For the fall semester I had an assignment I really wasn’t looking forward to. In fact I thought about trying to find a way out of it (by playing the D-Card since the vast majority of churches aren’t accessible), but I reconsidered (mainly because everyone knows my intentions in working towards a Master’s Degree and trying to bow out of the assignment would go against that).
The assignment was to attend a church within the Catholic tradition but not of my native culture; basically go to a mass that isn’t celebrated in English (or Latin, since that’s the 2nd language of some Catholics).
Once we chose a church we were to independently research cultural customs in relation to Catholicism to prepare for the visit. Originally I had intended on using friends for research and as “mass buddies,” because I’m not too crazy about walking into new and potentially uncomfortable situations solo.
Instead I found a church that looked like it would be more interesting, and potentially set myself apart from my classmates. But there would be no safety net. In fact when it came to “voice our concerns about our visit” I came right out and said (well typed) that I wasn’t concerned about the language barrier as much as I was the physical barriers.
I did as much research on the physical barriers as much as I could, which was probably more effort than I put into the cultural research. I could’ve called the parish office and asked but decided against it, for one thing being told, “we’re accessible, we just have stairs” is one of the more annoying oxymoron’s ever told, for another, if I’m going to be realistic about my research I need to know what’s out there, even if it’s ugly.
I was lucky enough to find one of the very few churches that has daily mass twice a day (1 English mass, 1 not) so I decided to go to daily mass rather than a Sunday mass, figuring daily mass would have a smaller crowd. I figured a smaller crowd would already be inside when I arrived so I could take my time with the stairs, if there ended up being any.
I arrived at the church prepared to climb a substantial amount of stairs, and there were a few, but there was also a ramp (And the heavens parted). It wasn’t a ramp that required much of a remodel to the building since it went over the existing stairs but it was clear that this ramp was meant to stay since it’s big, sturdy, and at a good angle for anyone that may have to propel themselves up it.
Although the ramp wasn’t at the main entrance it was close enough to the main entrance that I didn’t feel that instant pang of separation as you would seeing a sign saying “handicap access at back of building.” The door looked like a typical stained glass door that you would find at many other churches, except there was a hand plate for an automatic door to the side. I thought, “How much do you want to bet this doesn’t work because it might cause damage to the glass” (which I can understand but then the door should be made of another material). I hit the button anyway, and the door opened, and a choir of angels sang (not really, but they should have).
Although there were no “pew cuts” for wheelchair users or obvious places to safely put mobility aids the aisles were big enough that parking a wheelchair at the end of a pew wouldn’t cause an obstruction to others. Nor were there any rows that were marked as “reserved for the handicapped,” a personal dislike of mine.
It was obvious that this parish community wanted as many people as possible to feel welcomed. How many churches do you know of these days that offer 2 masses daily (in 2 languages), 5 masses on Sunday in 3 three different languages, AND is accessible? (The bulletin is bilingual as well.)
I may not have understood the language and fumbled my way through mass, because I’m still adapting to the “new” responses (it’s only been like 3 years), I still felt welcomed. A feat every church should strive for but few actually attain.
After mass I sat down to write out my assignment, reflect on the cultural differences one can find in the Catholic Church, and I did. However I spent twice as long on the assignment because I kept diverting to other aspects that caught my attention, like the ramp & the automatic door, and how in the end the language barriers didn’t bother me at all because I was in a building that was built at the turn of the century, looked it, and was still nearly barrier-less.
In hindsight I probably should’ve made the case for the fact that the disability community is its own culture within itself.
I went to a church that wasn’t mine & felt truly welcome. I may even go back for an English mass, especially if you consider that I don’t even feel very welcomed and accepted at my local parish.
*A similar version of this post was written on December 17, 2014