In Remembrance of Me

Invisible Disabilities and Radical Welcome

by Joanna Hipp
Terri Scott

On November 28, 2013, I boarded a plane from Busan, Korea, bound for the United States. Ten hours into the flight I started to feel funny. My jaw began to hurt, and I felt light-headed. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror: my lips were blue, my face and chest were red. My hands began to swell.

Tears filled my eyes. I remember thinking, “This is it. I am going to die trying to return home.” I prayed, “Please God, please God, please God—not now.”

I began to fear that someone would have to tell my family I died on an airplane. I remember opening the bathroom door … and then … nothing. I stopped breathing.

Many people have a fear of flying and establish rituals to help control that fear—wearing a lucky necklace, praying before takeoff, or striving to sit in a particular seat. For me, I often think back to this time when trace amounts of peanuts on the plane caused anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can cause restriction of the airway and can lead to death. The ritual for me, then, is to think of the words of communion and pray that they may be true: “Friends, this is the joyful feast of the people of God! This is Christ’s table, who invites us to share the feast for which he has prepared.”

As a Christian, I long to hear Christ’s invitation to sit at table. The invitation, however, comes with a cost. The airline promised hospitality to me, promising it would be nut free. Without clear communication and careful attention to the physical ingredients, the invitation to the table comes with the same risk, leaving me with an invitation to isolation.

We talk often of being a welcoming church, with an open table that invites the stranger and neighbor to a common meal. Yet there are many people who have disabilities and challenges that are not visible to the outside world—people with allergies, eating disorders, alcoholism, or mental illnesses. We long to be welcomed, but we fear the welcoming space. A willful ignorance of the risk that exists when I “take and eat” only exacerbates my fears.

When Jesus broke the bread he did so knowing that his body would soon be broken. It is the gift of God for all people. Yet this gift of life, of grace, of thanksgiving could actually induce suffering, cause pain and even bring death. What happens if that tangible expression of the gift of life is in fact deadly to the one who receives it in joy?

There is a felt sense of irony when someone like me hears the words: “The bread of life.” Unless the bread is intentionally allergy free, my life is in danger every time I eat this bread and drink this cup. As we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again, am I at the same time proclaiming my own death? How do I worship and give thanks in such uncertainty? So when the bread is broken and we hear Jesus say, “Do this in remembrance of me,” his words convey a very different meaning for people like me.

So how do we, as a church, avoid the risk of inhospitality?

For me, I think back to that horrifying time on the plane. Though I remember very little of the event itself, I remember waking up, strapped to a row of seats with many medical personnel and friends surrounding me. Throughout these events, I was accompanied by strangers who offered hospitality in my moment of need. With their help, I safely disembarked in the US and made my way home. Though the airline was inhospitable, the assistance of these strangers saved my life. Surely if the people of flight 347 can do this, so can the church!

Living with allergies is overwhelmingly difficult. Eating this sacred meal should not be. Let’s discern together, around a common table, what it means to be a welcoming church, where all feel safe to share in the Great Banquet Feast. Let’s be aware of the unseen struggles in our midst, and let us be care-full with and for one another. Let’s make clear what is in the bread that we eat and the cup that we drink, not to diminish the sacredness of the meal, but to allow all to participate in the sacred. May we learn how to be a safe space for all to encounter the sacred, where our brokenness is healed in the joy of true thanksgiving.

And may we no longer come to the table fearing the feast.

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