “People who have lived with disability and who have listened to the church for decades and centuries are now saying to the church, No! There is another set of lenses to look at scripture by–look at the scriptures through the lenses of those of us who have the disability,” she says. “Hear us, hear our experiences, hear our life stories, and hear how God is working through us.”

Called To Heal
Lutheran pastor and rehab chaplain Bernie Jorn dove into a lake when he was 17 and emerged a quadriplegic, which threw his self-identity and his faith into a centrifuge. Gone was the young swim team captain and saxophone player, and in his place was a man who stormed at God. “The intense suffering led to an intense relationship with God that would not have been there,” he says. And that relationship was anything but smooth at the beginning. “Husbands and wives will yell at each other when they’ve been hurt, but that’s because they know that person’s not going to leave them,” says the Jacksonville, Fla., minister. “In yelling at God, I guess I built up a relationship through anger. Everyone kept telling me how great it was that God loved me. Well, I didn’t feel that much love.”

Once his storm of anger passed, though, Jorn began to experience God as a greater expansion than what he ever thought or felt God could be. “It’s something that I can’t put into words, and therefore is deeper than anything I can understand. It’s like falling in love. How do you explain falling in love?”

Eventually Jorn’s new relationship with God led him to become chaplain of the Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital and interim pastor of Faith Lutheran. Jorn calls doing pastoral care from a wheelchair a “double-edged sword.” On the one hand, some people relate to his disability, which gives him credibility, “but sometimes people don’t feel permission to express their own anxiety, their own pain.” Someone with a busted knee might see Jorn and think he has nothing to complain about. “And it was hard for me to get past that too, you know? I was like, ‘Hey, you got a busted knee, what do you have to complain about?'”

But then Jorn sits with the person, and sees beyond the physical condition into the person’s emotional state, something he can eventually do because he works at developing his relationship with God. “Christian theology is one that looks at the world as being a world of pain and suffering–and alleviating it as much as possible through a relationship with Christ,” he says.

Like Jorn, Forte’s ministry is rooted in the struggles his disability forces on him. Since his church began as an outreach to people living with HIV, it attracts many people from the gay community, some of whom assume he can’t understand how hard their lives are since he is straight and married. But they’re mistaken, he tells them. “When someone says to me, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be prejudiced against, you don’t know what it’s like to have doors slammed in your face,’ I can say, ‘Oh yes I do. I do know what it’s like. I deal with it all the time.'”

Growing up with cerebral palsy has given Forte an intimate understanding of the dynamics of oppression. “I know what it’s like to have lost jobs and I know what it’s like to have people wonder how you can do the things you do,” he says. “But I tell people, this disability of mine doesn’t matter to God because he uses me anyway.”

In part because of his experience as a person with a disability, Forte believes his church needs to be a place that lifts and builds people up. “In our church [people] are not being torn apart with doctrines and theology and all the ‘don’ts.’ I tell people when you make a mistake you don’t need to know you made the mistake, you’re fully aware of it. I don’t have to point that out to you, that’s not my job. My job is to tell you about the benefits of being a Christian, the benefits of Jesus Christ.”

Renewing the Church
In the past few decades Christianity has made great inroads toward incorporating people who traditionally have been kept out of fully participating in their churches, but it still has quite a way to go when it comes to wheelchair users. For example, Montgomery says churches that welcome wheelchair users give themselves hearty slaps on the back, “but being welcomed still leaves me as a guest. There has to be more. We have to break the mold of what is understood as Christian community and rebuild it with disability being part of it from the ground up. We can’t build the community and then say, ‘Welcome, now you’re an invited guest.'”

Molsberry agrees with Montgomery. “There is a strong, strong Christian movement for justice, for inclusiveness,” he says. “But often the diversity, justice and inclusiveness movements–the civil rights movements–don’t see disability as being in one of those categories.” Molsberry wishes churches would use the model Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew. “Jesus says to turn away the normal invitees to a banquet and invite the lame, the cripples and the blind … not to heal them, but to show that they’re part of the kingdom, and really to show up the so-called normal ones.”

Yet the discomfort many churchgoers feel toward wheelchair users–and wheelchair-using pastors for that matter–is really just a sign of the world we live in, says Jorn: “We’re used to people in wheelchairs who are in hospitals or who are sick or elderly, but not who are in an authority position or in a leadership position.” He says it’s interesting to see how people react to him at the end of a service. “People are used to coming up and shaking the pastor’s hand. I tell them to put a hand on my shoulder, grab my wrist, it’s always good to give me a hug. It’s a different way of saying “hello” at the end of the service, and that takes some education. After a while they start to see me more than my disability, but it takes time.”

Although churches that accept wheelchair-using pastors are still rare, they are becoming more common. Too late for Zingale to pastor a church, perhaps, but he is certainly a model of grace, and it wasn’t easy. “I was angry at God, but I was listened to by God and eventually that anger was replaced by a sense of peace,” says Zingale.

He did not leave the Lutheran faith, nor did he become bitter when asked to leave his congregation. Instead, he “retired,” which allowed him to continue preaching as a supply pastor for ministers on vacation, and he joined a Lutheran church that accepted him for who he was–St. Olaf’s, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He also ministers via his Web site (see “Pastors’ Picks,” this page). “I have an average of 350 people visit my site each week. When I was in the parish, the most people who would come to church on Sunday was about 150, so more people are reading my stuff now,” he says. “So I am still ministering and there is great joy in that for me.”

It’s people of the cloth like Zingale and other wheelchair-using pastors who, by simply being faithful to their callings, are leading the Christian church to a new understanding of what the disability experience can mean. Through their struggles and leadership a new church is being born, one in which–someday–wheelchair users will regularly be seen as leaders as well as members.


The God Squad

Rabbis, priests, pastors and imams call Ginny Thornburgh from all over the nation for tips on how to make their congregations more accessible, and she always knows just what to say–and what not to say. First and most importantly, “I make a point of not laying a guilt trip on them. People don’t need any more guilt trips,” says Thornburgh, director of the National Organization on Disability’s Religion and Disability Program. Instead, she finds out where the congregation is–access-wise–and works with the religious leader from there.

For example, let’s say Thornburgh is talking to a religious leader who excitedly shares news of his congregation’s brand new ramp. “I’ll say, ‘That’s wonderful! Now tell me about your parking area.’ In a loving way, I’m trying to nudge the congregation from wherever they are, that’s my goal.”

But ramps and parking spaces aren’t enough, says Thornburgh. “In fact, identifying and removing architectural barriers is easy because it’s done with money. You commit [the funds], you start identifying and removing the architectural barriers, it’s that simple. But how do we convince the congregation that you and I have amazing gifts and talents to bring to the church? How do we convince the synagogues and churches of America that removing the stumbling block of inaccessibility is transforming for everyone?” she asks.

Fortunately for Thornburgh, she’s not in it alone–she has the capable help of Lorraine Thal, who spearheads NOD’s successful Accessible Congregations Campaign, which began in 1998. “Our slogan was, ‘2,000 in the year 2000,” says Thal. “We’re now up to 2,142,” which means 2,142 congregations have committed to NOD in writing to remove as many barriers as possible, both architectural and attitudinal.

Thal says NOD’s new major impetus is its “Seminaries: Open and Welcome” campaign, a broader approach to access advocacy. “We’re trying to raise awareness that seminaries of all faiths around the country should be more accessible to students, staff and faculty.” She says there are not enough faculty or students with disabilities at seminaries. “People with disabilities are interested, but not encouraged.”

NOD’s seminary project hopes to help seminary leaders become aware of what students, disabled and nondisabled, may face when they leave seminary and hold a pulpit. For example, students need to know not only who to call about installing a ramp, but how to talk to the new mom whose baby has spina bifida, and even how to preach a meaningful sermon on healing passages that won’t turn off the wheelchair user in the first row.

Thal is also excited by the growing list of religious leaders who allow NOD to publish both their names and their disabilities. “We have between 60 and 65 right now. There aren’t too many around who want to come forward and say that they do have a disability, because it’s public information once you’re on the Web site. But the list helps show that it doesn’t discount the importance of a religious leader just because they’re deaf or blind or have MS.”

Both the new seminary project and NOD’s ongoing religion projects lead toward one goal, says Thornburgh: “To make the congregations of the nation more welcome to all people, including people with disabilities.”

Both Ginny Thornburgh and Lorraine Thal can be contacted through the National Organization on Disability, 910 Sixteenth Street, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20006, 202/293-5960; www.nod.org.

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