This post started out as a “5 Most Beautiful Churches” list, but I don’t want to waste my readers’ time with useless “filler content.” Instead, I’m going to share with you one of my greatest challenges as both a wheelchair user and a traveler: faith.
I am a committed Catholic, but have never used this blog as a tool for evangelization. I won’t start now. This post contains 5 personal stories about the struggle of keeping my faith as a disabled traveler. The faith I am talking about is not only in God, but also in myself and my ability to overcome the obstacles thrown at me. If you are a wheelchair user, you’ll have experienced some (or all) of these challenges yourself, even if you do not subscribe to a religious belief. More than anything, this is a commentary on living a life of disability.
Getting out of bed and into life.
It was a chilly September morning in Oslo, Norway. I had arrived in the city Saturday night after a long (and frustrating) day of transatlantic air travel. The English Mass at St. Olav’s Cathedral was set for 9:30 a.m., and I was struggling to get out of bed. I’ve had many days like this, where I ask myself “what is the point?”
Life is more difficult for those of us with a disability. It’s often hard to find the motivation to get out of bed. I was not excited by the 20-minute roll between my hotel and the church, but my desire to be a faithful Catholic propelled me forward.
When I arrived, I thought I had read the Mass schedule incorrectly. The majority of people at the church were Vietnamese. There were a few English-speakers scattered throughout, and I hoped that I had not made a mistake.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” English – score!
What followed was the most beautiful celebration of the Mass I have ever witnessed and participated in. The people were so focused and involved. In times of silence, they prayed. Their witness of love and faith was beautiful, and my spirit lifted.
The lesson that day was to always take an opportunity to join in the life going on outside your bedroom. Had I wimped out and slept until lunchtime, I would have missed out on a life experience that I now cherish. I could use my disability as an excuse – and there are plenty of times when it is a legitimate one – but on that day I didn’t allow that mindset to keep me down. I lived life, and it was beautiful.
The stairway to… nowhere.
We’ve all encountered an elevator that is broken, and they tend to appear at the worst times. I was in St. Louis, Missouri, and had gotten off the MetroLink at Union Station. Mass was set to begin at 10:30, at the Pro-Cathedral of St. John the Apostle & Evangelist – my home parish when I lived in the Gateway City.
The elevator up to street level was broken, so I was out of luck. It being a Sunday, the metro trains run on a reduced schedule, and the next stop was going to put me even farther from the church. I don’t like to show up late for Mass – my wheelchair is a distraction that can take away from the solemnity of the celebration.
To put a long story short, I made it with a minute to spare, thanks to running some red lights (sorry, crosswalk police!) and setting my wheelchair on its highest speed. Wheelchair users know well enough that accounting for hiccups like these is a necessity. As a message to my friends, cut me some slack if I’m a few minutes late. Elevators break, and the stairways won’t get me anywhere.
Unwrapping a monsoon.
This past December, I traveled to London, United Kingdom to spend a few days with my friend (and the person most responsible for my Catholic faith), Alex, over Christmas.
I was staying at the Hilton London Wembley Hotel, and intended to join her for Mass at her parish (about 10 miles away). Unfortunately, public transportation was shut down due to the holiday, and taxis were operating at a significantly inflated meter rate. A $150 round trip taxi fare was not happening, so I decided to attend Christmas Mass alone at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church – 25 minutes away by wheelchair.
It was a dreary Christmas morning. About 5 minutes into my roll, the sky opened up and released a monsoon. I hid under a cement stairway at Wembley Stadium, and prayed that the wind would not change direction. As the time ticked away, I had a choice to make – get soaked and roll another mile, or return to the hotel and skip Mass on Christmas Day.
I chose the former, and after 5 minutes or getting sufficiently drenched, the monsoon lifted to a light drizzle. I made it to Mass, enjoyed the celebration, and didn’t have to face a week of guilt.
There are a couple of things I want people who do not use wheelchairs to realize. First, when I am sitting in my wheelchair and the rain is coming down, it collects on my lap and my seat cushion. People who can walk don’t have to deal with that concentrated blast of water. Second, my wheelchair doesn’t have the ability to jump over puddles. So, I have to pray that the puddle is not a foot deep and that the water won’t fry my chair’s electronic circuitry. But, enough of that “bah humbug” stuff… for now.
One f****ing bar of battery life.
That is one FLASHING bar of battery life… count the asterisks. 😉
For a power wheelchair user like me, the scariest thing in the world might just be a flashing single bar on the wheelchair’s battery indicator. It is a sign that you will either need to find a power outlet, or a good samaritan to push you. Now, hold that thought.
On my first day of a weeklong trip to Paris, France I decided to roll from my hotel on the Champs-Elysées to the Opera Garnier, and ultimately up to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Sacré-Cœur). Here’s a map of the general route I took, with a few deviations:
Generally, 4-5 kilometers is nothing for my chair, but the last third of the route was significantly uphill – at times VERY steep. The Sacré-Cœur sits at the highest point in the City of Paris, and I had come from one of the lowest points.
Wheelchair users will also realize that the distance listed on a map is never the actual distance you have to roll, as diversions to avoid obstacles (and to check out cool stuff!) are common.
When I made it to the top of the hill, my battery light was blinking, which meant I couldn’t make it to the accessible entrance at the rear of the Church. I called for a taxi, and returned to my hotel for a charge. The next day, I planned smarter, took a taxi UP the hill and was able to tour the Basilica – one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen.
The lesson that day was to plan early, plan often and plan well. It was frustrating to fall short of my goal for the day, but I’m grateful it wasn’t a repeat of my Beijing experience, where the flashing battery bar stopped flashing! :p
The cobblestone earthquake.
The 5th and final Church in this story is St. Vitus Cathedral, located inside the Prague Castle complex in Prague, Czech Republic. My experience with this Cathedral is an anecdote about embracing the unexpected with a determined spirit – something that disabled people are asked to do every day.
I decided to roll up the hill to this church without the aid of public transportation (a mistake), and I encountered the Great Cobblestone Earthquake of 2016. The “accessible pathway,” nearly a mile long, was paved in cobblestones that could bruise the body (and my wheelchair). As I climbed the hill, I made this short video on Periscope:
“Bumpy” is an understatement. But I made a commitment to face the obstacle with determination, and again had the opportunity to attend a beautiful Mass. It was celebrated in the Czech language – not in English as I had read online, but I was still welcomed by the congregants and had a fulfilling start the New Year. St. Vitus Cathedral is a beautiful masterpiece – in both architecture and interior design. Don’t get me started on the beautiful music played on the organ!
In the interest of honesty and accountability, I will admit that there have been numerous occasions when I decided the obstacle was too great and turned back. If this were a blog about religion and faith, I would dig deeper into that – but trust me when I say, that pushing forward in defiance of barriers, challenges and obstacles is always better than giving up. This is true not just in faith, but in every aspect of life with a disability.
As a disabled traveler, I have quickly learned that the obstacles of life cannot be overcome unless I have faith in those around me and also in myself.
The term disability envelops one of the most diverse communities in the world. Our challenges and approach to overcoming them are unique and individual. We are a community that sees blanket statements as an affront to our identities. On this blog, I write about travel and the difficulties I face from my own perspective. Some of my readers can identify strongly with my circumstances, while others struggle with barriers that are unknown to me.
That said, WheelchairTravel.org is a cross-disability website, thanks in large part to the contributors who share their own stories through guest posts. If you’d like to add your voice to this community, you are welcome to do so. Let’s work together to tackle the challenges of disability by having faith in ourselves and each other!