CORONAVIRUS: MY VIEW ON DISability, COVID-19, & the church
I am a Disabled Pioneer Minister working with and amongst people who are affected by disability in Chesterfield and online.
Six years ago, I attended a course for people managing long-term conditions. We discussed faith and I found that all the twelve people in the room had been to a church post-diagnosis. However, I was the only one still going. As an evangelist this caused me great pain.
Online disabled community
If we are all in different boats in this storm, let me tell you about a small flotilla which were already afloat, taking the Good News to people on the margins and isolated through disability.
There are many disabled people who find social media a Godsend as it enables them to keep in contact and share experiences, support, and encouragement even on the bad days when they are unable to get out of bed. It is a strong community with people from all walks of life and because of the diversity of disability it also has many smaller groups that move within it (e.g. being blind is a different experience than being in pain or a wheelchair user).
Within that community there are many Christian voices who are fully a part of the disabled community and who can pioneer more fully there as disciples called by God, not limited by the expectations and limitations of the Church or the capacity issues of society (See Social Model of Disability blog).
Mostly these disabled Christians are unpaid, dedicated and hidden from view. They don’t reach into specific geographical areas or reach large numbers and often feel overlooked and unimportant to the structural church. This is because I believe the way we count in the Church of England is all about attendance and those who don’t attend don’t count.
Initially, when the storm of COVID-19 blew up, society moved into a time of panic-buying and worry. This caused people to take to their life rafts and turned toilet rolls into currency! When the church buildings closed, the first few weeks felt like a similar run for the life rafts. Everyone was stretching to make sure people weren’t overlooked, that the worship of God (that which we measure) was still available and that we could lead people in prayer. And in that first run for the boats some of us in the disabled community felt confused.
Services were streamed, people were put on phone lists, coffee was had over Zoom, and we were included more than ever before. And yet we felt hurt.
We felt hurt because the technology and the energy was now available, when it was needed for everyone, in a way that it never was before when it was only needed for a (relative) few. Also, almost nobody asked us about sailing in the storm – even though we had relevant current experience. We were the fisherman disciples and the ‘Matthews’ didn’t stop to ask the sailors how to sail.
The new normal
I was asked to write this blog because I reacted online to someone saying that we will be going into a ‘new normal’ after the pandemic. My frustrations come from the fact that much of the ‘new’ people are experiencing now, seems very familiar to disabled people. We’ve been sailing these seas for a while. However, I feel on reflection that I was ungracious in my response as it is true that everyone (disabled or not) will be in a new season when we get through this pandemic.
My hope is that we, as a Church, and as a Church Army Mission Community, dedicated to people, isolated by injustice, deprivation and hurt, will be more able to meet people in their grief (people are dying), loss (people will not all recover fully), and physical, and mental pain.
I pray that we can all engage fully with those whose lived experience is that faith does not magically remove suffering or the effects of living in a disabling society. And that in our pain we can meet with Jesus and, in that meeting, find his healing, hope, and salvation.
1 May 2020
Tim Rourke is a Church Army Evangelist and a Disabled Pioneer Minister. During the past few years as a pioneer evangelist in Chesterfield, Tim has developed resources with and amongst disabled people, both locally and online. He believes disabled people are called to be disciples, not simply the targets of Christian ministry, and their experience of God would help the wider church understand God more if they were to listen. Tim has a spinal AVM, a condition that caused nerve damage in his spine, which causes constant pain and problems walking and standing.
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