A South Carolina man and his service dog was recently denied access by a church. My colleagues and I were shocked. As my friend, Steve wrote: “Every time I start to think that churches are finally starting to “get” the idea of welcoming kids and adults with disabilities, some elder board dreams up an absurd policy that convinces me I’m wrong.”
My service dog and I was too denied access to a church years ago, and the lessons I learned from the experience strengthen my faith and helped me understand how to approach this issue with churches. I have yet used these arguments with a church, but I think I’m on solid ground.
The excerpt below is from my book, In the Accessible Church (self published, 2013). I post this as a response to the church and to further educate the faith community.
Mykil and I met at my first planning meeting for Young Life club and we became fast friends. We were the same age, enjoyed the same activities, and loved the Lord.
When ending club for the summer, Mykil and I wanted to keep in touch. Our Thursday nights became free with no club, so we often hung out. One thing I suggested we could do was go to her church.
Mykil picked me up for church one Sunday. “I think you’ll like this church,” she said. They were studying Mark and the pastor conducted the service more like a Bible study than a sermon. I was more than ready for this experience when we pulled into the parking lot. What I wasn’t prepared for was the reaction towards my service dog, Lanzner. Not too long after we got inside, an usher explained the dog couldn’t go into the sanctuary. We could sit in the foyer and watch the service through the glass.
I was furious and sped outside. Mykil came out see what was wrong. “They’re breaking the law,” I said. Mykil went back in to explain, but the usher wouldn’t budge.
She said, “The usher said they talked, and it came down to private property rights. They are worried about people’s allergies. There’s nothing he can do. We’ll have to sit in the foyer or I can take you home.”
I stayed. When we reached our seats, the usher came over to apologize. “I’m sorry I offended you,” he said. “We’re just worried about people’s comfort. Some might be allergic to your dog and we don’t want them to sneeze, do we?” I acted as if I understood, but felt more an observer than a participant. I was upset throughout the service.
Afterward, the usher came up, apologized again, and thanked me for understanding.
I was mad. I thought about saying something like this: “Yes, I understand. I understand I took time away from my church to come worship with my friend only to have you tell us we weren’t allowed in. I understand I can take my dog into hospitals to visit the sick, but I can’t worship in your church because people might be allergic? Yes, I understand. But let me ask you something: Do you think God understands? Do you think Jesus, who died so I can worship, understands?”
I wonder how he would have responded.
Even through our outing didn’t turn out as planned, I learned three valuable principles from the experience.
First, my first reaction to being disrespected in public usually involves my pointing out federal or state law and not do what Jesus would do. Notice my first reaction when the usher said I couldn’t go in. Was this something Jesus would have done? I had the Americans with Disabilities Act on my side and the law says I can take my service dog into public places. But I think Jesus would have done something totally different.
Would Jesus have left the way I almost did? Scripture has examples where Jesus does leave when not wanted. How about talking to the usher and trying to reason? The Bible has stories of Jesus doing something like that, too. Does Jesus ever keep quiet and go along with the crowd? At times, he does. I may have had the law on my side, but I stepped across it by citing the law first and foremost. I could have done it Jesus’ way.
Secondly, so exactly what would Jesus have done? One reason Jesus healed people was because society, especially the religious sect, wouldn’t allow people that had anything wrong with them to be involved in worship, the marketplace or public affairs. They were forced to watch from the sidelines.
Let me point out I wasn’t being kept out of church because of my disability. My dog couldn’t go in. But Lanzner was my arms and legs. To be told my dog couldn’t go in was similar to their saying to an amputee, “You can’t go in with that prosthetic leg. You’ll have to leave it outside.”
What if Jesus had physically shown up that morning? Would he have healed me? I am adamant in my belief I’m disabled for a purpose. God has plans to use me in spite of my challenges or because of them. In this case, however, I think Jesus would have healed me head to toe and gone beyond that to let others know I was accepted. For example, Jesus told the recently healed person to “go show yourself to the priest” (Matthew 8:4). Why? So the priest could verify the person was clean. Only then would the person be allowed into temple worship. Imagine having to be inspected before going into church, yet that was the attitude of church leaders in Jesus’ day.
Thirdly, the next Sunday after that experience, I returned to familiar surroundings. I joked around all morning wondering if I would be allowed into the sanctuary. A friend greeted me at the door. I asked if I could come in. She didn’t know what I was talking about but played along. She handed me a bulletin, and I made my way to my usual place near the chancel. It was good to be back.