Thursday, June 18, 2009

One person can change a congregation

As a Disciple minister I was taught to baptize by immersion, in keeping with the Biblical tradition. Typically the candidates for baptism are in junior high or high school and have been part of the congregation since they were born. My biggest "problem" had been in dealing with candidates taller than me in a very shallow baptistry.

Every now and then, however, a situation comes up that requires something different. This particular event was brought to mind recently when @beachtweet asked if we had ever considered the elderly as a mission field. (And BTW @beachtweet, if you are reading this, the lady in the photo was 77 at the time, not 72 as I told you previously.)

Jo had been unchurched for over 40 years when she started attending Sunday worship. But she was looking for something - she'd been attending Unity church, reading the Daily Word and having theological discussions with a nephew who was an ordained minister when she came to an Alternative Christmas event at our church one Sunday. After that first visit she kept coming back because, she said "I was so impressed with how much good the church does for other people. Then the warmth and love from all the people there. . " After a while she asked about joining the church and when I learned she had never been baptized we began meeting to prepare her for this great event which would take place on Easter Sunday.

I knew right away that there would be some physical issues I hadn't had to deal with before. Jo was 77, legally blind and wheelchair bound. To get be baptized by immersion she would have to maneuver through a narrow hallway to change into a robe, go up a steep flight of stairs to get to the baptistry, down three steps into the water - then reverse the process, change out of wet clothes . . . . clearly that wasn't going to work. Equally clearly I could not say 'Oh sorry. If you can't get into the water I can't welcome you into the body of Christ." Love was going to have to trump tradition. Luckily some UMC and UCC friends were able to help me plan a baptism by sprinkling that could take place in the center of the congregation.

Jo wasn't part of our life together for very long - she passed the following August. But she will always be in our hearts and memories. Because Jo's attendance and baptism led to changes in the way we do church here. Jo wouldn't sit in the back where there is room provided for wheelchairs. She sat in her wheelchair in the center aisle about midway down on the "gospel side" of the santuary. And y'know, other wheelchair bound folks followed her example and started parking their chairs where ever they were most comfortable in worship. (We just ask that they leave room for the deacons to get past them during communion and offering time.) Thanks to Jo we realize much more clearly that compliance with ADA isn't enough. Just as I had learned that love was more important than tradition, our congregation learned that although supplying a place where wheelchairs fit is all we need to do be obey the law of the land, it isn't obedient to the Law of God - to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Thanks, @beachtweet, for bringing this to mind so clearly this week.

1 comment:

Gerry said...

Great story...thanks for telling it. Who cares how much water there is?!?
Gerry (aka @chalicexn)