Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

It’s practical to make churches “user-friendly”

Musicians could tell church architects a thing or two. Word comes to me from a choir director in Tennessee that his church is planning a million dollar renovation, including provisions of various kinds to make the building accessible to persons with disabilities. However, no money has been set aside to help singers get into the choir loft!

My friend notes that among his choristers, quite a few have mobility issues — situations which do not affect their ability to sing — but which make them reluctant to share this talent because they have problems ascending into the singers’ loft.

One octogenarian couple is among my friend’s most faithful choristers. The wife fell recently and ended up temporarily in a wheel chair. Her husband, devoted to her care, was intent on bumping his wife in her wheelchair up and down the stairs that lead to the choir loft. Feeling that he alone knew his wife’s needs, he refused to allow anyone else, including their son (the choir’s highly valued tenor soloist) to assist him in this effort.

Not surprisingly, at a recent Wednesday night choir practice, the husband’s effort failed. Pat and Alice both took a tumble! Pat fell backwards, and Alice — in the wheelchair, was back-ended on top of her collapsed husband at the bottom of the stairs. The shock was relieved when the first words heard after the gasps of those who witnessed the debacle were: “Well, d-mn it, Pat!” — these un-churchly niceties uttered by Alice, his spouse of 53 years!

So perhaps choir lofts need more gracious entryways, and pulpits, also — given the experience of my old “boss” at the church in Chicago I served before coming here. John Buchanan was a jogger — five miles along the Lake Michigan shore every morning before he arrived at his desk at 7 a.m. sharp.

Those who know my habits will realize how discomfited I was when this energetic fitness buff replaced our scholarly and retiring elderly Welsh pastor, Dr. Elam Davies, whose sole attempt at exercise was the occasional brisk walk down Michigan Boulevard. In fact, I decided I needed to search for greener pastures in self-defense, because I was sure John was going to begin requiring the rest of us to jog with him — which I might have done in those days for at least a mile (or less), but NOT at 6 a.m. or during a Chicago winter!

Well, John met his match, not in the resistance of couch potatoes like me, but in the unforgiving pavement on which he had been running each day for a long span of years. It ruined both hips before he was 50 years old, and they had to be surgically replaced with artificial ones — each operation requiring a long period of enforced convalescence and sustained physical therapy. Well, John — indefatigable as he is, kept on working as best he could — delivering sermons from the second Sunday after each procedure.

However, the pulpit in the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago is one of those “crow’s nest” affairs, accessible only by a narrow flight of 12 or 15 stairs. It is not for the faint of heart or anyone afraid of heights.

So well before the service began, John would have himself carried up to the pulpit and seated on a small chair below its railings, so that he could simply stand up when it was time to preach. Of course, he had to dispense with greeting worshippers after the service, as it was not possible to carry him down in a dignified way until after the service was over.

I remember a blind minister in the Mississippi Delta. In fact, I have known three blind ministers through the years — two of them elderly and masters of the ability to preach from their remembered accumulation of knowledge and anecdotal material — inspirations all to any young preacher who, when challenged to fill twenty minutes with all he or she could call up from memory’s store, might feel that they would disclose everything they ever knew about God and religion, and still be caught up short.

I can “fill twenty minutes” but not like old Dr. Tyrone Thomas Williams of Tunica, for example, who with great integrity and color, served the Presbyterian Church there from 1919, until death — but not blindness — finally silenced his voice. How these good men entered and exited their pulpits I do not recall, but we had a young woman with us in seminary who was blind and used a seeing eye dog. We used to joke with her as to whether the dog would also wear a traditional black gown, like those which Presbyterian ministers are expected to use!

The Bible makes clear that all kinds of people with various disabilities have served God in their time — Jacob who walked with a limp after he wrestled with God’s angel; Moses, who stuttered, but faced down a malevolent Pharaoh, and then propounded God’s law from Mount Sinai to the gathered children of Israel in the wilderness; Abraham and Sarah, who were old and no longer able to bear children, even though children were necessary if God’s covenant with them was to be fulfilled; St. Paul, who had his “thorn in the flesh” — some say it was an eye disease, yet he wrote all those wonderful epistles; and King Saul, who ruled Israel, even though he was troubled by an evil spirit that looks like the depressive illnesses that have plagued so many of us through the years. I could multiply this list if I thought about it longer.

Suffice it to say that the church as I have seen it is made up, as the old Prayer Book says, “of all sorts and conditions of men” — every one of us “broken” in one sense or another, for the only perfect man was Jesus — and His perfection was of an ethical kind — no one knows whether he suffered any physical disability or not. So it is only practical for churches to make our buildings as user-friendly as possible. And if we do it, we are simply trying to embody in our architecture the hospitality and welcome that we picture when we preach about the welcoming, outstretched arms of God.

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