Like many of my fellow toxic illness sufferers, I'm unable to attend church because of the chemicals present in the buildings and on fellow worshipers. I'm very grateful that my church broadcasts the Sunday morning services online, so most of the time I'm able to feel like part of the church family even from my home. Periodically, however, there will be a stretch of months in which the webcast doesn't work, or only works sporadically. We're in one of those phases now, and it stirs up memories, both of my own experiences and of stories others have shared. These bring with them miscellaneous thoughts about needing help to access corporate worship.
These thoughts are in no particular order and are simply what is currently in my mind and on my heart. I've been part of the community of disabled Christians for long enough now that I think I speak for many and I hope my musings will be taken for what they are -- simply an attempt to shed light on things most people have never had reason to ponder. I pray they can somehow be helpful.
1. We greatly appreciate your efforts to include us. We know it's challenging, and we're extremely grateful for those who go the second mile. We pray that God will richly bless you for your actions and we believe that he will. Matthew 25 teaches that when you minister to those in need, it is as if you are ministering to Jesus.
2. Even when accommodations are made that allow us to participate in the life of the church, we feel tense and insecure, because we know that things can change at any moment. It only takes one perfume-wearer to make a previously safe Bible Study group unsafe for those with toxic illness. One added air freshener, one new cleaning product, one application of insecticide -- the list of possible problems is endless. The tenuous nature of accommodation is true for people with many types of disability. (And is true even when the "accommodation" is a webcast.) A wheelchair-accessible church sanctuary is of limited benefit when the group meeting there decides to meet in a home instead.
3. We often feel unwanted. We don't know what's in your heart, but whether or not it's true, we frequently get the feeling that we're a burden and that our desire to be part of a church is a bother to you. Our natural inclination is to put our heads down and slink away, but we can't do that in this matter. God has told us that we're all part of his body and directed us not to give up meeting together. We must try to connect somehow. Besides, we know from experience how hard it is to maintain spiritual health alone, and we need every bit of spiritual strength available to make it through the challenges of our lives.
4. We feel invisible. At one point several years ago my church promoted fellowship groups with the slogan, "There's room in the group for you." I found myself pondering the fact that the church leadership probably believed that to be true, because those of us who were unable to attend were largely invisible to them. There didn't, however, appear to be room in a group for me. Was there room for an autistic child, a deaf church member, someone with social anxiety disorder? I don't know. My personal good news is that several years after I pondered the slogan, a friend did start a fellowship group I could attend, which meets outside on her porch. I can't possibly describe how much of a difference it makes in my life.
5. We aren't just spiritual takers. We have things to offer too, and with creativity we can often find a way to use our gifts within the context of the church. When we're shut out, the body is missing important parts.
6. We sometimes feel like the poor man in the story that Nathan told King David, as recorded in 2 Samuel 12. The rich man in the story had many sheep and cattle, but the poor man had only one pet lamb. When the rich man needed to prepare a meal for a guest, he took the poor man's lamb instead of one of his own. This scenario plays itself out in many ways. Sometimes a church will have a safe room designated for the chemically sensitive, but healthy church members, who can easily meet in any room in the building, will use the only one available to those with toxic illness, which sometimes makes it unsafe for those who need it most. Webcast problems may be caused by too many people in the congregation using their smartphones during the service they are easily able to attend, preventing those who can only access the service online from participating. Sometimes healthy church members will park in handicapped parking spaces, forcing those who truly need them to turn around and return home.
7. We understand that our lives are very different from yours and that it's hard for you to relate to us. Maybe we don't seem quite real to you, and for that reason it sometimes feels like our needs aren't seen as equal in importance to your own. As truly grateful as I am for the effort that goes into running our church's webcast, I can't quite forget how it got started. I had been unable to attend church and had almost no contact at all for several difficult, lonely years, but the webcast was started because someone who attended every week was going to miss one important Sunday and asked if the service could be broadcast for him. I'm grateful that it got started, for whatever reason, and that the ministry continues, primarily for me. I try not to dwell on the history, but when things malfunction, I remember it and become afraid of returning to exile.
8. We know that there are a lot of good people with a lot of good intentions, but that it isn't always easy for things in a church to change. The channels of communication and authority are not always clear, and how to address needs isn't always obvious. Sometimes we get frustrated with the church as a whole, but when we think of individual people, we think of them with love. If you're interested enough in this issue to have read this far, we think you're great. It would also be great if you could help us find a way to be connected to the church. God designed us for fellowship. We need each other.