Bob talks about acquired disability as an acceleration of the normal aging process. Sometimes, as in his case, it happens in a moment instead of living into it over time.
The accident happened on a Saturday. Due to preach the next day at the church where he was pastor, it would be another year before he could return to his ministry duties. He calls that church “generous,” as they hoped with him that he would come back. One year later, after much hard work in rehabilitation, he did return to full-time ministry. He served the congregation for eight more years before moving on to serve as Ohio Conference Minister of the United Church of Christ.
Bob has observed in post-accident years that people with disabilities sometimes become advocates and find jobs working for accessibility and accommodation. But for him, advocacy work is secondary. He describes his vocation as ministry, and his avocation as working in the realm of disability and theology.
Prior to his accident, along with pastoral ministry assignments in Ohio and Iowa, he completed three years with Mennonite Central Committee in Nicaragua, where he taught community development.
“My injury accelerated my career path in some ways; it caused me to do reflection and widen horizons.” This reflection led him to produce two books, Tour de Faith: A Cyclist’s Lessons for Living , Cowley Publications, 2007, and Blindsided by Grace: Entering the World of Disability, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2004.
Bob’s experience in ministry and disability give him a unique perspective and voice in the area of congregational accessibility and inclusion. This serves him well in his oversight role to 365 congregations across Ohio. If churches want to invite him to speak, he works with them to identify and work out any problems. At the congregation he served at the time of the accident, for example, “We were advertising that we were accessible. But I discovered that the bathrooms were not. There are three steps up to the chancel; it was never on our radar screen that a pastor might need accessibility.”
Along with his physical changes, Bob notes that his relationships with people in the church changed. “After a board meeting, everyone would go down the back steps and talk in the parking lot. Many realizations, decisions and more are made in these places. I needed to go down the elevator and out the front. That simple thing removed me from the intimacy of relationships in the church.” As pastor he had taken on roles such as maintenance man. His injury pushed the congregation to exert leadership for various tasks, and in the long run, that was a good thing.
A lifelong athlete, Bob was encouraged by visits from athletes living with paralysis in the beginning stages of his rehabilitation. Now he will often do the same for others. His competitive spirit enabled him to push through rehabilitation with a vengeance and continues drive him to new accomplishments. He completed a full Ironman-length triathlon in Sandusky in 2012 and won his division in the U.S. Paralympic swimming trials in Bismarck, ND. While he did not make the London team, his time ended up at tenth in the world. He continues to push himself in swimming. “Your learning still goes on,” he says. “Life doesn’t end when you lose some of your abilities. You can almost always get around, over or through those brick walls.”
To those experiencing acquired disability, he encourages creativity and perseverance. He notes that books by Deborah Creamer on limits and Tom Reynolds on vulnerability have resonated strongly with his experience. “Don’t give up. With new limitations, you can still do a lot of stuff, just differently.”
“We are all broken, some just more visibly than others. You have to do what you can with what you have.”
Within the brokenness of life, Bob witnesses to God’s enduring faithfulness: “What the facts don’t tell” he writes in a biographical essay, “is the growth in wisdom, understanding, spirit, and faith that these varied experiences have produced. Hardships were the most effective agents of growth. Tragedy opens the door to grace. We lost a stillborn child. Our son, when he was just 5, was diagnosed with cancer. And then, back at my home church, safe from the challenges of the world, I was struck by a hit-and-run driver and left paraplegic. Working through grief, we never lost sight of the fact that we live in God’s love.”
Kathy Dickson is a Field Associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. She attends First Mennonite Church of Bluffton, Ohio