A reflection by Sarah
A couple of months ago, Leah Libresco who blogs at Unequally Yoked called for a series of guest posts on the theme of “loving parishioners in their particularity.” Each of the posts in this series is insightful and challenging, offering issue-specific commentary on the question, “How can the Church do better at loving and welcoming people relative to ways they are different from others?” In the days since my surgical procedure last Friday, I’ve been thinking back to many of these posts and how delighted I was to see this conversation developing.
Loving others as they are instead of who we would like them to be is hard. When we see people in our parishes experiencing difficulty or lack of welcome due to some form of difference, sometimes our first reaction is, “Let’s find a way to help that person be more like everyone else, or at least remind him/her that in Christ we are all the same. That will solve the problem.” I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve had these thoughts myself. “Of course the best way to welcome a black person at a predominantly white parish is to treat him/her like everyone else,” or “Isn’t that what the person in the wheelchair wants? For others to acknowledge that the disability doesn’t make a difference in God’s eyes?” I’ve been guilty of this in the past. And since my own forms of difference have become more noticeable within my current parish environment, I’ve been thinking more often about how hurtful and unloving these attitudes are — no matter how compassionate and equalizing they may seem.
Over the past few months I’ve been engaging in conversation with friends and loved ones about ways to be hospitable and loving to people with chronic illness and people who are Deaf or are dealing with hearing loss in adulthood. Going through various highs and lows associated with my Ménière’s disease has made me more keenly aware that, “Just treat everyone the same” is not enough. But if it isn’t the best response, what does it mean to show hospitality and love to parishioners in their particularity? I do not have a complete answer to this question, but these are some scattered thoughts based upon my own experiences.
I believe firmly that asking questions is an essential part of loving another person. We cannot assume that we know and understand the needs of people whose life experiences are different from our own. Simply asking, “What do you need from us as your Christian family?” is a great first step. Not all people are accustomed to being forward about their needs, but this opens the door for conversation. A hearing person is not the best determiner of a Deaf or hard of hearing person’s needs within a community of faith. A healthy person is not the best determiner of a chronically ill person’s needs. A straight person is not the best determiner of a gay person’s needs. Yet for some reason, many of us think we already know how to “solve the problem.”
That brings me to another facet of this issue. As we’ve said here before with regard to LGBT issues, people are people — not projects. Kind as this may seem, it is not necessarily loving to visit a chronically ill person and tell him or her, “You seem to be doing fine! You’re sitting up today.” Many people in this situation will hear the comment as invalidating. In the same way, it is not loving to tell an adult who is going deaf, “It seems like your hearing is getting better. You can hear me now and hold a conversation with me.” I’m not in the habit of policing people’s words, but I do think it’s easy to make such statements without realizing their implications. If you tell me you’re glad to see that I’m hearing better, especially when we’re in a quiet room and you’re sitting beside me and speaking at 60 decibels, what you are actually telling me is that you value me as a hearing person — not as a person created in God’s image. You are communicating that you see my hearing loss as nothing more than a problem to be solved. A more hospitable approach to discussing health and disability issues with people who are chronically ill or disabled would be to remind them consistently that you love them because of who they are.
I also believe that loving parishioners in their particularity means acknowledging that intentions only go so far. We might have the best of intentions in what we do or say to show love to a person who is different from us, but our intentions matter very little because really, it’s not about us. When we say or do something that causes offense and our first response to being called out is, “I didn’t mean any harm by that,” we’re being selfish. We are communicating that the other person’s feelings of unwelcome are less important than our own need to be helpful. “You’re hypersensitive. Political correctness makes everyone a bad guy. When I was growing up, ‘deaf and dumb’ is what everybody called them. I didn’t mean anything by that.” This sort of remark serves only to disenfranchise a person who is already feeling less than welcome at church. Chances are, the offended party already realizes that you didn’t intend offense. He or she is likely seeking an opportunity to discuss the issue further and explain why certain actions, language, and attitudes are harmful to others. Loving people as they are means being open to that conversation.
Loving people in their particularity means learning to treat others as you would like to be treated…while realizing that this is not equivalent to, “Just treat everyone the same.” No other person deals with exactly the same things as you do. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, and feel free to challenge me, but I would guess that none of us really want to be treated exactly the same as every other person.
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