On “special” needs and ministry

The Sunday morning crush–those moments after worship lets out and as a pastor you spiral through the gauntlet of requests, cordialities, and pastoral care where in a matter of condensed minutes nearly everyone wants a piece of you.  Across these moments I struggle to keep track of all of the information, making mental notes, hoping against hope that I won’t lose the important stuff amidst the sea of bodies and sounds and breaths.  And then, just as suddenly, one of our congregants with special needs descends upon me, with increased intensity and concern.  She has seen something on the news that is bringing her to tears; he becomes angry as he struggles to remember what he just said to me; she can see nothing but darkness through the thick depression that plagues her.

I do not mean to paint disability here as unilateral or un-diverse, but many of the people in our congregation with special needs where their hearts on their sleeves.  They plough into me, a person who’s a bit sensitive to touch, with eager, forceful hugs.  They launch into detailed descriptions and litanies–lists of weekly activities without warrant and ad nauseum.  They foist their feelings upon me in thrusts of emotion, seemingly without warning or reason.

And in so doing, they are deeply needy.

Their bare, disruptive, palpable need right there in the midst of more palatably, socially-aware displays of contained emotion, less barrier-breaking touch, and less audacious requests clashes with my own sensibilities.  It’s too much, I think to myself, this business of trying to minister to folks with special needs alongside more “neurotypical “folks, which is the dance in which our church has become messily entangled over the past few years.  I can’t help but think about the imbalance special needs present not just during Sunday morning but within the life of a church–how I, as a pastor, can’t shirk the sense that in attending to these needy folks other more subtle needs may be lost.  In trying to provide classes and worship and counsel that is suitable for all modes of learning, my colleague in ministry, church leaders, and I may be spreading ourselves thin, engaged in some cruel, impossible quest to meet needs that are unreasonable and insatiable along others that are more comprehensible and predictable.

Sainte Chapelle
Stained glass at Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But in pondering neediness I am reminded of the poor, elderly foster mothers whom I met in China and the way their vulnerability rocked and assaulted the sensibilities of the orphanage monitors.  Such women, many of whom had been abandoned by their own biological children, so desperately relied upon and needed their orphaned, disabled children to recreate life-giving family bonds in contemporary China.  In their need, they reminded middle-aged orphanage monitors of their own failures to care for their aging parents or their neglect of their only children.  They reminded these orphanage monitors, powerfully, uncomfortably, and disruptively of their own human and yet deeply repressed and seemingly inappropriate needs for love, compassion, and care.

And here I do mean to compare the need of these foster mothers to the need of folks with disabilities and to the needs we all have as human beings.  I am reminded of Jesus’s ministry to deeply needy people–to the perceived inconvenience of the poor, disorderly women, especially those pouring lavish ointments over his head and touching the hem of his garment.  I am reminded of the metaphors so often associated with need and disability–the unclean, the contaminators, the sinful–and I am aghast that in erecting divisions between people with disabilities and myself, I find that I am the one who is fragile, human, and sinful.  I am suddenly aware that the crush of bodies on Sunday morning and these raw emotions, hugs, and pressing needs that seem so inconvenient and disruptive are both deeply human and deeply holy.

And I begin to see that ministry and life (for in Jesus’s life), were not and are not about balance or containment or arbitration, because then life becomes about division.  Then I am led to believe that some people are needy while I am not or that need isn’t so fundamentally human, that it’s not part and parcel of Jesus’s incarnation and ministry.  So I try and I struggle and I pray to let go of my economist tendencies and submit to such a mysterious ministry of mercy and care and love.  I try not to mediate the crush; I try just to pay attention.  

But I am also reminded that it’s not just paying attention, and how painfully aware I become in these moments of my own need–my need for self-acceptance, other’s acceptance–and my need for Jesus.  And I become thankful that there are some in our midst who aren’t necessarily having such divisive thoughts or harboring such divisions, some who are so deeply, honestly, beautifully needy.  I become happily convinced that “we” have gone about this ministry all wrong, for “we” have so much to learn.  I become convinced, so richly and powerfully as I do over and over because of God’s ministry to us, that it is not I who is ministering but it is I who am being ministered to.

Crucifix
Crucifix in Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.
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