Rochelle Scheuermann, Ph.D. On Churches and the Vulnerable in the Time of the Coronavirus

Rochelle Scheuermann is Associate Professor of Evangelism and Leadership and Program Director for four master’s degrees at Wheaton College. Her research interests include disability and the church, theology of mission, and the intersection of preaching and culture.

When COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in the U.S., many cities and states declared emergency stay-at-home orders. Toilet paper because a scarce commodity, masks became common place, schools switched to e-learning, all but the most essential businesses went remote, and churches closed their doors, making a fast pivot to online. It seemed as if one week everything was normal and the next pastoral teams were scrambling to make church virtual. It was heroic how churches big and small made the transition and shifted to new ways to keep communities together. Pastoral teams, you did a seriously good job!

Like so many, we hunkered down in our house, gathering around a computer each Sunday morning, grateful for the connection that the streamed worship service gave us. We logged into Zoom each week for Bible study and had more regular contact through Facebook messenger groups with people in the church, sharing requests and offering encouragement. In those early weeks, this online presence was a spiritual lifeline that kept us centered and moving forward.

As time wore on, Zoom fatigue set in and the daily messenger chats waned. We were left with just online church and like so many, it wasn’t enough. Online church got us through the early stay-at-home orders, but it didn’t erase our need for in-person community. We have longed for the day when things would “return to normal” so we could be with our church family again.

But as churches open, I am beginning to wonder if we have a place anymore in the church. You see, my son was born with Down syndrome. Over the course of his short two year life, we’ve become regulars with the audiologist, ENT, ophthalmologist, neurologist, neurosurgeon, endocrinologist, physical therapist, developmental therapist, and speech therapist. We were fortunate to ditch the cardiologist early on, but after my son’s most recent pediatrician visit, we added a dermatologist. And because of various health issues, my son is considered high-risk in terms of COVID-19. That means no more daycare and much more diligence on our part to keep him safe. There are days where I feel the isolation that only those who walk closely to people with disability feel. We have to think about so much all the time and COVID-19 has only magnified this; it would be nice, just for a day, to have a break. But as churches have begun their return to in-person gatherings, rather than having a communal space in which to find support, care, and encouragement, I have felt more isolated than ever before. Why? Because many churches, in trying to return to “normal” are unknowingly returning to structures that favor the abled.

You see, disability has both medical and social aspects. Disability is such, first, because people are considered to deviate from socially-constructed norms of how we think a body or mind should work. In my son’s case, an additional chromosome affects the speed of his cognitive and physical development. Right now he’s a 2 ½ year old with the mental development of a 21-24 month old in the body the size of a 1 year old. While he is not “typical,” he is very high-functioning and is developing extremely well and evenly, even if he’s behind his peers.

However, disability also has social aspects. As evangelical theologian Amos Yong helpfully describes, “…people with disabilities are not only individuals who have physical or mental/intellectual challenges; they are people who confront challenges made worse by the attendant social stigmas and attitudes which subjugate them. Hence, people with disabilities not only suffer physically (although some really may not suffer in this sense at all, but non-disabled people impute suffering to them based on normate assumptions), but also are afflicted by the social prejudices that they have to deal with every day” (2011, 12). When a society functions according to a norm defined by those who are “abled,” the society is said to promote ableism. Again, using Yong, ableism “names the discriminatory attitudes, negative stereotypes, and sociopolitical and economic structures and institutions that together function to exclude people with disabilities from full participation in society” (2011, 11).

And it is here that I want to focus – when enforced, ableism excludes people with disabilities from full participation. In pivoting to online, churches did a truly noble thing – they utilized available technology to minister to the whole church and keep the whole church together. The problem with COVID-19, however, is that it complicates a church’s ability to return to in-person. What rules do we follow? Do we enforce masks? How do we distance people? Where do we hold services? How do we balance living in faith with maintaining wise health practices? In the case of COVID-19, a wide-range of people in our churches are now marked as “vulnerable.” For some, this was to be expected. But for many this has come as a surprise since they don’t otherwise consider themselves as having a disability. For still others, perhaps, the pandemic has “outed” them and made public aspects of their lives they had previously kept within more private realms. What is a church to do when there are so many more “people with disabilities” in the congregation?

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Source: Christianity Today