I have cerebral palsy, a neurological disability, because of this I have spent portions of my life feeling limited by society whether it be physically, socially, emotionally, or sometimes all three at once. When I was little I always felt very protected and very welcomed in the church as every person should feel. There were no boundaries - it was God and me. I knew our relationship was special. It was also very fun and joyous. I was very fortunate to have an intimate relationship with God from an early age and not everyone has that gift. I recognize that I was given the gift of full abandonment in front of the Lord. I felt invincible from the very first moment I learned the foundation prayers like “Our Father ” and the “Hail Mary”. The church was my sanctuary. I could walk in the church with my head held high and with confidence and reassurance that God would be there waiting for me.
I would like to share a story that will illustrate this intimate bond. When in the Adoration Chapel with my grandma I was trying to be extremely quiet but I couldn’t help it I just started to giggle. I know now that without a doubt that was the joy of God coming to greet me and my grandma knew it too. I couldn’t stop giggling. After a while, people started to look for my grandma to get me to be quiet but she ignored them and told me it was my form of prayer. I wish everyone could have that feeling of Abandonment in front of the Lord. Individuals with disabilities often have a very spiritual bond with God and this remains the case for me.
The welcoming environment continued into my teenagers. Everyone was so supportive of one another's faith journeys and helped one another grow their relationship with God. I felt part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to stay that connected to God my whole life so I decided to become a religious studies major. Every catechist that has taught me has shown me the same amount of love and respect regardless of my disability. The number one thing I took away from my early religious education was the Golden Rule - treat others as you want to be treated. The welcoming atmosphere I received from my catechists is something I hold very close to my heart. I didn’t realize it at the time but this would have a bigger impact on me than I could’ve ever imagined. No matter what was going on in my life I could always count on our Parish School of Religion to be that welcoming environment for me. I’m very blessed to know many priests personally. They are some of the most welcoming and compassionate individuals I have ever met. They will answer any question that you have and they will take time with you as a treasure. They have treated me as one of their flock just as everyone else.
I am a disabled Catholic so that immediately attracts attention from parishioners. They are often attracted to my deep and inspirational faith as a disabled person. I have no problem sharing that with people and I embrace it as part of my purpose. This can sometimes be distracting and I lose sight of why I am at church in the first place. I think I can get caught up in thinking about what parishioners see in my disability versus my faith. My disability and my faith are both significant parts of my identity. They are the most important to me. I want them to be able to coexist in harmony. It wasn't until after I started college that I felt this way. I started to feel the loss of the welcoming environment that made me fall in love with the church. I started to feel like the little girl again but the people's looks were harder to ignore this time around. This is no one’s fault, it's just how society has become. I decided to make it my mission to renew the welcoming environment of the church and bring it to everyone with and without disabilities.
In my experience, people are just curious. I pray that someday people will use curiosity as the courage to get to know someone with a disability. It is nice that they are attracted to my faith, but if they are curious as to how my faith and disability coincide I would rather they just ask. I think the average person would be surprised at how much they can learn from someone’s personal experience. I come across this curiosity often both from people young and old. My wish is to bring that curiosity to awareness of how to make the church a positive and welcoming experience so that everyone can have an intimate relationship with God. I want to spearhead a movement where people's faith is enhanced by the knowledge of disability. We will all be better catechists, better priests, better people, and better leaders of God. It will involve each and everyone of us. We all have our own small part to play. I see this movement in three steps…
Step 1: Be open to a new frame of mind
Step 2: Be aware
Step 3: Take action
I know that every believer has room in their heart to make this a reality. I will lead the way. I hope you all will join me.
My hope is that this movement will make us a closer community where The Golden Rule is prominent. I'm not only asking this for myself as a disabled person but for generations of people to come. The grace and joy that God can bring to our lives are amazing. This is a new way to encounter it. We can learn the greatest lessons in ways we least expect it, so let us be open to those lessons and encounter God in all of it.