A chalice and half-loaf of bread resting on tan fabric with a black background

Ableism Killed My Christianity

I rarely write posts here about my spiritual journey, but in this case I have chosen to share a deeply personal experience that addresses why I have left The Episcopal Church. Whether or not that’s a temporary decision, I can’t say.

Below, I am sharing an edited version of a Facebook post I wrote on March 29, 2019:


I have been quiet.

I have been quiet this week, but I have also been quiet over the last year and a half about a life calling I was responding to after years of holding off and saying, “No. Not yet.”

This is long. You might want to get tea before reading. I’m serious. Also, this post mentions topics and words related to Christianity, disability, and trauma.

When I was about fifteen, a dear mentor and mother figure was dying. Marny was a saint whose gifts were more powerful than a single person could hold. I was so intimidated by her holiness that I was afraid to ask her about it. Something about her goodness opened me up to my own light, giving me permission to grow into whoever it was that I should be. I wanted to be like her, but with a collar. At the age of fifteen or sixteen I realized a calling to the priesthood in The Episcopal Church. I couldn’t express what my call looked like, but I could feel it.

My community was supportive of me pursuing it and provided all the necessary details, should I move forward.

In the end, though, I decided to wait. To grow up a bit. To learn more about life. To see if, down the road, being a priest was really my calling. I pushed it to the back of my mind. Every few years I’d get a reminder to think about it again, but I’d keep it to myself. I’d push it back again to the back of my mind. And I would say, “No. Not yet.”

I kept being the superhero Episcopalian I had been since infancy. I was empowered by lay ministry, even though I knew deep down it didn’t feel as whole as I knew I would feel as a priest. Something was always tugging deeper than lay ministry.

I knew no other way to be than deeply engaged in the life and work of The Episcopal Church.

Shortly after I moved across the country to California in 2011, I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis in early 2013. I was also in an abusive relationship. I hadn’t found a church home in Sacramento yet and the diagnosis left me feeling broken.

In my mind, church remained the one place where my former identity as a financially stable, healthy person was still intact. If I entered a church, I would be hit with the final, profound reality of my brokenness. I was terrified of letting go of that previous identity. When I returned to church after what I call my year-long sabbatical, I realized how much my relationship with it had changed.

Over several months, I showed up sporadically for services and cried through them all. I broke down in the middle of a liturgy I’d known since childhood.

In my previous life, church had been where I served with money, time, labor, and rich ministry. I was a ministry-giver, never imagining that could flip. It took me months to realize I was now primarily a ministry-receiver. I was so, so broken. I knew I would never be a priest. I had waited too long. How could I be a priest if I was in ill health? How could I be anything?

I learned how to receive from the same kinds of people I had formerly served alongside, giving. I was forced to learn how to be in a new body, and I only noticed later that I had learned what it’s like to be on both sides of the handouts of grace. I was in a unique position to know what it is like to serve both directions.

My brokenness led me to unique ways of fulfilling my callings I never knew existed until they had to be created out of the broken spaces I had learned to break open wider to let the light in.

I was reminded, slowly, that my limitations did not have to limit my calls to ministries. I began to see a social model of ministry – of societal imbalance and structures that prevent entire groups of marginalized people from being ministers (rather than a norm of blaming each person individually for their inability to fit in the community). I began to embrace my ability to minister upward and outward. After all, I was at the bottom now. There was only lateral ministry or ministry to those more privileged than me from my place in poverty and sickness.

My ministries blossomed from my broken body when I realized that Jesus taught us to live in community, to lift up the gifts of the people we have been taught to push aside, to push the boundaries of comfort so we can grow into who Christ is calling us to be. My ministries blossomed when I realized Jesus saw whole bodies from within brokenness – he did not heal people by removing sickness, but taught entire communities to see people as whole in their brokenness (ie: you do not fix a person by removing a permanent disability, but you change the structure of society so that person has independent access to spaces, people, and identity; and that is from where the healing comes).

I became active in a growing Burning Man ministry where radical non-judgment and love created a base of safety for people who’ve been hurt by Christianity to approach us and let go of their pain, knowing we love them. I felt at home in the desert with people who knew it was OK to question a religion that, to many, has done such a splendid job of hating people. I felt at home with other people who taught me how to be whole in their brokenness, who reminded me why I subscribed to a faith that believed in questioning and seeking to see all people as worthy of and capable of love.

My call to the priesthood came roaring back full force in the fall of 2017, and it was at Burning Man, at the Temple, that I said, “Ok, God, let’s do it.” I realized I had been sitting on this call for too long by trying to answer all the questions myself. I was trying to do it alone when I needed to do it with a community of people who could support my call, ask the right questions to help me figure it out, and help me grow into it. I decided to … trust the process. Four dusty priests at Burning Man laid hands on my head as I cried through their prayer for my process.

In 2018 I was a Deputy to General Convention for Northern California. I wrote and helped support resolutions about disability and gender equity, and spent extensive time adding language to several other resolutions to include people with disabilities. I helped form a D/deaf and Disabled Advisory Council with the purpose of making future General Conventions and the larger Church more accessible.

Through fulfilling this dream that I had had for decades, of being a Deputy, I soaked up the amazing things that happen in church politics from the very floor where I spoke about real resolutions impacting real lives. I realized how much my priesthood could help the church engage and uplift the ministries of people with disabilities – ministries that already exist in small spaces, but currently aren’t recognized as viable, valid, or worth supporting large scale.

I realized a deep yearning for being at the altar, figuring out accessible sacramental liturgies, and engaging in theologically grounded disability justice preaching and conversations. I realized this through conversation, through the fabric of The Episcopal Church’s politics, and through the miles I saw that we have yet to travel to reach full equity in the church. And I saw it in the worship, where not all were welcome, where some were more welcome than others, and where people were trying, but failing, to do the welcoming thing. I witnessed during one service as ASL interpreters visibly, painfully interpreted the words to a song with the repeated chorus, “May those who have ears, let them hear” and as D/deaf and hearing-impaired worshipers stopped singing in the middle of the chorus as they realized what was being sung.

I saw potential for change and believed I could be a big part of it. This is what anger does for me – it lights a fire to fix it.

It was later, in the fall of 2018 on All Saints’ Day, that I could begin to actually see myself as Christ’s broken body behind (or in front of) that altar. You see, since the church hasn’t lifted up ministers who are disabled in large numbers, I didn’t have many to look to for a physical representation of my own call to the priesthood. I had to largely create that image for myself, imagining something that is not yet normalized.

Here’s a snippet of my writing from an essay I was asked to complete for the discernment process:

“After I formally entered this process I had difficulty clearly articulating what my call looked like. I knew I wanted to be a priest, but I couldn’t explain it well. It took many months before I could describe what I feel is an innate, fluid piece of my being. I became able to verbalize a very specific picture of my ministry behind – or in front of – the altar after my first official visit to Church Divinity School of the Pacific on All Saints Day in 2018.

As I entered the chapel for a service, I found myself weary of the fact that many churches and chancels are inaccessible to wheelchair-users. I couldn’t imagine myself being a divinity student there, practicing church, if I couldn’t access the chancel. I tried to imagine a procession through a church with no ramp to the door or the chancel. Then, I began configuring possible ways the altar could be arranged so that I might function as a priest and still be seen by the congregation from my chair.

As I was envisioning the logistics of consecrating the elements, I began thinking about priests washing their hands as the Eucharist begins. When I was an acolyte, helping the priest wash their hands was my favorite duty. I realize now that not many people notice the ritual and even priests can do it a bit robotically. In the chapel that day I realized that simply by doing the job of a priest – washing the dirt and grime from hands that were just pushing my wheelchair – I could highlight a part of the Eucharist that not many people think about. It was exciting to imagine how this simple ritual had the potential to create a meaningful experience for an entire congregation, just by witnessing a priest who really needs to wash their hands. Getting to the altar was still an issue, but at least I could envision myself in the space beyond the structural barrier.

I now feel that my calling as a priest is closely tied to the newly risen Christ, whose first act after reconnecting with his disciples was to again break bread so they could recognize his risen body. There’s power in considering that Jesus’ words during communion, “This is my body, broken for you” could have a similarly powerful meaning if the comma was moved one word back: “This is my body broken, for you.”

Through being a sacramental minister, I imagine bridging the Holy Spirit through the vessel of a broken body, a direct line from God to the people through me, an unlikely conduit of God’s grace. That in itself is a re-imagination of the kingdom, for everyone who eats the body and drinks the blood that God blesses through my hands can experience a different way of being the body of Christ. Jesus used broken bodies to open people’s eyes to wholeness in suffering. I feel the same stigma and same barriers to reaching Jesus through the crowds like the paralyzed man did. I, too, believe that if I can get to Jesus, he can use me to help heal communities. Jesus himself came back visibly broken, with holes in his body, and yet he came back a beacon of wholeness. The idea that the newly risen Christ was perhaps disabled is life-giving for me, and I envision that transformation taking place every time I engage in sacramental ministry; whether for baptisms, funerals, Eucharists, or other liturgies.”

As a public-facing disability advocate, I felt I could not in good conscience become the priest I have felt called to be for so long without finding a way to be OK with the parts of the Bible that been used to justify oppression of disabled, female, and other marginalized bodies. My exploration deeper into the text, with some guidance from the very few disabled theologians who exist, yielded excitement and motivation to preach and teach about a Jesus who saw everyone as a whole person and who seeks to heal communities and societies, perhaps rather than one person at a time. I see Jesus as a macro-sociologist rather than a physician.

We’re constantly told by nondisabled theologians that Jesus “fixed” us by removing our disability. But the removal of my disability would not make me whole, it would actually fracture me further – disability is such a huge part of my cultural & personal identity. This is a big part of why the discernment process, as designed, was absolute hell for me. The theology of being healed only through the removal of sickness or disability has infiltrated our institutions so deeply to the point that it is a radical thought to see disabled people as fully human. Our processes to “weed out” those not called to the priesthood involves questions that are inherently ableist, with no process in place to challenge the systemic oppression. We’ve done some work to fix questions that are sexist and racist, but we remain committed in our view of disabled as less-than.

What is expected of everyone who goes through this process is that they are ALL in. No stone is left unturned. If you hold back at all, it shows in the interviews. The Episcopal Church’s ordination process is extremely personal, as one would expect, but the Church has not defined what an inappropriate question looks like, or how one might request reasonable accommodations during the process, or even how one might seek counsel if one is feeling discriminated against.

Some of you may know the church is not bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

During the process I have been asked countless questions about my body and my health that I can’t repeat here, and that still cause severe emotional pain. During the process I have fought to be see as a viable human before I have even had space to answer the questions about my call. So much focus, in fact, has been on proving my humanness, that much of the joy I hoped to find while exploring my call in community was replaced by preparation for interviews with the likely expectation that I would be asked more questions about my body than my call to break bread.

People living in marginalized bodies have known the focus is on our body first for centuries, but that doesn’t make it any easier when we are in a room with people who expect us to be gracious with them for not knowing what hurts, what’s too invasive, what’s inappropriate. At times I wanted to scream, “Can’t you see we’re dying? Can’t you see we’re dying to be seen as viable ministers in your church?” I went into this process believing in the good in people. Now, all I see is people’s fear and wariness of bodies and marginalized empowered voices like mine. I am deeply saddened by this. I remain firm in my identity as a strong disabled person, with no need to pretend I am nondisabled.

Becoming disabled was the best thing that could have happened to my life as a Jesus-follower in terms of my personal call to break bread. But it has been the most painful thing when it comes to my life as a Jesus-follower within the context of a church that does not see me first and foremost as an equal minister. It is difficult to describe, but I became who I was always called to be through my disability: a minister who can personally witness to the wholeness that is possible in a broken body, and who can also embody the Eucharist – the broken Christ – in a very physically personal way. I engaged with this call with every fiber of my being, some by choice, but many fibers were hurt profoundly by the focus on my marginalized identity as a barrier.

From my oppressed body, I found a desire to break bread. To feed people. To minister to everyone who eats bread I have broken for them. To lift up brokenness in community, to bridge divides, to bring people together around a shared table. To see people as whole through their pain and their stories.

I have been quiet about this journey because it has been an intensely personal part of me for so long, and because The Episcopal Church’s process is such that you do not decide you are called to be a priest alone. It is a community decision that happens over years and years with a lot of gatekeepers along the way. I made a choice to hold this process close, share it with just a handful of people close to me, and announce the outcome later.

And now it’s time to announce that outcome.

After I share a bit more.

The process has not been kind to me. It never is kind to people who’ve been through it, but I have been reminded of my oppressed body at every single turn. I would say, “I’ll make it through this next part, then it will get easier. Then I’ll fix it on the other end for people coming after me.”

It never got better.
Every turn got worse.

And I would tell people, “It says something about my call that I am still in this, because I have wanted to quit so many times.”

And my call became clearer after every broken turn. I dove deeper into the Bible to find answers and hope, and I found disability liberation theology and a deeper calling to fully embody Jesus’ broken, resurrected body when he breaks bread for that second time with his disciples.

In March (2019) I attended a discernment weekend with three other hopeful discernees, or nominees. The weekend was the big deciding weekend where about 20 people from around my diocese interviewed me in multiple areas related to my life and spirituality. At the end of the weekend, they gave each of the four nominees our answers separately. The answers that decided the rest of our lives and calls for us:

– A “Yes” means you move forward in your call with a pretty sure bet you’ll be ordained someday.
– “Undecided” means… undecided. Maybe it’s a good idea to try again someday.
– And “NO” means no – the process is halted. You do not move forward. You will not be a priest or deacon in that diocese.

No longer were our decisions our own, but the collective decision of 20 people who knew us in varying degrees or not at all.

During the weekend I shared my vision for a more whole church. I shared an idea I’m not firmly tied to, but an idea nonetheless – to create an online church (including communion through lay eucharistic visitors) so that people who can’t physically access church may have a church community in the space where they already are. I shared a desire to be a liaison between sick and healthy, to bridge that gap and minister both ways. I shared a vision of teaching accessible liturgies at seminaries and churches. I shared an openness to being an associate rector.

And I shared my calling to feed people. To create a potluck out of church so that everyone brings what they have and meets each other at the same place, on an equal level, to eat together around a shared altar.

And you know what I was asked?

“Will I be welcome at your table?”

I’d like to share another excerpt from another essay I wrote for this process:

“I must be transparent that I have been hurt by how the ordination process reinforces a subconscious expectation that someone must be healthy and nondisabled in order to be a priest. The Constitution & Canons of The Episcopal Church state that “No person shall be denied access to the discernment process for any ministry, lay or ordained, in this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity & expression, disabilities or age…” (Canon III.1.2); yet the ordination process requires a medical exam with questions like, “Have you received disability benefits or medical leave for any medical/psychiatric condition?” and “Have you lost time from work or school in the past three years for medical reasons?” Further, the form prompts a physician to “List any abnormal findings after a rectal exam and stool sample.”

I have spent years wading through the emotions caused by the church’s unintended message that disability is an automatic disqualification from ordained ministry. For years the church has encouraged me, with its policies, to focus on my limitations, causing me to believe my body was the barrier to my call. It was only with the help of unaware saints that I realized it was the church’s policies (not my body!) to blame for making me feel as if my body, wholly created in God’s image, was unworthy. Does God only want priests who are nondisabled and healthy? When I was the only girl on my high school soccer team I had to be better than the boys so I would be accepted as an equal. I feel the same way now, where there is unspoken pressure for me to perform at a level that is greater than my body’s limits for me to be accepted. There is something about that that does not feel Godly, and I remain deeply hurt by the experiences I have had along the way that have made me feel less-than-whole.

Christianity has historically and continues to fall short of embracing the largest minority the world: people with disabilities. I feel it is largely my calling to be a voice for disability equity within the church – won’t all of us eventually become disabled, if we’re lucky? I understand that as a priest I would be a minister for the whole church. If we want our priests to represent the people we serve, I beg the question, “Who are we serving if most priests are nondisabled?”

The online chronic disease and disability community seems hungry for spiritual community, but many don’t believe there is a place for them inside a church. I think the best kind of priest to meet them where they are is a priest who looks like them. The wholeness that comes from engaging in sacramental ministry with people the church isn’t currently reaching effectively feels vitally holy to me, and it feels very natural for me to do it in churches, online, on the streets, in doctor offices, and at places like Burning Man.”

Back to that question,

“Will I be welcome at your table?”

Do you know how that question felt, as someone who doesn’t currently feel welcome at the altar? Do you know how it felt to be asked if I would welcome people to a calling I have for the whole church? Do you know how it felt to be in a marginalized body, and to be asked if my table was big enough for nondisabled people?

Do I even HAVE a table?

Do you know what happens when oppressed groups are not welcome at the table of privilege? When we try and try and try and try and try to find a spot at the table, and are denied again and again and again and again?

We create our own spaces. We create our own, separate spaces out of necessity, because we have no other choice. And you know what we do? We make sure those who need our space are welcome. We open it to the people who need it. And, like I said in so many of my interviews, “I seek a ministry for the whole church.” A disabled table will be a universally accessible table.

And this is what I left the weekend with:

“We do not feel you are called to the priesthood.”

I was not told why.

“We do not feel you are called to the priesthood.”

I was told no. And “NO” means no – the process was halted. I would not move forward. I would not be a priest or deacon in the diocese. My call to be a priest since I was a teenager was suddenly over.



I don’t know what the future holds for me as it relates to religion.

Right now I’m not even sure what I even believe.
Right now I’m taking a break to sort through it all.

My heart is broken. My call is still there, as it always will be. The call I have had since I was a teenager. And my [former] church does not believe me.

This door has slammed and I have no power to open it.



Disclaimer: I’m not seeking advice. This is an informative post.

Thank you in advance for not commenting with offers of prayers or mentioning God/god or comments like,
“You’ll find another ministry!” or
“Where one door closes…” or
“Come to my/our church/faith/meetup!” or
“There are always other religions to explore!” or
“I went through the process X times and here I am!” or
“Yeah, the process IS hard, I remember that part. You’ll get over it,” or
“Come to my diocese and go through the process here!” or
“You think that was hard? Try X”

These are not helpful & are profoundly triggering.


If this ending feels abrupt, without resolution, that’s because the ending was abrupt and there was/is no resolution.

Here’s an additional essay I wrote about institutional ableism in The Episcopal Church.



If you found this post alarming or informative or infuriating, please consider supporting my future with a gift of $3 at ko-fi.com/beingcharis.

23 thoughts on “Ableism Killed My Christianity”

  1. Charis,

    What a beautiful post, so eloquently written. It had me in tears to see that the church of my youth had slammed the door on someone who has so much to give; it’s the Episcopal Church which has suffered the greatest loss.

    My only regret is that I did not find your blog earlier. I would have welcomed you to dine at my table while we were attending the American College of Rheumatology Advocates for Arthritis Conference. We did not meet, but maybe next year.

    Raising your voice in advocating for those with AS, rheumatic disease and disabilities is having a tremendous impact. Keep up the good work. XO

    Like

      1. As you might expect, I have theories about religion and clergy, but they are best discussed over wine and cheese. Hope to see you again some day.

        BTW, I just ran into another Meredith grad who shall remain nameless. You must have had a sip of the same energy drink.

        Ken

        Like

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. It brings back some memories for me (as a woman who sought to be ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1990s when the organization was becoming more and more conservative). Your deeply thoughtful and caring plans for creating community and church and sacrament with and for people who are treated as less-than – and your commitment to putting the oppressed and disabled in front, in leadership – these things show profound truth. I’m so sorry that the process and outcome were so negative. It’s hard to articulate this kind of pain, and you have done it – while continuing to proclaim truth. I’m not sure if this helps at all, but please know you’re not alone.

    Like

  3. This was indeed an informative, eye-opening, powerful post for me. Thanks for sharing, as painful as your experience was. I will definitely be following the conversations you’ll have in the coming days and weeks on this topic.

    Like

  4. Charis,

    Thank you for sharing your earlier posting and now, your decision. I am sorry you have to leave your friends behind as I know how that feels. It was OK when I was in process because I knew some were with me.

    The last contact I had with the hierarchy was an hour with Bishop of NC, Rev. Samuel Rodman. In the end, he offered to introduce me to other parishes in the area. I told him that I appreciated his offer, but that I was “churched out”. I am sorry those whom I thought were friends have, with some exceptions, not bothered to be in contact. It is as if lies have been planted and no explanation is necessary. Indeed, it seems not to be allowed.

    The now Presiding Bishop Curry, whom we all love, thanked me for my efforts in person. However, it is shocking how few continue to be in contact. The sign in the concourse says, “All are welcome”, but it no longer feels that way to myself and some others. The Charter for Compassion used to be on the wall of the concourse. I suppose that has been removed.

    I think they fear their own faith being revealed and, perhaps, the failure of the body as well. They are using walls to protect themselves where there is expected there would be openness. They fear and they deliver fear as a controlling tool while preaching, “Do not fear!”.

    May your journey be eased. May the Peace of Compassion be with you.

    Ken

    Like

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