By Minnie Payne, Special Contributor…
The Rev. Robert L. Walker was born with Usher syndrome, which in his case caused early, persistent hearing problems and gradual loss of sight.
These did not keep him from a 42-year career in United Methodist ministry.
“In my penultimate appointment, our district superintendent was told at a Charge Conference that I was the least handicapped minister they had ever had,” Dr. Walker writes in the new book Speaking Out: Gifts of Ministering Undeterred by Disabilities. “That was an unsolicited, but prized honor.”
Speaking Out collects essays by some two dozen UM clergy, and it’s a project of the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities. Proceeds go to that group, which has 132 members and offers support to clergy with disabilities, as well as a challenge to church officials who would get in their way.
Bishop Peggy Johnson, who leads the East Pennsylvania Conference and is well-known for her work in deaf ministries, attended a 2009 meeting of UM clergy with disabilities and championed the idea of such a book.
“These are personal encounters with the overwhelming grace of God in the midst of a church that is sometimes empowering and grace-filled and other times discriminatory and unaware of the many issues around disabilities,” Bishop Johnson said of the project in a written endorsement. “The disability community is a gifted voice among us that needs to be embraced, understood and allowed to minister in our midst.”
The task of editing Speaking Out fell to Dr. Walker. The contributors’ experiences vary widely, and their tones vary from optimistic to bitter.
But Dr. Walker found, in pulling the book together, certain common themes.
“One thread is that too often it’s the church’s hierarchy, not the appointed body of Christ—the local church—that pre-judges and then discriminates against clergypersons living with one or more disabilities,” he said in an interview.
Among the contributors is the Rev. Tom Hudspeth, executive pastor and leader of deaf ministries at Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas, who has been partially deaf since childhood. He recalls in his essay a humorous but telling encounter from early in his career, when he went to see the pastor he would be serving under.
“Upon meeting my soon-to-be senior minister for the first time, it was obvious that someone had apprised him that I suffered from a hearing loss,” Dr. Hudspeth writes. “His first words, ‘TOM, IT’S NICE TO MEET YOU,’ were so loud it took me aback.”
Dr. Hudspeth wore hearing aids, and pointed out to the pastor that they eliminated the need for others to speak so loudly.
Later in his essay, Dr. Hudspeth describes how he won the pastor’s confidence over three years. He writes as well about how as a seminarian he came to embrace his identity as a hard-of-hearing pastor called to minister to the deaf.
“I have come to realize that when God called me to ordained ministry, God didn’t just want my hearing side,” he writes. “God wanted the deaf part of me too.”
Dr. Walker is a contributor to the book, as well as its editor, and his essay tells how his diminishing eyesight was one among the factors that caused a crisis of self-confidence in his ministry.
During a renewal leave, he had an unlikely encounter with a Black Panther member who said the “black problem” in America was not the fault of black people, but of white people who couldn’t accept the idea of racial equality.
That conversation caused what Dr. Walker writes was a “light bulb” moment for him. He concluded that it wasn’t his fault he’d been born with a disability, any more than it was a black person’s “fault” to be born with black skin.
The combination of the renewal leave and this epiphany turned him around. “From that time I no longer denied the legitimacy of being an ordained United Methodist minister,” he writes.
Bishop Johnson contributes a personal essay titled “Be Thou My Vision” in which she recounts growing up with an underdeveloped left eye, due to a condition known as micro-opthalmia. She began as a girl to wear an artificial eye, which prompted attention, as she writes, “curious and sometimes rude questions” from other children. As difficult as that was, she writes, it gave her an affinity for others who had a disability.
One especially vivid scene in the essay describes how, as a young adult, she attended an outdoors event called “Jesus ’76” in Pennsylvania. At one service, the elders asked those who wanted to be healed to come down front. Bishop Johnson did, causing, as she recalls it, “audible gasps” when she removed her plastic eye and put it on the altar.
Despite long, fervent prayers from the leaders of the service and others in attendance, Bishop Johnson was not healed.
“Somehow that night, I came to the realization that I was born this way for a reason; namely, God had a plan for me and the disability community,” she writes.
Bishop Johnson would go on to learn American Sign Language, do her doctor of ministry thesis on how deaf-blind people experience God, help start a Christian camp for deaf-blind people, and lead a deaf congregation. And, in 2008, she was elected to the episcopacy, with deaf and deaf-blind people participating in her consecration service.
While Bishop Johnson’s personal story is one of great success, other contributors to Speaking Out dwell on the obstacles they’ve faced in trying to do ministry within the UMC.
Bishop Johnson herself writes that the church has far to go in integrating disabled people, both clergy and lay. She notes that most church buildings are, with the exception of a wheelchair ramp, “totally inaccessible,” and that few churches provide sign-language interpreters and many have no equipment to help hard-of-hearing people.
As for deaf-blind people, “only a few churches on the planet” accommodate them, according to Bishop Johnson.
“I pray for the day when the church will not only provide accessibility for people with disabilities, but also for their empowerment,” she writes. “May people with disabilities be allowed to have full participation in all aspects of the church’s life and work, including the professional ministry.”
Dr. Walker said he hopes Speaking Out will be read “by every church member and all clergypersons “from the Council of Bishops on down.”
Dr. Hudspeth was even more specific, saying his hope is that the book will inform Boards of Ordained Ministry throughout the UMC, including in Africa and Eurasia, where he said deaf people are often literally hidden away because they’re seen as a sign of God’s punishment.
“As one who is looking from the inside of our church,” he said, “I would have to say that we still have a long ways to go in not just welcoming people with disabilities, but in actively inviting and equipping people with disabilities to bless our church with the unique gifts God has given them.”
Mrs. Payne is a writer in Carrollton, Texas, and attends Holy Covenant UMC in Carrollton. Speaking Out (CreateSpace, 268 pages, paperback) is available through amazon.com.