And They Made an Opening

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“I don’t like the winter,” Mack said. 

“Of course you don’t,” I replied absently, not looking up from my computer.

“It’s because of the ice on the sidewalks,” he continued. “It’s hard for my walking stick to feel around the edges.” 

I looked up. “Right,” I said, “I thought you were going to say that it was because of the cold.”

Yet another aspect of disability that I had not considered before meeting Mack. At Innovation Youth, the ministry I direct in downtown Montreal, we run a small high school diploma program for students who cannot complete their studies in a “regular” school. In Mack’s case, his visual impairment had also garnered him a misdiagnosed learning difficulty: two months into the program with us proved that he was, in fact, a gifted student, scoring well above average on most subjects. 

The school system had failed him. And now so were our sidewalks.  

I began seeing the city through the lens of disability. Mack was navigating the infrastructures and systems of a two-speed city. The first speed was the efficient: for mainstream, able-bodied, child-free, non-elderly folk. The second-speed was the leftover speed: for everyone else.

Our metro system only has a handful of wheelchair-accessible stations. The Old Montreal section, with its darling cobblestone walkways, is a nightmare for anyone with mobility or visual issues. The island of Montreal is in fact a mountain (as hinted by its name) and our hilly streets are a death trap in the winter for even the most able-bodied of walkers. And for our deaf or hard of hearing citizens, there are far too few public services offering appropriate signage. 

I have reflected since our days of ministering to Mack on the story of Jesus and the crippled man whose friends lowered him down through the roof. I wonder now if this is less a story of miraculous healing and more one of accessibility. Were the gospel writers as incensed as I have been at the obstacles faced by our differently-abled siblings? Were they aware that making a hole in the roof, while a truly remarkable act by the man’s friends, was also a symbol of ridiculousness?

Because it is ridiculous how far we need to go in our communities, our cities, and our places of gathering in order to make room for The Other (for that is how they are treated) who is visually impaired, hard of hearing, neuro-divergent, suffering from chronic pain, or mobility-reduced. 

The leftover-speed spaces and structures beg a re-pondering of our theology of the city. Is this merely a question of accessibility (although, even if it were, there would still be so much work to do)? Of justice for the marginalized? A reflection of our society’s ego? Or does it go to the very roots of our understanding of the Gospel and Place? How do my differently-abled siblings experience God’s Shalom when their experience of the physical environments of the city differs so greatly from my own? 

How can we make openings (just as the crippled man’s friends did) in our infrastructures, systems, gatherings, and theologies in order to make Jesus accessible? 

I watched as Mack’s friends learned how to be allies—plugging his laptop in, waiting for his assisted transport to come, offering an arm when they were in new spaces or walking on icy sidewalks.
And they made an opening.

The Alpha series we showed the kids had no closed captions. Mack missed out on questions until we began reading them aloud. 
And they made an opening.

How do the dyslexic or illiterate follow new worship lyrics? 
And they made an opening.

Will Mack’s community members know how to help him to the altar for communion? 
(Mack’s friends would say: offer an arm and let him lead. Never push from behind. Give him advance warning if there are steps or uneven floors. Ask him if he still needs you. When he makes a joke about his walking stick, laugh. Let him put his hands out for the bread and the wine when he is ready. He’ll know what to do.) 

And they made an opening.

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Very thoughtful article - and very thought provoking. Thanks for sharing.

Guide

Jenna, thanks for this biblical, thoughtful and challenging blog. Just as we need to reponder our theology of the city, as you say, we also need to reponder our theology of church buildings, programming, ministries, and communications that makes openings for all of God's people.