Centre Street Church, Calgary

Click here to visit the site of the special needs ministry at Centre Street Church in Calgary

“I’m so happy to be here,” I enthused on the platform overlooking a theatre crowded with restless children.

“Are you happy to be here too, even at this early hour of the morning?” the adults stared blankly at me with heavy eyes while the elementary school students squirmed in their seats.

“Well,” I shuffled my feet, “I’m really happy because a good friend has joined me,” Donna beamed as she made her way to the platform, tapping her cane up each step in the direction of my disembodied voice until her free hand sweeping the air found my arm, which she clutched tightly.

My friend Donna, a core member of our church and a self-advocate, joined me today to lead morning chapel for a local Christian elementary school.

“I like Donna for many good reasons,” Donna threw her head back in laughter; “Did you know that Donna doesn’t see the world like you or I see. She sees things differently. Which I think is very cool.” Donna laughed again, shaking her head.

“Donna would say that she has a visual impairment. Can we all say ‘visual impairment’?”

The children looked at me as if I were speaking in an unpronounceable foreign language and muttered incoherently.

“That just means that she can see some things with her eyes, but her eyes can’t see many things you take for granted and even the things she does see may look a little different than what you’re used to.”

“Did you know that Jesus, while he was here on earth, spent a lot of time with those who couldn’t see?” The kids leaned forward in their seats.

“And one person Jesus met who couldn’t see was named Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). Now that’s a funny name, don’t you think?” They nodded their heads with raised eyebrows.

“No one liked Bartimaeus very much and not just because of his funny name,” my voice trailed off.

“They pushed him aside,” I said, shoving out my hand against the audience with unspoken hostility that is felt, “because Bartimaeus was different – he couldn’t see like they could. So Bartimaeus sat by the side of a dusty old path begging for money. He was unwanted and unwelcomed in the world. All alone.”

Silence. The children glared at me, some crossed their arms.

“That is, until one day old Bart heard a voice.” Eyes widened in anticipation, “It was unlike any other voice he had heard before. A voice of love. A voice of welcome. The voice of Jesus!” I raised my hands with felt perception.

“When Bartimaeus heard the voice of Jesus, his heart leapt and with nothing left to lose he cried out, ‘Jesus, Jesus, help me!’”

“Well, the crowd was not pleased,“ I narrowed my eyes in scowling disapproval. “They wanted to keep Bartimaeus out of sight,” I said, glaring at the audience as people with visible disabilities are often stared at disapprovingly.

“’Bartimaeus,’ they barked, ‘Shush! We told you to be quiet. He doesn’t have time for people like you. You stay over there where you belong! And don’t disturb us again!’”

“But Bartimaeus refused to give up, there was just something about that voice, a voice of never-giving-up love. ‘Jesus, Jesus, help me!’ he cried out again.” With outstretched hands I reached out to the audience, as if crossing a segregated barrier into unreachable hearts, where only Jesus can access and where accessibility begins.

“You know what? Jesus heard the voice of Bartimaeus and he stopped! And everyone stopped in their tracks with Jesus. The crowd held their breath, and at that moment, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.”

I stood still and caught my breath.

“Jesus turned to the crowd pressing in on him; ‘Go and tell Bartimaeus that I love him. I want to see him. I want to heal him.’”

“Well, every mouth dropped,” I said, with my mouth open in stunned silence.

“What! You want us to talk to Bartimaeus? But, no one talks to Bart! He’s, well, he’s different. You know, he can’t see like you or I can see!” I said, as I shook my head, “We don’t talk to people like that around here.”

“I wonder how Jesus looked at the crowd at that turning point? What do you think? What do you see in Jesus’ eyes?”

I turned again to the children looking up at me unblinkingly, with occasion for pause. “Were his eyes filled with tears? Do you think his eyes gleamed with joy or with fierce anger that pierced right through their hardened hearts?”

“’No buts…’ Jesus said, ‘Go and tell Bartimaeus, ‘I love him.’”

“Don’t you think Jesus could have just said the word himself, but he didn’t…he wanted to hear the crowd say it for themselves. He called them in their blind conceit, to gather around Bartimaeus and look him straight in the eye.”

“So the crowd walked over to Bartimaeus grudgingly.” I walked slowly in front of the children, with slumped shoulders, one resentful step after the other.

“And you know what?” I turned back to the audience smiling, “Every sighted person looked into Bartimaeus’ blind eyes and, for the first time, their eyes were opened! They saw Bartimaeus as Jesus saw him the whole time.”

“People laid their hands on Bartimaeus’ shoulders – they touched him for the first time because Jesus touched their hearts. Others shook his arm with excitement ringing through their hands, “Guess what? Jesus loves you! He wants to see you! Get up on your feet – Jesus wants to heal you!”

“Well, Bartimaeus jumped up in a heartbeat and threw his cloak aside – his only possession of any value! He was willing to give up the last thing he owned in the whole world. What did it matter now – he just wanted to see Jesus!”

And with that eternal perspective I looked over the crowd of children, looking back at me with eyes wide open; “Bartimaeus stumbled to the lingering voice of Jesus,” I said, as if he were fumbling for a light switch in a dark room, stumbling toward the inviting voice, “until he found Jesus and clutched his arm so firmly you’d think he’d never let Jesus go.”

“And Jesus healed Bartimaeus that day.”

The kids erupted in applause with irrepressible faith. “But…” I lowered my voice as the children settled in their seats; “the crowd knew there were actually two miracles that took place that day.” I held up two fingers for the children to see.

“The opening of blind eyes and closed hearts. Jesus opened their hearts, so they could see Bartimaeus the way God does. And that’s the best miracle of all, isn’t it?”

The kids all nodded their heads in agreement. “Well, I’d like to invite my good friend Donna now to share. I like to think Donna has an eye-opening ministry. She helps me see things I often can’t see. She’s a good friend too who often sees things in me I can’t.”

Donna turned to me with her head in her hands, “Is he finally finished?” she said with a look of exasperation.

Sometimes I think Donna can see right through me. She puts everything into perspective.

Donna passed around some of her visual aides, like Braille books, simulation goggles, adaptive technology and even gave the kids a chance to try Goalball, a sport designed for the visually impaired.

As the kids passed around the ball and shook it to hear the bell embedded in the ball (players follow the sound) while putting on the blindfold to level the playing field and allow partially sighted players to compete on equal footing with blind players, I began to think how God has often used friends like Donna to expose my spiritual blindness and open my eyes to my hidden disability, the disability of my heart.

I smile every time I think of Margaret, an elderly lady with multiple disabilities regarded with deep affection by all who know her. Our world slows down as she meets me and settles into her morning routine over coffee. She could simply sit and enjoy my company, as if she had all the time in the world for me. As if she’s simply happy that I’m alive.

“You look nice today,” Margaret would say, and then in a flattering light might add, “Why, you look like me!” I’d laugh to myself, for the simple reason that she’s blind and can’t see me at all.

That is, at one level she’s blind and can’t see me. At another level she sees something in me with spiritual in-sight I can’t see in myself. She has a simple way of seeing things with striking clarity that I’m often blind to.

Isn’t that why there’s something unsettling about the presence of people with visible disabilities? Isn’t that why we silence their disquieting voices? Their perceived disability exposes something hidden in all of us that we aren’t willing to look at, though our face is pressed against a mirror.

In many ways the life Margaret and Donna lives is not much different than Bartimaeus – overlooked and undervalued. Bartimaeus lived in a world not unlike our own; a world that blindly values competitiveness, efficiency and productivity; and consequently, Bartimaeus was dismissed as a waste of time, because perhaps we too are threatened by what we might see if we were to slow down and take a good long look at our blind spots.

They’re ignored by those with ears but are too busy to hear; with eyes but too self-preoccupied by the glare of their own brilliance to see, as Jesus recognized with unsettling clarity. (Matthew 13:15) Yet, while the whole world had turned a blind eye to Bartimaeus, Jesus refused to look the other way.

I turned again to Donna as she leaned forward, peering out into the audience. Donna walks by faith not by sight – seeing into the unseen.

“Okay, does anyone have a question for me?” Donna asked her eager audience.

Little hands shot up everywhere. “How about you?” I pointed to a boy in the front row jumping up and down irrepressibly.

“Does it make you feel bad because you can’t see?” the boy asked Donna with a deep breath.

“No, because I know how God sees me. God loves me just as I am,” Donna smiled unhesitatingly, with her focus on God.

The boy nodded without question. It dawned on me then that these children don’t recognize that Donna is diagnosed with a developmental disability. They don’t know that Donna’s been pushed aside to the margins, not only because of a visual impairment, but because of her visible disabilities.

In fact, they only know she has a visual impairment because I told them, otherwise they don’t see deficits in Donna at all. They don’t see Donna through the lens of tragedy or condescending pity. They don’t share my spiritual paralysis that’s crippled my walk with God – my exclusionary attitudes and practices.

They see Donna the way God sees her, distinguishing the voice of Jesus and his felt presence from all others; “accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7)

Without saying a word, they know that what’s most healing is not merely a cure, but unconditional acceptance, love and welcome; what’s most disabling, in turn, is not merely a condition, but rejection, exclusion and isolation.

God’s little ones don’t live in a segregated world of exclusionary standards with normal/abnormal, us/them, able-bodied/disabled, in-group/out-group boundaries. Were all the world so welcoming, inclusive and accessible I suppose there wouldn’t be much need to speak of dis-ability at all; we’d share the inclusive language of ‘us’ in Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Only those with the faith of a child can remove barriers to full participation in a community of faith and friendship in Jesus, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. (Matthew 19:14)

May their prophetic voice disturb us. May we too be captivated by the vision of Jesus and his reconciling power. May the love of Jesus break through again!

In this atmosphere of grace, the cry of my heart rang like the chorus Donna knows by heart, “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see you.” (Ephesians 3:18) I suppose I can only imagine what it must have been like for blind Bartimaeus, adjusting his eyes as the light flooded in after Jesus lifted his fingers and Bartimaeus opened his eyes to His glory.

Pastor Dallas Frank leads the disability ministry for Centre St Church in Calgary Alberta