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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, 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. As this congregation resists practices of “segregationist charity,” it also 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.

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❯❯ What to learn more about Rebecca Spurrier’s research at Holy Family, listen to our conversation with her.

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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 sit with a woman who never stands in order to hear her voice.  I wave to another 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.   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 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 note 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.”

Timothy Snyder
About the Author
Timothy Snyder (PhD student, Boston University) is managing director of StudyingCongregations.org and adjunct instructor of theology and spirituality at Wartburg Theological Seminary.