Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Keep Off Your Feet, But Keep Your Head:
A Story of Disability, Theology and Work


Nancy L. Eiesland is Associate Professor in Sociology of Religion and Disability Studies, Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

I vividly recall the first time I thought seriously about what I would do as a grown-up. I was seven years old and being fitted for a full leg brace and crutches at the Crippled Children's School in Jamestown, North Dakota. As I emerged from the prosthetics workshop, shining with steel bars and white hightop "toddler" shoes, my father said, "You're going to need to get a job that keeps you off your feet. You'll never be a check-out clerk." His advice and prediction was apt and accurate, but the specifics of my life's trajectory were inconceivable to him and me.

The life I have now as a professor, theological advocate, wife, and mother would have been unthinkable then, as it was generally assumed that I would need my parents' financial and medical support all my life. I realized that folks thought I was unlikely to marry and still less likely to have a child. Sustaining a career in academia, teaching and working closely with theological and doctoral students, writing books on disability theology and other topics, travelling internationally lecturing, working with the United Nations agencies and committees on the UN Convention on the Rights and Dignity of People with Disabilities, and working with the European Union groups as they seek to interpret the meaning of the right of spirituality for all people with disabilities - these possibilities were unimaginable.

I am the fifth in a family of six children, reared on a small family farm near Pleasant Lake, North Dakota, where, when I was young, there was neither a lake nor was it particularly pleasing. During my early years in Wolford Elementary School, I became a "poster child" for a national organization seeking to prevent the "tragedy" of my body. As a spokesperson I processed through classrooms asking children to give their dimes and nickels so that one day there would be no more folks like me. The poise I learned in telling my story served me well as I later began my life as an educator and advocate, but it also often came at substantial personal cost as my body became the lesson, and the words I was schooled to say were uncomfortable beliefs about me.

At age 18 I followed in the footsteps of my elder brother and two of my elder sisters and enrolled at the University of North Dakota. I declared my major to be public relations, a field designed for my skills. But as I worked my way into this line of work, I found that the experience of personal objectification I had felt as a "poster child" was a staple in the industry. Then, during my first year at college, on the day after Christmas 1982, my beloved elder sister Susanne Chole was killed in an automobile accident in South Dakota. This tragic loss changed the trajectory of my life. I quickly decided that I would join my family as they moved, selling the family farm in North Dakota to begin anew in Springfield, Missouri - the center of the Assemblies of God (AG) church in the U.S.

I enrolled at Central Bible College, an AG school, following a clear calling that I was to do something to alleviate the pain in the world and to use my life-long disability in ministry. Thus, I sought to make true the promises that the Assemblies of God ordained women, graduating as valedictorian in 1986 and ordained as an Assemblies of God minister within a year. I was ordained for several years, serving as an evangelist, until my ideas as a woman with a disability had pushed beyond AG denominational orthodoxy. But during this time, I began preparing for the work that I had long believed was my calling - hospital chaplaincy. Since I spent many months in hospitals during my young life and knew the routines of hospital care so intimately, it seemed a natural fit.

I began work on my Masters of Divinity (M.Div.) at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, and as part of my program did an intensive basic unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Georgia Baptist Hospital (now Atlanta Medical Center). Armed with a Bible, an Introduction to Pastoral Care class, and a pager, I went out to be a chaplain.

Luckily, I worked with Chaplain Emmanuel Williams, an Assemblies of God clergyman, who with his military bearing taught me tostopwhatever I was thinking as I went out,lookfor signs of what is really happening on the floors and in the rooms, andlistento the word of God, the insights of the hospital staff, and the manner of the patient and family. He chuckled at my developed theory of "healing presence" and simply said, "Doesn't it make you nervous if someone just sits there and doesn't say something?" His style was to go in, learn what was needed, do what he could, and get out. To this day, when I awake from a drug-induced haze after surgeries I only want to see the faces of two people - my husband and my mother. "Get in, do God's business, and get out" are good words that Reverend Williams taught generations of would-be chaplains. My time as a chaplain-in-training taught me many things, but ultimately I decided not to be a chaplain because God could use my early life in hospital for many more things than I could imagine.

At Candler, my first theological mentor, Dr. Rebecca Chopp (now president of Colgate University), responded to my expressed gloom about the missing story of disability in American Christianity and theology by telling me to write it. I began the account that would become the bookThe Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disabilityas my Master's thesis. Though I barely mention my own story there, the work seemed so deeply personal that even sharing it with my professors made me anxious beyond words. Yet, as I showed my account to other people with physical disabilities, in particular, they often found much that resonated with their own experience.

Graduating with my M.Div. in 1991, I immediately began my doctoral program at Emory University, and graduated from the program in sociology of religion in 1995. That year I was hired by Candler School of Theology as a sociologist of religion, though I continued to write and lecture in disability studies in religion. Now a tenured professor with 13 years at Candler and Emory, I work equally in theology and disability studies, and in the study of American religion. I love my teaching, writing, and research, and try diligently to wobble between work and parenting my six-year-old daughter with my husband of 22 years, Terry.

I continue to work out implications of being a disabled woman in Christian circles as I have journeyed from Ireland to India and many places beyond - listening to accounts that both resound with familiarity and yet are culturally and theologically distinctive. I have learned an academic and more a spiritual habit of "just listening" - listening for the claims of justice that are made in everyday life. I've learned that those people whose verbal communicative skills are underdeveloped nevertheless claim me, letting me know that I am one of God's children.

Finally about four years ago, I literally fell down on the job. At a gathering for incoming graduate students, my chair crumbled and I with it. More concernedly, my lumbar back became a mass of fractures, hair-line fractures, and swollen spinal cord. For the past four years I have had many surgeries as they sought to stabilize my spine and to alleviate some of the pain. For much of the 2007-08 school year I was on bedrest in and out of hospitals as doctors tried every which way to cure a drug-resistant staph infection.

Working with folks who have committed themselves to teaching and supporting others in their religious and other vocations sometimes means we hold very high standards for ourselves and for others. I have learned through many years teaching, writing, and advocating, that spiritual standards are not primarily high or low: they are accessible or unapproachable. This past year my colleagues, acting in faith, took over my classes, carried my loads, called the meetings that I was supposed to do, and cared for students for whom I was unable. I am deeply grateful. In every vocation, whether we are privileged to be teachers, advocates, and writers, or follow another calling, we must take to heart that in every work life some suffering will be suffered. At times we will not be as productive, reliable, or energetic as once we were. When we participate in communities of work in which this reality of life is known, we may give our aid when someone else's difficulty comes to the fore, and receive it from others in our times of need.

Life is full, and my work colleagues are generous and level-headed, as is my family. God has had much more to make of my life than I could imagine, as I have kept off my feet and tried to keep my head passionately committed.