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The Disabled Church: Desiring Difference within Congregational Life

How does a congregation make time and space for the disabilities and differences of those who constitute it? How does it claim those differences as vital to its forms of knowing and loving God rather than disruptive to its unity? Such questions animate my encounter with Holy Family Episcopal Church[1], a parish in which a majority of congregants live with diagnoses of mental illness and are affected by the multiple stigmas of ableism, racism, and poverty. This community resists practices of “segregationist charity,”[2] refusing modes of giving that further isolate individuals rather than invite participation in and transformation of ecclesial practices. At the same time, it struggles to incorporate mental differences into a center of worship. Holy Family’s common prayer welcomes difference but assumes certain capacities— to read, to stand in unison, to sit still—capacities many congregants are unwilling or unable to perform.

As an ethnographic researcher, I move around the sanctuary from week to week in order to observe the community from different vantages. As a theologian, I notice that my own prayer shifts depending on where and with whom I am worshipping. I respond differently, if I am in the front with those who eagerly insert their own voices into the official prayers than if I am in the back with those who sit with heads folded into their hands or laps. My worship has different rhythms next to a woman who writes her own prayer poems and pictures during the service. It has different textures when I sit with a man who weeps or laughs whenever we sing a hymn. As I move around the sanctuary, I begin to follow the lead of those around me, choosing to stay seated with a woman who never stands in order to hear her voice. I honor an empty seat between myself and a man who jokes about his desire for both distance and proximity from other worshippers. I wave to a congregant across the aisle during the reading of the gospel, mirroring his gesture of welcome and recognition. I notice other configurations of individuals, holding and weaving one another into worship. Between the “We” of common prayer and the “I” of each person gathered, there is a small “we.” There are clusters of persons who interpolate one another’s responses and refrains.

I follow the small we into a decentered liturgy. Rather than assuming one unified communal body, directed by the priest or deacon, a decentered liturgy draws attention to the multiform responses and relationships that take place throughout the sanctuary.[3] Common prayer is made possible because smaller groups of congregants weave one another into community, creating opportunities for the relation and connection of the Body of Christ. They laugh and joke with one another, touch and gesture to one another, name one another, and share silence and unconventional conversations. These forms do not displace the formal liturgy at the center of the communal gathering, but occur alongside it; nonetheless, they are essential in holding a community of difference together.

Difference also decenters the space and time of this community. The sanctuary is not the center of gathering but is connected to a series of sites and paths where the people congregate to share their joys and concerns—an entryway, a set of picnic benches, a smoking circle, a dining hall, and a library that is also a foot clinic and a nail salon. Sunday Eucharist is not the only sacred meal but is held within a week-long liturgy where common meals, arts, gardening, yoga, and bingo gather and create space for difference. Here the congregation learns to “loiter with intent,” taking time to find more flexible rhythms than the formal worship services assume.
Following this Disabled Church outside the parish grounds, I lament the fragility of these forms, this time and space that hold the beauty and challenge of difference. Congregants are sent out “to love and to serve” in a segregated city, where some lives are of little public worth. The Disabled Church invites reflection on how a community of difference desires to share time and table with one another beyond the safe spaces of a center called “the church.”

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Notes

[1] The name of the church has been changed for purposes of confidentiality.

[2] Scholar Nancy Eiesland describes the harms of segregationist charity in her work The Disabled God, a text whose mandate to transform theological symbols and body practices in light of disability experience inspires and informs my work. See: Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 70–71.

[3] My research draws on two texts which emphasize the theological significance of mapping public and ecclesial spaces: Teresa Berger’s Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011) and Sharon V. Betcher’s Spirit and the Obligation of Social Flesh: A Secular Theology for the Global City, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

Photo Credit: Cindy Brown

  • More About Spurrier’s Research

    I first encountered Holy Family Church, a small parish in Atlanta, as an intern when I was in a masters of divinity program nine years ago.  I was intrigued by the history and vitality of a community that had begun to welcome people from group homes into its congregation over thirty years ago during a period of demographic change when the parish was in danger of closing its doors.  After my internship, I found that the people at Holy Family continued to stimulate my thinking about the divine, the Christian church, and human life in profound ways.

    As a researcher, my exploration of this congregation has been informed by liturgical theology, which asserts the importance of an assembly of Christians as a primary mode of loving and knowing God and one another.  My ecclesiology has also been shaped by disability studies and theologies, which critique the elusive ideals of  “normalcy” and assert human difference as essential to community and access to community as an ethical imperative.  Together these disciplines have helped to frame my investigation, as I explore the possibilities and limitations of a small congregation, in which a wide range of human differences are present and which also welcomes many visitors and volunteers.  How does psychiatric disability transform what it means to gather, to hold, to name, and to send a congregation?

    In the fall of 2013, under the review of an institutional review board that oversees human subjects research, I spent a year in full-time participant observation, coming to the parish four to five days a week. I looked to Holy Family not as a template to be replicated by other congregations but as a sign that points to vital questions and approaches that others could engage within their own contexts.  During the past year I have returned once or twice a week to explore and test my interpretations of Holy Family in conversations, interactions, and interviews with staff and congregants. In addition to working on a dissertation for readers outside this congregation, I have also worked with staff at the parish to identify primary barriers to access that challenge Holy Family’s identity and mission and to imagine viable alternatives.

Rebecca Spurrier
About the Author
Rebecca Spurrier is a Ph.D. candidate in Theological Studies in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion. Her research engages embodiment theories and disability studies as important resources for religious and ritual aesthetics. Her dissertation, titled “Works of Love: Beauty and Fragility in a Community of Difference,” focuses on a Christian church in which persons with psychiatric disabilities are central to the life of the congregation.