This week I attended an interfaith women’s conference in Philadelphia where I was asked to talk about God’s creation. In my talk I related a personal experience with a disability. I was asked to post my testimony:
It was the summer of 1976. The elders laid hands on me, there were at least ten of them, all praying fervently and asking God to heal me. It was a hot, humid mid-summer night and swamp frogs outside were making croaking noises that seemed to mix with the many prayers in a peculiar chorus. After a very long prayer they slowly lifted their many hands from my head and I was still blind in my left eye. I came into this healing tent during this weekend camp revival with some friends and we asked to be healed.
We were in our early twenties. There were six of us, newly graduated from college, full of life and full of our faith in the power of God. We were part of the same Bible Study group that met on Friday evenings at a United Methodist Church. We heard about this camp meeting in Western Pennsylvania on the Christian radio station and it seemed like a wonderful event. Christians camping together on a large farm out in the middle of nowhere! It would be like a sanctified version of Woodstock, the infamous hippie rock festival of the late sixties. A makeshift stage featured daily worship services, Christian rock concerts and heart-warming testimonies about the miraculous works of God. Former drug addicts and members of motor cycle gangs spoke of their evil lives that had been transformed by God's amazing grace. There was a pond on this farm where new believers could be baptized by immersion and there was a healing tent where the elders prayed for people to be healed of every kind of infirmity.
Three of us from this group of six had physical handicaps. My friend Stu was extremely myopic and wore glasses that looked like the bottom of a coke bottle. My friend Arlene had polio as a child and she still wore a back brace. I was born with an under-developed left eye and since the age of two I wore a prosthetic eye. It was a plastic shell that covered the blind eye so that I looked reasonably normal. The three of us decided to go to the healing tent for prayer.
The elders in the tent told everyone who wanted to be healed to come forward and to surrender those things that they depended upon for mobility or assistance as a sign of faith. On the altar were crutches that a man no longer needed because his legs had been healed. There was also a hearing aid left by a woman who was now able to hear. My friend Stu went forward and clunked down his heavy horn-rimmed glasses on the altar and asked to be healed of his near-sightedness. Arlene put her back brace on the altar and said she wanted to be free of back pain. But there were audible gasps when I went forward and plucked out my plastic eye and laid it on the altar. "I would like to see in my left eye" I said. The elders seemed a bit shaken and they went into the back room to prepare for this healing service.
When they came back in they prayed for Stu, Arlene and me individually but they prayed the longest and the hardest for me. When the service was ended none of us were physically healed. One of the elders said that it was because we did not have enough faith. "Faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word" he said, quoting the Apostle Paul from Romans 10. He encouraged us to read our Bibles more. I wondered greatly at that line of reasoning. Another elder said that God may yet heal us and that we should leave our things on the altar and that would be a sign of our faith that we would yet be healed.
"Now they were going over the line," I thought. I ventured a glance over at Arlene and Stu but they were shaking their heads "yes" to the elder who had made the suggestion. I was not buying into this. Maybe it was vanity, maybe it was a lack of faith, maybe it was a moment of common sense, but I marched up to that altar, took my little plastic eye and popped it back in. Every real eye was on me as I walked down the center aisle and proceeded out of the tent. I drew a deep breath of relief as I escaped into the dark, dark country night with the smell of grass and hay and a canopy of a thousand bright stars over my head. The stars looked all the brighter because we were so far from any city lights.
I wondered "Why didn't God heal me?" I stared at the glittery light show for a long time. I got no answer.
The Christian camping festival ended with a closing worship service on the hill later that night. Everyone was given a small white candle and we lit them by passing the light to one another. The speaker on the makeshift stage encouraged us to shine the light of Jesus in the world. "Surely," I thought, "there must be a reason why I was born with one eye."
The next morning the six of us packed up our tent and duffle bags and prepared to drive home. As we worked no one talked very much. No one wanted to talk about the topic that was on everyone's mind: the healing service the night before. To talk about it would mean one of two things: we unhealed ones did not have enough faith or God was not able or worse, unwilling to heal us. And then there was the other theological issue about leaving the things on the altar. Stu left his thick glasses and Arlene left her back brace as a sign of faith. Was I the faithless one because I took back my plastic eye? And there was the practical issue about the 5 hour drive home to Baltimore. Stu, without his glasses was legally blind. Arlene, without her back brace could not sit up. Since there were two cars it fell to me, in my old Dodge Dart, to be the sole driver with Arlene and Stu in my car. It was a very quiet ride through the Pennsylvania turnpike and home to Baltimore.
Fast forward three years and I began to sense a call that God wanted me to become a pastor, to shine that light of Jesus by shepherding a flock of people and leading the life and ministry of a local church. But the call was even more specific than that. God called me to work with deaf people, people who could not hear and used sign language for communication, people who the world often marginalized, people, who sadly the church, for the most part, did not understand. I began to realize that being half blind was a part of my call into this work. I could identify with being born not quite right. I met deaf people for the first time at a conference where there was a Deaf choir signing. It was love at first sight. I knew this was what I was supposed to do with my life. It took ten years, many sign language classes, a seminary degree, two ordinations and a lot of hard knocks but I eventually found myself pastoring a Deaf congregation in Baltimore.
Everyone knew sign language there and no one wanted to be healed. They had their healing. Their sign language was their marvelous and very sufficient access to knowledge and life. Their community was their place of sweet relief from a world that gave them little intimacy and acceptance. Sadly the hearing world's church was often a place where Deaf people found rejection and misunderstanding. That was because of this issue of healing.
As surely as the sun, God heals people from many sicknesses. Just as surely I believe God allows, even ordains some people to be deaf or blind or whatever for a reason only known to God. A disability can be a holy gift, as unique as a fingerprint, as much of a gift as traditional skills that we value such as intellect, imagination, or athletic ability.
With the disability comes a sensitivity to one's humanity and a sympathetic heart for those who walk the same road. Tenacity and resourcefulness is developed when one has faced obstacles and rejections. People with disabilities often know the real meaning of our inter-connectedness on this planet and how to truly trust one another for survival. Being physically and mentally able, being bright and talented is a blessing. Being disabled has gifts that are just as blessed, yet the majority of people in the world don’t realize this. People with disabilities are overlooked and undervalued much of the time. Instead of seeking the gift in our infirmity we often hurry to doctors and medicines and healing services and although that can be the right thing to do, it might be right to accept a disability and use it as an ability in a new and wondrous way.
Healing can come when people seek accommodations such as sign language for communication or elevators or ramps for mobility or Braille in place of written text. Where physical barriers are removed by accessibility then where is the disability? It is gone. Harder to accommodate are hearts and attitudes that won't provide the access or fear of the different ones. When accessible hearts are present there are always funds for ramps and interpreters and large print books.
Healing can come when community gathers and supports one another in love and caring. Healing can come when a mother will learn sign language in order to communicate with her deaf child. Healing can come when a baby born with one eye grows up and finds a calling in disability ministry.