In a strange confluence of events, I found myself writing a master’s thesis on the apostle Paul’s usage of the term “body” while having my own body examined and tested by several medical specialists. My research project was simple enough: I had intellectual itches to scratch. My medical situation, however, was far from simple.
Without a clear reason, and despite my efforts, I had lost about 20% of my body weight over the span of a year and a half. I was anemic and deficient in multiple vitamins. After numerous tests, my physicians concluded that I have a significant autoimmune deficiency. My body does not produce two major antibodies, and a third major antibody only performs at a rate of 43%. That makes me especially vulnerable to respiratory and digestive (hence my weight loss) illness. So, beginning around 2012, I began to understand myself as a person with an autoimmune deficiency. Yet starting in spring 2020, amid my attempts to understand ancient ideas about human embodiment, personhood, and bodily transformations, I began to experience myself as an immunocompromised person living through a global health crisis. That combination of factors eventually led me to the literature on disability.
I’m still a newcomer to disability studies, but my research has shown me what a challenge it can be for people with disabilities to participate in the life of the church. Sadly, churches have reputations for being inaccessible spaces, which has the effect of pushing people to the margins of what should be shared communities. Here, margins is a fitting metaphor. Many with disabilities find themselves living at the edges or borders, just beyond the physical spaces, social arrangements, or religious practices of the majority. Those with physical, sensory, intellectual, learning, or psychiatric disabilities are too often excluded from the “main spaces” of the church because they do not fit with the majority’s norms and expectations.
It wasn’t until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that I had any significant experience with this on a personal level. Even now, on the eve of 2023, I find myself navigating environments that weren’t set up with me as an ideal participant. For example, I’m at high risk for COVID, so I “attend” church virtually, as I have for over two years. My teaching institution has been incredibly supportive and accommodating. Yet I never know whether to attend that faculty meeting, that chapel service, or that committee meeting in person. Should I attend that conference or that seminar? If I do, can I travel there safely? Will my mask do the job if I’m the only masked person on a flight, in a session, or at a meeting?
My privilege is revealed in the fact that my questions concern choices about things like online church attendance, faculty meetings, and academic conferences. Far worse are the experiences of those who cannot access resources needed for their survival, and, to our shame, the experiences of those whom the church excludes from participation in Christ’s body. Consider the spaces in which you’ve worshipped. Could a deaf person worship there, communicate with others, and benefit from the sermon? Are folks with ADHD, or those without full control over their bodily movements or vocal projections, able to join others in sacred spaces? Do our spiritual practices and disciplines center those who are able to sit still, in silence, while sustaining long periods of focused attention? Are those with dementia or Alzheimer’s welcomed and included, or are they excluded from participation to avoid the disruption of communal norms? Are wheelchair users able to participate fully in all parts of the service? Are people with intellectual disabilities explicitly rejected from participating in the sacraments (on this, see Sarah Jean Barton, Becoming the Baptized Body [Baylor University Press, 2022])? When people with disabilities are included, are they treated as problems or objects of pity? Are the recipients of shame or endless pressures related to theologies of healing? Or are they embraced as equal partners in discipleship who have much to offer the church?
Such questions are difficult. Admittedly, efforts to include the rich spectrum of human diversity in the church’s practices can be complex, even messy. And I suspect that exclusions like those hinted at above are usually unintentional. Even so, when people find themselves on the margins of the church, it is vitally important for us to consider why, and to seek ways to transform our contexts to make them more inclusive. When writing about the gathered community of believers, Paul notes the importance of “discerning the body” to ensure that all are included in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:29 NRSV). Similarly, it would be wise for us to examine the corporate body in our ecclesial practices. Only then can we ensure that those with non-conforming bodies and minds are not relegated to the margins, but are, instead, incorporated into the heart of the church.