No Steps to Heaven

by Harold H. Wilke

Mr. Wilke is director of the Healing Community, a program of the New Samaritan Corporation.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  September 12, 1979, p. 844. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Churches often seem to lag behind secular institutions in opening their doors — in every way — to the handicapped. It is time to respond affirmatively. Several major denominations have led the way in adopting statements voicing church concern for persons with handicaps. We within the churches must act on those statements, opening our doors — in every way.

The scene is upper Manhattan, Broadway at Reinhold Niebuhr Place, Union Theological Seminary. Union’s president, Donald Shriver, walks jauntily down the steps to the bustling street and sits down in a wheelchair brought for the experiment, thus putting himself in the place of a student with a handicap. Gazing up from his wheelchair at that imposing entrance and those five insurmountable steps, he says, “OK, carry me in,” and two waiting students -- both of them at least a bit nervous -- carry him into the foyer. Inside, he wheels past a heavy elevator door and then, with the aid of the students, attempts to negotiate the maze that is a magnificent building constructed on the assumption that everyone using it would be not only a spiritual and intellectual giant but an able-bodied athlete as well!

Some 10 to 15 per cent of the American population is physically disabled -- and this often-overlooked minority is involved in a new kairos: handicapped people are coming out of the closet and into the mainstream. As they do so, society at large must cope with two kinds of barriers: attitudinal and architectural. Surprisingly, churches often seem to lag behind secular institutions in dealing with both of these factors. Architecturally, the churches of our land, defy the disabled worshiper to enter. For example, a recent survey in St. Louis indicated that fewer than 1 per cent of the city’s churches could be entered by persons in wheelchairs. Cost is frequently the factor cited by churches in not making their buildings accessible. In contrast, some months ago in Las Vegas I asked five persons in wheelchairs in five different casinos whether they had encountered any barriers to their entrance; the answer was always, “No, should there be?”

The Weight of Leviticus

Underlying the presence of physical barriers in churches and seminaries is a set of still-perpetuated attitudinal barriers -- primarily the following: (1) low expectations on the part of both pastors and laypeople of just what a disabled person can do; (2) a psychologically defined negation, usually unconscious, reflecting the Jamesian response of “fight or fly”; (3) simple lack of experience with handicapped persons, and consequent embarrassment; (4) biblically derived sanctions, expressing thousands of years of tradition. It is this latter factor which constitutes the most formidable obstacle to progress.

In the law and the prophets, from Genesis through Zechariah, various handicapping conditions are mentioned. The Hebrew term for “blemish” -- which seems originally to have meant a “black spot” -- denotes anything, abnormal or deviating from a given standard, whether physical, moral, or ritualistic” (Jewish Encyclopedia). The law requires that animals offered for sacrifice be without blemish. Warns the Levitical statement:

None of your descendants, from generation to generation, who has a defect, may draw near to offer his God’s food; for no one who has a defect may come near, no one who is blind, or lame, or has any perforations, or has a limb too long; no one who has a fractured foot, or a fractured hand, or is a hunchback, or has a cataract, or a defect of eye sight, or scurvy, or scabs, or crushed testicles -- no one of the descendants of Aaron the priest, who has a defect, may come near to offer the Lord’s sacrifices; since he has a defect, he may not come near to offer his God’s food. He may eat his God’s food, some of the most sacred as well as the sacred, only he must not approach the Veil, nor come near the altar, because he has a defect in him, lest he profane my sanctuary; for it is I, the Lord, who consecrate [Lev. 21:17-23, Goodspeed and Smith translation].

A special set of statutes governed the administering of the priestly blessing, as distinct from the qualifications for becoming a priest. Maimonides lists six blemishes that disqualify one from offering the blessing: defective articulation of speech; malfunction of face, hands or feet or unusual appearance of hands (such as discoloration); moral delinquency (such as idolatry or murder); physical immaturity (beard not fully grown); drunkenness; not having washed the hands.

According to Philo, perfection of the body was a symbol of the perfection of the soul. For Maimonides, comeliness underscored the honor and respect due the temple, since the multitude “does not appreciate a man for his true worth, but for the perfection of his limbs and the beauty of his garments.” However, it is clear that as far as physical blemishes were concerned, “the test was purely pragmatic; thus if the cohen [priest] was so well known that his blemish raised no curiosity, “the ban was removed” (Jewish Encyclopedia).

In the New Testament, the crucial reference to any kind of handicap is the Johannine story of the man blind from his birth:

As he passed along, he saw a man who had been blind from his birth. His disciples asked him, “Master, for whose sin was this man born blind? For his own, or for that of his parents?” Jesus answered, “It was neither for his own sin nor for that of his parents, but to let what God can do be illustrated in his case. We must carry on the work of Him who has sent me while the daylight lasts. Night is coming, when no one can do any work. As long as I am in the world, I am a light for the world.” As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and he put the clay on the man’s eyes, and said to him, “Go and wash them in the pool of Siloam” -- a name which means one who has been sent. And so he went and washed them, and went home able to see [John 9:1.7].

When the formerly blind man testified to Jesus’ miracle, the Pharisees, who had excluded him from the synagogue, exclaimed, “You were born in utter sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Learning of this, Jesus sought out the blind man, saying, “I have come into this world to judge men, that those who cannot see may see, and that those who can see may become blind.” To some Pharisees who responded by asking, “Are we blind too?” Jesus answered, “If you were blind, you would be guilty of no sin, but as it is you say, ‘We can see,’ so your sin continues” (v. 41).

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ response to disability is to heal the condition, to consider the handicap irrelevant for others (as in the Johannine story), or to seek justice for the disabled.

In its statements on ordination or priesthood and ministry, the New Testament does not require the qualifications explicitly demanded in the law and the prophets. It is possible, however, that such practices were followed. Even the Hellenists, who made up so large a part of early Christian congregations, came from a background that required the absence of blemishes in religious leaders.

The requirement that priests and sacrifices should be without blemish was common to all the ancient civilizations, and there is evidence for this from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Khatti, Greece and Rome. Egyptian documents state that candidates for the priesthood were examined for blemishes and that the sacrifices had to be perfect without any blemish. The Hittites also regarded the presence of ceremonial ritual of those blemished as an affront to the Gods [Encyclopedia Judaica]

The Contemporary Church

In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches there are clear statements of doctrine opposing ministry by persons with physical disabilities (and what is de jure in these two churches is de facto in Protestantism). The Catholic canon law doctrine expressing this understanding is called admiratio populi -- referring to discomfort among members of the congregation in response -to a public figure whose outward appearance could be distracting. In Protestant as well as Catholic circles, a clergyperson is understood to be the “one for others.” This “outfront” role, enacted “before the congregation,” is of course very public: administering the sacraments, preaching the word, and being of service to other human beings within and without the congregation. In the Catholic Church, the requirements and disqualifications for ministry and priesthood are seen in the context of the sacrament of ordination.

While not canonical, the practice in Protestantism is pervasively negative. Reports Robert Rankin, vice-president of the Danforth Foundation: “I cannot remember a single minister with physical disabilities in my California Conference of the Methodist Church; and with admittedly limited knowledge of clergy in the Missouri Conference, UCC, I cannot recall seeing anyone with physical disabilities.” Dr. Rankin then adds: “My congregation, First Congregational Church of Webster Groves, Missouri, has installed an elevator which has made it possible for persons in wheelchairs and those of us using crutches to attend church.” One minister writes that when he became disabled while serving a congregation, there was “less acceptance for my handicap, so I resigned.” Another sees in two ways the consequences of his becoming disabled during his parish service: “There was a complete surrounding of me with love and care, even including financial help for medical expenses.” However, he adds that “I have not faced seeking another pastorate, but I feel that probably only a small struggling church would ever take a chance on calling me.” Still another, stricken with polio after ordination, remarks that he “survived without the affection of those who chose not to include me within their circle of acceptance.” And a fourth comments that professional church leadership “was hesitant to recommend me for another parish, and encouraged me to prepare myself for institutional ministry.”

During the 20 years I served as director of the United Church of Christ’s Council for Ministry, my responsibilities included heading the CCC placement system; inevitably I was involved with a number of “problem cases” -- ministers with physical disabilities. One pastor’s file folder was at least two or three inches thick, containing many job refusals because he was crippled by polio. One pulpit committee chairperson wrote: “Of course this man ought to have a church of his own, but not ours.” There were dozens of such cases.

Not all reactions are negative. One person wrote me that “Baptist placement channels did not know what to do with me, but the denomination was prepared to create a job for me and I accepted the position offered directly to me.” Another: “I get very tired and am often depressed, but I have received a great deal of support from many sources. I cannot think of a single negative incident,” A third: “The Jesuits have accepted me in seminary despite my deafness. In the beginning there was fear -- but that was resolved by speaking to the person who had the fear.” Still another: “In seminary, there was encouragement from persons closest to me, humor, and theological conviction adequate to deal with the problems internal and external.” And finally: “The members of First Lutheran Church were wonderfully supportive and kind: eight years of service, sighted, were followed by 15 more years, blind, during which 300 parishioners drove for [the pastor] on calls -- a great experience for us all.”

Fostering Change

Societal attitudes can change. And if a major segment of society would respond more positively to physical disability, then the canon law of admiratio populi would also change. Such a development would be quite consistent with the pragmatic approach in the Pentateuch statements which allow for continued activity by the priest if the congregation has become used to the blemish he manifests.

This more accepting attitude constitutes one of the two primary resources for change within the church. A second -- and more important -- lies in the theological dimension: the messianic feast vision of Jesus and the “strength in weakness” statements of Paul are cornerstones for the conviction that within the very nature of the church itself, weakness is present in order that God may be glorified.

The parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14 recounts the excuses given by those invited: One of them says that he has to go look at his newly bought piece of land; another says that he has to examine his five yoke of oxen. Angered, the host exclaims: “Hurry out into the streets and squares of the city, and bring the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame in here” (Goodspeed and Smith, v. 21). The householder’s peroration at the end of the chapter and the introductory conversation of Jesus and the Pharisees prior to Jesus’ description of the Great Banquet are interrelated: “For I tell you that none of those men who were invited shall have any of my dinner!” (v. 24). Among the statements prior to the description of the banquet: “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 11). Finally: “Do not invite your friends or your rich neighbors or your relatives, for then they will invite you in return and you will be repaid. But when you give an entertainment, invite people who are poor, maimed, lame or blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay yau; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the upright” (vv. 12-14). The Kingdom of God is not complete without the poor and the maimed. And each member of the Kingdom is not complete, nor has hope of salvation, save that the lame and the blind are included.

Many American denominations, with sensitivity and with considerable expenditure of money, have led in the creation of institutional care for handicapped and retarded persons. Since the late 19th century, many have also been concerned with the deinstitutionalization process (see my Century article “Mainstreaming the Alienated: The Church Responds to a New Minority,” March 23, 1977). Pertinent national-level statements have been made by the United Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention. For example, a Presbyterian resolution states “that all planning for new church building and for major renovation to existing church buildings shall take into consideration the needs of the handicapped members of our society, in order that all may enter into our fellowship.” Appended to the resolution are a dozen pages of information on site development, ramps, entrances, doors, stairs and rest rooms, The UCC -- on Independence Day 1977 -- called on “each local congregation to take affirmative action assuring the full integration of persons with handicaps into membership of the Christian fellowship at all levels.” It also urged the church to employ such persons, encouraged individuals with handicaps to become part of the ongoing life of the church, and specifically called attention “to removal of environmental and architectural barriers.” The National Council of Churches has taken a similar stand through its governing board.

Can the churches continue both to support institutional care and to “mainstream”? In more than a few cases, churches are firmly demonstrating that they can do both. The World Council of Churches itself has called for such two-pronged action. A consultation convened by the WCC in cooperation with the Innere Mission of East Germany’s evangelical churches issued this statement: “We affirm the continuing need for institutions in which the most severely disabled experience help, protection and care, even while at the same time we call for the integration of the disabled and the able-bodied within the local congregation.”

Resolutions are one thing -- and are important as statement or commitment. But implementation at the local level still tends to be sporadic. “Massive resistance continues to exist in churches across the land, although the bright spots of response now number many more within this half decade,” reports the Healing Community, a church- and synagogue-oriented organization set up to facilitate integration of various alienated persons and groups into the mainstream of society. This group, whose major goal is to help provide tools, concepts and practical suggestions for creating caring congregations, is also working toward models of ministry with handicapped persons and creating access to professional theological education for them. The Healing Community also serves as a resource center for religious bodies and is encouraging international extension of its concepts.

Federal and State Laws

Legal requirements for accessibility to institutions which receive federal funds are listed in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; it states that “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual . . . shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” This means that any institutions, including churches, which maintain programs that receive HEW funds must respond to the following regulations:

   All new facilities must be barrier-free.

   Programs or activities in existing facilities must be made accessible to handicapped people within 60 days, and structural changes, if necessary, must be made within three years.

   Qualified handicapped persons may not, on the basis of handicap, be denied admission or employment even if facilities have not been made barrier-free.

• Colleges and universities must make reasonable modifications in academic requirements, where necessary, to ensure full educational opportunity for handicapped students.

• Educational institutions must provide auxiliary aids, such as readers in school libraries or interpreters for the deaf.

Let me emphasize a statement by former HEW Secretary Joseph Califano:

Section 504 and these regulations constitute a striking recognition of the civil rights of America’s handicapped citizens, just as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and their companion regulations, are critical elements in the structure of law protecting the civil rights of racial minorities and women. In Section 504, the Congress enacted a charter of equality to help end the shameful national neglect of handicapped individuals and to translate many of their legitimate needs into legal rights.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision interpreting the Rehabilitation Act may suggest an “out” for organizations resisting special alterations for the handicapped (see the August i-8 Christian Century, p. 752). Nonetheless, the court’s decision was so narrow (applying to a nursing program at Southeastern Community College, Whiteville, North Carolina, which denied admission to a hearing-impaired student) that it almost certainly will not hinder the ultimate recognition of this newly emerged minority -- though now there may have to be extensive litigation before the courts once again decide in favor of the handicapped.

For most churches, the federal requirements are not applicable (though they certainly apply morally). At the state level, regulations may or may not make accessibility mandatory. Such states as Massachusetts, Michigan and New York require accessibility to “public buildings” -- not only those built with public funds, but those presumably open to the public. Thus, any church open to the public -- and what one isn’t? -- may come under state regulations for accessibility. (It should be noted that compliance requires program availability -- not that every room in every building be accessible.)

A general plan for a church to follow might well include these steps:

•Investigate the applicability of federal and state laws and local building codes to the existing physical barriers.

•Look into possible funding sources for barrier removal.

•Install Braille or raised lettering on elevator panels and on doors of offices and rest rooms.

•Begin planning for making the main entrance or at least a major entrance accessible through the construction of ramps and possible door modifications; obtaining cost estimates and design advice from a qualified consultant.

•Apply nonskid tape or runners on stair treads.

•Have the telephone company install a public telephone placed at a lower height for use by people in wheelchairs; order the telephone with special features for the blind and the deaf.

• Construct curb cuts in sidewalks at entrance points (the city must do this).

Then, for longer-term action:

•Modify at least one rest room -- installing grab-bars, enlarging stalls, etc. (If only one rest room can be modified, make it a unisex one.)

•Install permanent ramps -- with a gradient of one foot in 12 -- or mechanical lifts.

   Modify certain doors for easier opening.

   Alter drinking fountains.

It is time to respond affirmatively. Several major denominations have led the way in adopting statements voicing church concern for persons with handicaps. We within the churches must act on those statements, opening our doors -- in every way.