Monday, August 23, 2010

No church for the disabled...

I've been visiting my friend, Craig Dunham, in Evergreen, as often as I can. His ALS is in the later stages now, and I know he cherishes visits from friends. I could write a whole book about Craig... Instead of "Tuesdays with Morrie" (a book about the lessons learned from an ALS patient) it would be "Sundays with Craig."

Craig has always been very independent and active. He was a biker and hiker and someone who was always up for anything. And now, even though he can no longer move or speak, he's still got that same fiery spunk in his eyes that says no one is going to hold him back from living. For quite some time, the only function he still has is with a part of a finger, but boy, he gets a lot of use out of that finger. If his hand is placed in the right spot he can operate his motorized chair. He zooms that baby around like it was an all-terrain 4-wheel drive SUV and those of us that are trying to "help" him have trouble keeping up.

One of the things that Craig has always insisted on is that he wants to attend Mass each Sunday. He is a devout Catholic. In fact, one of the most inspirational things about Craig is his incredible faith and acceptance of his fate. I have never known anyone to have a stronger faith.

Though the Knights of Columbus from his parish had said they would give him rides, for some reason, they don't seem to be following through very often. Craig lives about a mile from his church, so one time, he actually motored that wheelchair on his own all the way to the church... Yeah, Craig is crazy. I know he's gone out on his own and gotten stuck or had problems...not something that you want to happen when you can't move or talk...but, again, that's Craig. More determined than ever to not give up on life. Don't even try and stop him.

I remember the first time I showed up on Sunday and he asked me to drive him to church. It was winter and I hate driving, especially when it's a specialized van that I've never driven, I don't know where I'm going, and I can barely figure out what Craig is saying. (This is back in the days when Craig could still talk, but he was pretty hard to understand.) I told him I thought it was a bad idea. He would not take no for an answer. He didn't have to talk for me to understand what his eyes were telling me: "Yvette, if I can drive this wheelchair with one finger and live with this awful disease every day, you can drive that van and get me to church!" And so I did.

That first time wasn't bad, but soon the church was full of construction scaffolding and all kinds of obstacles, with absolutely no wheelchair access! Do you think that stopped Craig? No way. One time I took him and he just zoomed up this steep incline over rocks and dirt, the wheelchair nearly overturning while I'm standing back horrified. Craig is a dare-devil with that thing. A little spin isn't gonna stop him. In fact, I'm sure he'd love to catch some air and do a few flips if he could.

OK, fast forward a couple months. Construction is STILL going on and the church has done nothing to make it any easier for the handicapped. One day, I showed up to get him to church, and we weren't able to make it. The curb and construction obstacles were just too great, even for Evil-Knievel Craig.

I called the church and spoke to the priest, sure that he would be as outraged as I was that one of his most loyal parishioners...a man that deserves all the prayers we can give him...couldn't get in the church! But no. He was full of excuses, telling me that Craig was the only parishioner in a wheelchair and the project would be done in a couple of months.

Unbelievable! First of all, of course Craig is the only parishioner in a wheelchair because no person other than Craig would even attempt to get in that church with a wheelchair! Secondly, Craig does not have a couple of months to wait around for them to finish their project! He has been robbed of just about every physical function possible, and now his church isn't even going to accommodate him so he can get in to pray to God? Believe me, I was upset.

I wrote a long email to a bunch of the leaders from the church, expressing my concern that there was no wheelchair access and that the Knights of Columbus were not signing up to give Craig rides. Within 2 hours I got an email back saying the situation had been handled. There would be a ramp for wheelchair access available and the KoC would be reminded of Craig's wish to get to church. I patted myself on the back and felt relieved.

Two weeks later, I checked the volunteer sheet and saw that Craig still needed a ride to church. I wanted to check out the situation for myself, so I drove him, and there was a little piece of wood, a makeshift ramp to get him over the tough spot. It wasn't perfect, but we made it.

The following week (this last Sunday), again, no one from KoC had signed up to drive Craig, so I made the trip up again. This time, when we got to church, there were orange cones blocking the way of where we needed to go to get to the ramp. I got out and moved the cones and, thanks to the help of a wonderful woman who has been helping Craig, we were able to get him to Mass.

When I questioned the priest after Mass, he claimed "he was doing everything he could... It was a construction zone and there were rules and liabilities." I lost it! I started crying and asking this priest why he wasn't doing more to help Craig...such a loyal parishioner for years and years. And here he is, in this absolute need of compassion and prayer, and the church doesn't welcome him and help him! They block his way with construction and cones!

Now I'm not a confrontational person. And the last person I would ever want to confront or be disrespectful to is a priest. But, boy did this guy make me mad. He told the congregation about the great acoustics and flooring they were all getting thanks to their construction project. They apparently are spending millions...yet are they even concerned about people like Craig that can't make it in the church while all this is going on?

I was so upset by this priest's attitude. Craig is the most deserving, wonderful, faithful man of all time, and I cannot believe his church is treating him with such disrespect. To the priest's credit, he did send me an email later, apologizing, and saying the cones would not be blocking our way from now on. But that doesn't take away from the sting of his words. His lack of compassion for Craig left me with such a deep sadness and anger.

Why is this church not stepping up? Why aren't the Knights of Columbus, who are already going to church, going the (literal) extra mile to pick up Craig? Why aren't all the people of this congregation gathering around to help and support this man who has given so much to his faith community? I know there are people who are helping him much more than I am, and I'm grateful for them. But I am truly disappointed with this Catholic church and its leadership. I, myself, am Catholic, and this is an embarrassment to the religion.

I've hesitated about publishing this and I have not mentioned the name of the church or the priest for Craig's benefit. I know Craig loves his parish and the congregation and I would never do anything to hurt him. He is at the end of his life and I know he wants to leave the world with peace in his heart. I only hope that his church community finds a way to show him the love and respect that he deserves.


Nicole Johnson said...

Brava Yvette, great post !
Craig is blessed to have you as a friend, and as an advocate !!

Anonymous said...

Yvette, I am so very proud to have you for my sister. My prayers go out to Craig. I love you. -N

Craig said...

I am proud to be of the same species as you, Yvette. You're an angel on Craig's shoulder and deserve more good karma than you get no matter how much it is. What a display of a true friend through and through. I aspire to achieve your level of compassion and humanship. (Is that a word?)