Despite the safety and embrace that my church afforded me, a few weeks ago a totally innocent comment on a Sunday morning still managed to derail me... at least momentarily. I found out that I had been mentioned at the pastoral team meeting. I wasn’t mentioned negatively, I found out later they were complimenting me, actually. But it in that moment, it struck a deep rooted anxiety of mine: that I am the “charity case” of my church, a burden, a problem that the pastoral team needs to discuss.
I don’t think I’m alone in my fears of being needy. Our culture looks down on dependency, judging harshly those seeking help. Open the newspaper and you’ll find articles questioning the motivations of people seeking food stamps or welfare benefits, and demanding that people in need take drug tests to prove their worthiness of assistance. This cultural disdain for needing help leaves far too many people with mental illness or addiction alone and isolated with their struggles, too fearful of the stigmas attached to make their needs known.
Our Anabaptist practices can indirectly re-iterate the same cultural messages about needing help. I notice this particularly in the season of Lent, when the church honors Jesus’ servanthood in washing the disciples’ feet every Maundy- Thursday, while hardly recognizing that Jesus’ own feet were washed and anointed by Mary. We rightly elevate Jesus as a servant, but We rightly elevate Jesus as a servant but we fail to recognize that Jesus was also the recipient of service. we fail to recognize that Jesus was also the recipient of service. Jesus not only had his feet washed and anointed, he was also fed, housed, and clothed by many as he traveled. Jesus lived relying on the provision of others. God, then and now, is in both the serving and the receiving. Our God, through whom all things are possible, chose to live on this earth reliant on the help of others. God chooses to leave space for us to serve God.
This is a valuable reminder for me as a person who relies on the help of the people at my church. It’s also instructional for how the church welcomes people with disabilities. While it is important to make churches accessible—ramps, hearing assistive devices, gluten-free communion bread, etc.—these acts of inclusivity are not enough. Being church for everyone requires mutuality. People with disabilities are people with gifts. A church may serve someone with a disability, but we also must welcome their gifts and unique forms of service. God is in the washing of feet and God is in the receiving of foot washing. Disabled or able-bodied, in mental health or illness, we all take turns washing or being washed.
My fears that my needs render me the church “charity case” are, thankfully, unfounded. My church has not only supported me in times of illness, they affirm my gifts and have called out new gifts that I didn’t before see in myself. They even invited me, the former socially anxious and almost-mute, to preach and tell my story. They generously and repeatedly remind me that I am not a charity case or any other derogatory term I might worry up for myself. And I’m working hard to believe them. Because, if I judge myself to be a charity case, I’m telling others that I might judge them the same if they come to me for help. And this is not who I want to be. This is not how I want our churches to treat people who need help.
On the surface, it would seem that the most humbling act of foot washing is getting down on the floor and touching someone else’s dirty feet. Maybe it was in Jesus’ day. But today I think it’s at least as humbling, if not more, to sit there and let someone else wash the dirt off your own feet. This vulnerability of accepting service is as uncomfortable as it is transformative.
In this season of Lent, we all have the opportunity to work at letting go of our independence, dropping the illusion that it is possible to live without help. Let this be a chance to view our need not as weakness, but as a beautiful opportunity to experience the love of Christ. Receiving help from another offers a taste of the mutuality of the kingdom of God and is a wonderful opportunity to experience belonging in the church.
This year, may we all open ourselves vulnerably to allowing others to serve, and even to serve us.
Jill Stemple is a Field Associate with ADN. She enjoys working with churches to find loving ways to be in community with their members living with mental illness. Jill is available to speak to pastors and congregations in the Harrisburg, PA, area about including and welcoming the gifts of persons with disabilities.