Normal Was Not Actually Great
Daniel Hayward is a United Church minister in Ontario and chair of the UCC’s Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee. We asked him to share his perspective on church and COVID-19 through a disability lens.
I serve two communities of faith in Ingleside and Long Sault, on the St. Lawrence River in Eastern Ontario. My spouse and I both have autoimmune conditions; mine is anklylosing spondylitis, which causes spinal curvature. Hers in particular is assessed as putting her at high risk from Covid-19.
We have been in isolation since I led the last worship services in our church sanctuaries on March 15. At the beginning there was a feeling that everyone was in the same boat; both villages were largely shut down, and all of our neighbours were housebound. I was also very busy learning new skills to lead worship online, and looking after each other occupies a lot of time. I was interested to see that accommodations that disabled people have been refused in many cases, such as working from home, were suddenly adopted almost universally. We know that other disabled people have been unable to get medical care or assistance with food and necessities, so we are grateful that we have been able to live while rarely leaving our house the entire time, with the local store and pharmacy delivering food and medication, and friends helping out with other needs. But we have had little human contact for three months, and have not been closer than two metres to another person – and those encounters have been sporadic – which, I am sure, is not good for our mental health.
With summer here and businesses reopened in Ontario that feeling of solidarity from March has been tossed aside. As far as most people are concerned, the pandemic is over – we can watch neighbours gathering, families celebrating, mask wearing and physical distancing being ignored, people eating and drinking on patios. Yet we remain isolated, wondering if this behaviour will cause a surge in infections, and how long we can continue to get supplies brought to us. Social media has been one of our chief means to get (virtually) out of our house, but it has been ruined for many in the disabled community by ableism that treats disabled people as objects, and their lives as expendable. At first it was calls, including by people I know, to let the virus run rampant to build up “herd immunity” so that the economy can reopen fully. (Those posting this would occasionally mention the need to “protect the vulnerable,” or would say the quiet part out loud and admit that this would kill disabled and elderly people; a small price to pay, in their view.) As I’m writing, it is progressives mocking President Trump for having physical difficulties, doubling down on their ableism when disabled people push back against supposed allies throwing us under the bus.
Ontario now allows in-person services in houses of worship at 30 percent capacity. Both of my communities of faith have decided not to worship in our sanctuaries until Labour Day. But I am concerned about when we do resume. Can we continue online worship or some other outreach for those, including disabled people, who will be wary about returning to church buildings? Can I decline to lead worship in person if my spouse is still at high risk? How much pressure would there be on me, given that we have spent so much time and effort talking about and planning for reopening the buildings? What about hospital and long-term care residence visits, when those are allowed? How can I best serve God and the people, while minimizing the risk to my spouse and myself? Our Regional Council assures us that church staff have the right to refuse unsafe work. However, while there has been a significant increase in Canadian workers declining work they believe to be dangerous due to potential infection, provincial labour authorities are turning down nearly all of these requests. And even if a pastoral charge allows a minister to forego leading worship in buildings or making pastoral visits, how long can this last? What happens if there is no vaccine in a year, or two years, and the risk of infection remains? Governing bodies are unlikely to be patient for long when revenues are down significantly. As well, in addition to the threat posed to my employment, there must be a danger to our mental health if we have to live in isolation for another year, or more, without human contact.
As I look to the future as a disabled person, I wish that we would not be forgotten. Communities of faith, in the rush to reopen, must not set aside the needs of disabled parishioners and members of the community. I have heard colleagues talk a lot about obeying the letter of provincial directives on reopening (which brings 1 Corinthians 6:12 to my mind, that what is lawful is not necessarily beneficial), but little is said about going beyond; to use this to reimagine the church as truly inclusive of disabled people. This can be a new opportunity to eliminate physical barriers and attitudes that prevent disabled people from participating fully in the life of the church. Amid all the discussion about “getting back to normal,” I am reminded constantly of the words of Alice Wong, a disabled activist, that “normal was not actually great for a lot of people.”