Faith Matters: Disability in the age of pandemic

  • The Rev. Dr. Christine Fontaine by the handicap parking area at Unity Park in Turners Falls, where she lives. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 3/22/2020 4:31:22 PM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email religion@recorder.com)

As I look at the Lectionary Scripture readings for March 22 and listen to all the news about the Coronavirus Pandemic, I am concerned not only about people’s physical health but their spiritual and mental health as well. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who was born blind and the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

As a person with a disability, I wish I could be comforted by Jesus’ words but I’m not. As I read other passages in Scripture, the causal relationship between sin and impairment is both supported and contradicted by Jesus. I am a survivor of an earlier pandemic, Polio. While I remember the paralysis and pain and months of hospitalization that I endured, I also remember how I had attended the first three days of Second Grade and that when I was diagnosed and hospitalized, my school burned my desk, my books and anything else I might have touched in the classroom.

Did I think I was somehow at fault? Did other people think I was at fault? Yes to both, although as an adult I was able to revise the ideas I formed as a child. What does this say about us culturally, blaming a child for circumstances outside of their control? Scripture, culture and media all tell us that able-bodied and healthy is the only valuable and desirable norm, the only ideal that people need to make space for, make allowances for. We are also taught to look for the culprit. But what if there is none? What if no one sinned and no one was made blind by God?

We are finding ourselves in a new circumstance with the emerging Pandemic. People are having to make space in their lives for self quarantine, social distancing and the like. Look around and try to identify what is now allowed for most that would have been denied to another.

Just as white people can suffer from privileged apathy about people of color, so too can able-bodied people suffer from privileged apathy towards people with disabilities. Could the same effort to make space for the needs of those with disabilities, seen or unseen, possibly be made as well? Could their inherent value be seen and honored without criticism of asking for the impossible? Maybe even without the need of a looming Pandemic in the background.

Beliefs and attitudes. Assumptions of certainty. These are things that are not readily changed. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted, houses of worship were made exempt from the provisions. Many churches chose to act as though the need for the ADA wasn’t necessary. After all, just because we worship a disabled God (see “The Disabled God” by Nancy L. Eiesland), why would we need to make room for anyone with a disability to worship them? Sometimes so much for “All Are Welcome.” Sometimes you need to read the fine print.

Perhaps we could try during this time to practice compassion for each other, a willingness to consider the needs of the least of us and have the grace not to fall victim to the need to place blame.

Rev. Dr. Christine Fontaine is ordained in the United Church of Christ and has served churches in Michigan and Massachusetts for over 25 years. Her Doctorate in Preaching is from Chicago Theological Seminary. She contracted Polio as a child before the Salk vaccine was developed. She is also a mother of two adult children and a storyteller. She supply preaches in Franklin County but is otherwise retired. revdrcf@gmail.com


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