Erika RasmussenNovember 27, 2020
The image displays five photos of the five members of the prayer service's organizing committee: Moira Egan, a white woman in her 50s with dark hair (top left); Kathleen Friel, a white woman with short hair wearing glasses (top middle); Ricardo da Silva, S.J., a white man who is bald with a brown beard, wearing glasses (top right); Father John Mulreany, S.J., wearing clerical carb that is black, and glasses (bottom left); Allison Connelly, white woman, light brown hair and glasses (bottom right)The organizing committee that put together the Church of St. Francis Xavier's disability justice prayer service, held on Zoom on Tuesday, Nov. 17. (Photo provided by Kathleen Friel)

“So, let’s begin. I’m Moira Egan, and I’ve been a parishioner at Xavier for about five years. I am a white woman in my 50s…. I am wearing a headset with a microphone attached. I have dark hair with a touch of gray that I’m wearing up, and I’m wearing a red turtleneck sweater with a cabled pattern.”

This is how Moira Egan, an academic advisor at Queens College in New York, began a Zoom prayer service on Nov. 17, providing what is called an image description—details that help people who are visually impaired perceive what is appearing in online content, fliers, events or video, so they can get a sense of what is happening or who is in the room. Ms. Egan herself was born blind.

Participants at the service celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and prayed for greater inclusion in worship. It had been organized by Ability Xavier, an advocacy group of parishioners at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan. (Editor’s note: Ricardo da Silva, S.J., an associate editor at America, was one of the members of the organizing committee.)

Kathleen Friel, a longtime parishioner and a neurophysiologist who leads her own research laboratory at the Burke Neurological Institute, has cerebral palsy and has advocated for the church to become more accessible and inclusive for years. She and Ms. Egan have been distressed by the inaccessibility of some houses of worship and by harmful rhetoric sometimes used about disability in church spaces.

Ms. Friel told America that sometimes people of faith make assumptions about what people with disabilities need or want. Some assume she wants to be healed of her cerebral palsy. “I’m different,” Ms. Friel said. “My perception is not that God needs to heal everyone, but that God accepts me for who I am.”

Ms. Egan finds it particularly painful when disability is not thought of as an identity necessary to include in church life. That means excluding a great many potential parishioners—one in five people in the United States live with a disability. She said that when a church like Xavier makes strides toward becoming more accessible and inclusive, it is really just living out a belief that all people are valued.

“My perception is not that God needs to heal everyone, but that God accepts me for who I am.”

Sometimes, Ms. Egan said, churches send the unspoken message that “you’re welcome as long as you figure out how to get yourself welcomed.” She hopes that Xavier will continue to expand its commitment to inclusivity and that people with disabilities can begin to expect more from organizations and worldviews that value the work for justice.

Xavier has been making efforts toward greater accessibility for decades. In 1991, the parish received an award for outstanding leadership in accessibility from Open Congregation, a New York interreligious group that advocates for inclusion of all abilities in places of worship. The parish committed to the Accessible Congregations Campaign established by the National Organization on Disability in 2008.

Xavier has been providing Braille worship guides at in-person services and recently began offering American Sign Language interpretation during the 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass on Zoom. That will continue at in-person Mass in the future.

But even at Xavier, there remains much room to grow, Ms. Friel and Ms. Egan said. Together, the two first brought the idea of a prayer service specifically for people with disabilities to pastors in 2019.

The members of Ability Xavier hope that the online prayer service and the parish’s commitment to greater inclusion in worship can serve as a sign of hope both for the Xavier community and other parishes. Creating opportunities for all begins with a simple question, Ms. Egan said. “If somebody accessed information or traveled or moved through their environment differently than you did, as you’re planning an event [think about] how would they enjoy it and get something out of it.”

At Xavier, most are happy to welcome people who are differently abled, Ms. Friel said. That has not always been her experience at other Catholic or Christian communities.

“If somebody accessed information or traveled or moved through their environment differently than you did...how would they enjoy it?”

She recounted what seems to be a common story: A priest in her mother’s diocese denied that a ramp was necessary at his church because it did not have any parishioners in wheelchairs.

“Well, that’s the reason you don’t have any people who use wheelchairs,” Ms. Friel said. The same goes for other accessibility measures—there are people of faith with disabilities everywhere, and they want to be part of community.

“After they built the ramp, people came.”

November’s online prayer service, which offered closed captioning or a full readable transcript for those who are hard of hearing or deaf, opened with the song “All Are Welcome,” a sentiment at the core of the disability justice movement. The opening prayer asked for God’s help to see all people as equals, regardless of disability, and to heed the voices and needs of those with disabilities. It urged the courage to confront ableism as a structural sin that marginalizes persons with disabilities as less valuable members of society or denies them full participation in society.

Ms. Egan pointed out that many Christian churches and church entities actively opposed the A.D.A. and fought for exemptions. Some religious organizations are exempt from the A.D.A. to this day.

The first reading was a “Meditation on the Body of God,” by Bekah Anderson, which proposes an image of God as an embodiment of all, with “every ability and every disability in the world.” Ms. Egan’s interpretation of the story of Bartimeus in Mark 10 followed the Gospel reading.

She described Jesus as a person enjoying the privilege of being able-bodied and reimagined Bartimeus as a minister of truth who “wanted to give Jesus the opportunity to rethink his behavior.” In a rush to get to where he must be, Jesus does not stop or help Bartimeus as he passes him, thinking that the blind man will not recognize who he is. Jesus ignores Bartimeus until Bartimeus reminds him that if Joseph had not believed Mary and trusted God, Jesus would be “sitting by some roadside, too.”

Only then does Jesus come to him. During their exchange in Ms. Egan’s telling, Jesus realizes that this blind man might be able to help him learn a few things.

Jesus realizes that this blind man might be able to help him learn a few things.

John Mulreany, S.J., associate pastor of Xavier, has learned much from the people with disabilities in his parish and from Ms. Egan’s version of the Bartimeus story. But his initial reaction, he told America, was: “Wow, won’t people be kind of scandalized by what we’re saying about Jesus?”

Following more discussion with Ms. Egan, Father Mulreany saw how the story opened a deeper awareness of how painful it must be for someone who is blind when people ignore them. He eventually understood why they could not “let Jesus off the hook.”

Kathleen Friel said that parishioners with disabilities often have to encourage their pastors to offer prayer petitions that include people with disabilities, as they are frequently left out of prayers for marginalized groups. The prayers of the faithful during Ability Xavier’s service petitioned church leaders to make the church fully accessible to all people; for people with disabilities to be strengthened in their baptismal vocation and nourished by God’s love; for faith communities to truly believe all people are created lovingly by God, who does not make mistakes or value some less than others; for people who consider themselves to be without disabilities to take seriously and respect the vocations of people with disabilities; and for all present, that they would value all abilities, genders, sexualities and ethnicities as cherished identities.

A litany of saints that followed called for the prayers of many holy people who lived with a disability, including Brad Lomax, the Black Panther who bridged disability and civil rights; St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who as a partially blind indigenous woman “experienced the violence of ableism and white supremacy on her spiritual journey”; and Kathy Mulvaney, who lectored from Braille Scripture and loved her neighbors at Xavier for many years.

Allison Connelly, a third-year master’s of divinity student—focusing on disability theology—also helped organize the prayer service. She told America that making church an accessible, inclusive space is simply Jesus’ call. “We know that God doesn’t ask people to change who they are before being in community with them,” Ms. Connelly said. “We don’t know God fully until we have gotten to witness how every person knows God.

“It gets really dangerous to say, ‘We are not willing to pay for disabled people to be here because we don’t think it’s worth it.’ When you start erasing disabled people from spaces, it gets into all these other questions about ways that disabled people have been erased from the world,” Ms. Connelly said. “I think a lot of churches don’t realize the extent of the harm and what it would look like if we carried it to its logical extreme.”

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