By Rev. Eric Pridmore, Courtesy of New World Outlook
Rev. Eric Pridmore, an elder of the Mississippi Annual Conference, will be featured in a video presentation during the Mission Worship Service at the 2014 session of the Mississippi Annual Conference on Friday, June 6, 2014 at 5:00 p.m. He will discuss disabilities and the need for churches to be accessible for all.
In 1985, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an uncommon eye disease affecting about one in 4,000 people in the United States. Although I was only 14 years old-too young to fully grasp the life-changing significance of this diagnosis-I was devastated by the news. Retinitis pigmentosa is a genetic eye disease that causes degeneration of the retina, starting at its periphery and eventually engulfing it. Though this retinal degeneration is usually quite slow, extending from adolescence into adulthood, the disease is progressive and almost always leads to significant blindness. At age 14, I could not foresee how profoundly this disease would affect my life-nor could I imagine how God would use me to shine light into the dark places of this world.
At 14, I entered into a prolonged period of denial, during which I made a concerted effort to "pass" as a sighted person. I refused to admit there was a problem and refused to talk about my disability. To my parents, I insisted that I needed a driver's license. At that time, the earliest legal driving age in Mississippi was 15. My parents reluctantly gave in at my insistence. But when I couldn't pass the vision test at the motor vehicle department, my parents took me back to my local eye doctor who, inexplicably, attested to my visual ability to drive a motor vehicle. Subsequently, I passed both the written and driving portions of the test and received my driver's license-just one year after I had been pronounced legally blind! My parents even bought me my own car. However, within six months of getting my license, I had two minor car accidents, both of which were caused by my lack of peripheral vision-a hallmark of RP. After the second accident, it was clear to me that I could not and should not be driving. In my mind, the ability to drive had been my only means of pushing back against the growing reality of my disability.
A Warm Church Family
Fortunately for me, my family was deeply involved in a local United Methodist congregation. This church was one of the only social settings in which I felt at home. Though I had virtually no friends in middle school or high school, my 10-member church youth group was a place where I found acceptance and inclusion. These youth became my friends at a time when I urgently needed them. So the church as a whole became a second home for me-a place of safety amid numerous physical, emotional, and social struggles. The youth and adults of my congregation were like Christ to me, giving me acceptance, inclusion, peace, and hope.
Between age 15 and 16, I began to sense a call from God to ministry. Initially, I resisted. Even though the church was a vital part of my life, I felt sure that I could not adequately serve as a pastor because of my disability. However, God's call persisted. Through opportunities for leadership within my youth group and conversations with my pastor, I continued to consider this calling. At age 16, as part of a Youth Sunday service, I preached my first sermon. The support and encouragement from my congregation were very affirming.
After graduating from high school, I went on to Wood Junior College, a small United Methodist liberal arts community college. I found the faculty, staff, and students to be accepting and inclusive. I was still attempting to pass as a sighted person, but I was slowly being forced to come to terms with reality.
In my sophomore year, I was elected student body president of Wood College and was given numerous opportunities for leadership in congregational settings. The college chaplain always provided a driver for me-usually another college student-as I led worship services and taught classes for local congregations.
The Force of Reality
After graduating from Wood, I enrolled at Mississippi State University. Being on a larger campus with more students and an increased academic load, I had to ask for help. In the summer of 1991, to satisfy my disability services counselor at MSU, I spent two weeks at the state rehabilitation center for blind people. I should have stayed longer but was convinced that I didn't need rehabilitative services. Meanwhile, my vision was slowly deteriorating. Looking back, I could have truly benefitted from mobility training with a cane.
Despite my belief that God was leading me into pastoral ministry, the fear and frustration I felt because of my worsening eyesight overwhelmed me with shame. I did everything I could to hide that reality from God and everyone else, acknowledging my visual impairment only when forced to do so. I thought I was doing a good job at passing for a sighted person, but those efforts only made my situation more frustrating. Sadly, I was missing the opportunity to know the true depth of God's love and the wholeness exemplified by God's people.
After graduating from MSU, I entered the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Georgia. In my first semester, I read an article, "The Disabled God," in the campus newspaper. It profiled Nancy Eiesland, a doctoral student in the Sociology of Religion Department at Emory, telling her personal story of physical impairment. I sought out Nancy and we began to talk. She shared her story, which prompted me to do the same-for the first time. Nancy was the first person I'd met who was able to integrate the physiological, theological, emotional, and social components of disability. Through my interactions with her, I began to put my own disability puzzle together and started questioning my harmful attitudes.
Even as my vision continued to decline, the feelings of shame, guilt, and fear slowly began to diminish. After being accepted into the Master of Divinity Honors program at Candler, I began researching and writing my master's thesis on religion and disability. With Nancy Eiesland as my thesis advisor, I wrote the resulting treatise on the Christian Reformed Church's voluntary compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Though, for the most part, religious entities are exempt from the provisions of the ADA, the membership of the Christian Reformed Church voted to comply voluntarily as an act of discipleship and service.
The academic study of religion and disability was a means of God's grace for me in understanding and dealing with my own disability. Yet it also brought to light the reality of how religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have throughout history contributed to the oppression and marginalization of people with disabilities. As I continued to pursue my call, I became painfully aware of the all-too-prevalent attitudinal barriers to my ministry within The United Methodist Church. Though I had always found the church to be a place of acceptance and inclusion, that positive experience was no guarantee of support for my chosen vocation as a pastor. When I entered the ordination process, both my psychological and medical examinations indicated that pastoral ministry would be difficult. The committee asked me to reflect on my calling and come back in a year if I really wanted to be ordained. I had never before felt such rejection from my own church; however, this barrier was a good dose of reality.
A year later, I went back before the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Mississippi Annual Conference and indicated that I would pursue a Doctor of Philosophy degree. This time the Board relented, and I was ordained as a Deacon.
In 1996, I was graduated from Candler and began my doctoral work in the Sociology of Religion department at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. My Ph.D. dissertation was an exploratory study of The United Methodist Church's response to the disability rights movement in society. I looked specifically at General Conference actions from 1968 to 2004, conducted interviews with United Methodist pastors with disabilities, and did a small survey among both disabled and non-disabled clergy and laity. I discovered that, while the church has made great strides in the inclusion of women and of racial and ethnic minorities, very little has been done to include people with disabilities. In spite of the ADA and other federal and state legislation designed to include persons with disabilities in all aspects of our shared public life, The United Methodist Church has given only cursory attention to the capabilities, needs, and human rights of children and adults with disabilities. My dissertation argues that more could and should be done to make the church more inclusive and accessible for all.
Too often, disability has been associated with sin and shame. Many of us who cope with disabilities have often felt the powerfully damaging force of negative thinking in the church and have been harmed by poor theology and hurtful practices.
While in seminary at Candler, I met Lisa Hautzenrader, who was also pursuing the call to pastoral ministry. She was fully supportive of both my calling and my academic pursuits. We were married in August 1995 and moved to New Jersey in 1996 so that I could work on my doctoral degree. After I completed my course work, Lisa and I moved off campus, and we both served churches in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.
Thanks to my enrollment at Drew, I was now living less than 10 miles away from one of the premier guide-dog training schools in the country: The Seeing Eye in Morrristown, NJ. Since I felt more disabled by my white cane than aided by it, I enrolled in training at The Seeing Eye for a guide dog.
Together in Ministry
Getting a guide dog was one of the best and most healing things I've ever done. My first dog, a golden retriever named Gene, brought me a new sense of independence and confidence. I absolutely fell in love with this dog, and he became a significant part of my pastoral ministry. In 2004, I was ordained a full elder in the Mississippi Annual Conference. As part of my ordination, Gene was commissioned as one of God's servants too! This was a powerful moment for me, because I finally felt that the church had fully accepted me as a person. Gene died in 2006, and I received another dog, a black lab named Orson. Although having a guide dog makes it impossible for me to pass as a sighted person, I feel completely comfortable in my own skin. My guide dogs have become valuable assets for my ministry, opening up doors for conversation and dialogue.
My ministry is also made enormously easier by my being part of a clergy couple appointed as co-pastors. My life would be much harder without a spouse to assist me with things like transportation and reading. My annual conference has made it possible for both of us to fulfill our calls to ministry.
While I am finally comfortable with who I am, I sometimes struggle with feelings of inadequacy, shame, and fear. We live in a world that idealizes self-sufficiency, power over others, and physical appearance. The people of God sometimes fall prey to these false gods. As a pastor with a disability, I have felt both the love and the pain among God's people called Methodists. My call from God for pastoral ministry continues to burn within me, and I firmly believe Methodism has valuable gifts to offer a hurting and searching world. I will continue to live in solidarity with others who are disabled, fighting the good fight for social justice through disability rights in our denomination.
The Rev. Dr. J. Eric Pridmore serves as a pastor in the Mississippi Annual Conference. He is co-chair of the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities and a member of the United Methodist National Task Force on Disability Ministry. He also serves on the board of the Southeastern Jurisdiction United Methodist Agency for Rehabilitation (SEMAR). This article originally appeared in New World Outlook magazine, May-June 2014 issue.
A longer version of Rev. Pridmore's story can be found in the book:
Speaking Out: Gifts of Ministering Undeterred by Disability.
Photo right: The Rev, Eric Pridmore and his companion in ministry, Atlas, his guide dog. Photo: Lisa Pridmore