One of the reasons it hit me so hard was because it was so unexpected.
Last Sunday started out like most others. One of my caregivers came in the morning. I took a shower, she helped me get dressed, and we headed off to church. Once we were there, we were getting settled in our typical spot when a woman I didn’t know approached us.
“These seats are reserved for a baptism today,” she said. “Please move.” There was an expectation in her tone and she waited as we got up to go elsewhere.
Now, I need to give a little context at this point. I have attended the church that I go to for almost twenty years. I am close to many of the people who go there and have a deep love and respect for the senior pastor, Bill. When the sanctuary was built a few years ago, he told me that an accessible pew (with space for a wheelchair user) had been put right up front just for me. He and I have had numerous conversations over the years about how I don’t like to sit in the back or on along the side aisles at church because when everyone stands up I can’t see. When that happens it makes me feel isolated and not a part of the service. The other reason space up front on the right works for me so well is because it allows me to sit in the spot where I can position Leah, my service dog in the way that she is used to; on the right side of my wheelchair when she is laying down. In that position, I can hold her leash in my dominant hand, which works better for both of us.
Sunday was a day when I had very low energy, both physically and emotionally. It was one of the reasons I wanted to be at church, a place where I feel safe and loved. Read more about that here. My low energy was also a reason I chose to stay quiet. I wasn’t convinced I was capable of remaining calm.
Therefore, when this woman I had never met asked me to leave my seat and waited for me to do so, I was somewhat shocked and hurt. Because I was not at my best that day, it came across to me like she didn’t care about my needs and whether I would be comfortable. I came away feeling dismissed, and even though we tried sitting on the other side of the aisle, Leah was agitated because she was on the wrong side of my wheelchair. I didn’t think she would last the whole service without being disruptive, so we left.
At first, I was enraged, I am not going to lie. This woman had a whole lot of nerve, in my opinion, to ask me to give up the spot where I was most comfortable in church because she was related to the baby being baptized. Further, given that it was my perception that she expected me to move, it reminded me of several times in the past few months when people have ignored my needs and dismissed my feelings.
I sent an email to Bill to let him know about the situation and asking for his suggestions as to what to do if a similar thing happened in the future. The following is part of his response.
So sorry about the incident on Sunday. I appreciate your accommodating that family… It may be that they had asked Kristen to reserve the first couple of rows for them, and Kristen, ( his secretary) not thinking about your spot, said OK. I’ll let Kristen know to share with any who ask this that they can sit there, but that they can’t take the wheelchair space and the seats next to it because we have limited wheelchair seating. I trust that whoever spoke to you didn’t understand at all that moving across the aisle would be difficult.
My hope is that is since this hasn’t happened before, it won’t happen again. So hopefully you won’t be put into this situation again. There are a couple ways to handle it, I suppose. One would be to simply say, “I would love to move but there are reasons that I must sit in this place because of the positioning of my service dog.” And if there is a difficulty, I’d be happy to talk with them. Also, I’m happy for Leah to sit in the middle aisle if that’s what is necessary for her to be on your right, especially if she’ll wag her tail when I say something funny. 🙂 I’m so encouraged that you are willing to deal with (this situation). So please know I’m praying that…next Sunday you can return to worship and all will be well.
In the last few days, with the benefit of some distance, as this scenario has been swimming around in my head, my perspective about it has started to change.
First, I now understand that this woman simply wanted the baptism to go smoothly and be special. To that end, she reserved the first few pews in church for her family. She didn’t get out of bed Sunday morning with the intention of making my life more difficult and she had absolutely no idea that some other people have treated me disrespectfully lately. She also didn’t know the reasons why that particular spot works so well for me, and why the other accessible seating in church doesn’t meet all my needs. She simply asked me to move from my usual place in the church.
When I allowed my thoughts to dip underneath the hurt and anger, I saw that she had also given me a wonderful gift, something that I ask people around me to do every day. She treated me exactly the same way she would have treated anyone else. She didn’t hesitate to approach me because she was uncomfortable or thought I was fragile. She would have asked anybody who was in that seat on that particular day to sit elsewhere, whether they had a disability or not. In my world, that is awesome! If I truly want to be treated like an equal, I have to be willing to take the good with the bad.
After I read Bill’s email this morning, I realized that he gave me several gifts from this situation as well. He started out by completely validating my feelings. Next, he gave me several solutions if the same things ever happen again, along with what he was going to do to minimize the possibility of the recurrence of the events. He also told me that he would talk to people about where it is best for me to sit in church only if and after I tried and failed. He didn’t offer to solve this problem for me, but rather let me know that he had my back if I needed him. He trusts me and has confidence that I am capable of taking care of situations like this on my own.
There have been too many times in my life when I have inadvertently hurt others because I didn’t know what they were going through or what kinds of things they needed. In those cases, it is my hope that they can extend compassion and forgiveness, as they realize that my humanness is going to cause me to mess up sometimes. If that is what I hope for when I make mistakes, that is what I need to give when someone inadvertently does the same.
Last Sunday a woman I didn’t know at church asked me to move. At the time I wanted to stay where I was used to and was hurt and angry by her request.
But now I am willing. I want to move on.