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When my body failed, my diffident faith was good enough

24 November 2023

A life-changing injury marked the beginning of an unexpected new chapter for Ann Morisy

Jon Smalldon for British Home

EIGHTEEN months ago, I partially severed my spinal cord. I fell from a mini boat on a mini pond. I was leading a group from my church. So, it wasn’t just me: the group had their weekend in the Kent countryside somewhat spoiled, and I spent three months in King’s College Hospital, sometimes fighting for my life. This was followed by five months of rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville, the National Spinal Injuries Centre.

I am now a resident at British Home, in Streatham, a large residential centre for people with neurological disabilities. Remarkably, this specialist centre is less than a mile from where I lived, and so friends of 30 years can pop in and give their encouragement and support.

I am tetraplegic, permanently disabled with paralysis from below the shoulders. You can imagine all the challenges and indignities that come with such a helpless state, suddenly inflicted at the age of 70.

The challenges that my comrades at British Home face, however, are far more acute than mine. Serious stroke, road injury, or brain tumours mean facing life with impaired cognitive capacity and speech, as well as enduring physical disabilities. My situation is nowhere near as bleak. I might not be able to move, but I can talk, and I can think, and, believe it or not, I can also enjoy many things and express that enjoyment.

So, here I sit, privileged with a powered wheelchair, and viable capacity, and embraced by my wife and longstanding friends. Nevertheless, in the early stages of my injury, when I drifted close to death, I did have to endure some exceptionally intrusive and unpleasant procedures in order to make it through the night — many nights. It was an alarming and existentially lonely place.

Rightly, this is a place in which to examine the efficacy of our Christian faith. I have always been an apprehensive Christian, suspicious of the systematising efforts that encase our faith.

Given such a fragile — even cynical — faith, the odds might be against its remaining secure in the face of these challenges. But I can report that my diffident faith was sufficient for the days. While great faith may be lauded, through the grace of God tentative faith is good enough. There may be a lesson here for missiologists.

DURING the most challenging of procedures, and the three months that followed, looking only at ceilings because of an immovable neck brace, I always had a profound reassurance in relation to both life and death. There was — and is — a sense that all would be well.

It is not just Julian of Norwich who uttered such words, however; so, too, might the military, now schooling the ranks in resilience techniques. The United States army is a prime mover of mental disciplines that bring similar reassurance and coping skills. Therefore, my Christian-rooted reassurance and apparent resilience is not something unique about which to crow.

Furthermore, the medication (pregabalin) that helps to relieve my nerve pain is traded on the streets as the way to chill out when the world gets too much. So, beware: it might not be my faith, m’lud: it might be the drugs!

There is now a gospel story that I identify with more than ever before. It is the story of the man unable to enter the pool at Bethesda and receive its occasional benefits. Jesus tells him to pick up his bed and walk, and he does. Rather than sustained gratitude as a response, he makes his way to the Pharisees, and stokes their fury over this new rabbi, Jesus.

I learn from this story to be grateful for the friends that I have to hand, and to be alert to the bitterness that can stalk us, especially if hardship or disability is long-term. Here, help has come unknowingly from my British Home comrades, especially those who are young, and may already have endured profound challenges for many years. My burden is light compared with theirs; they are the heroes, and, so far, their companionship has displaced bitterness.

DURING my lifetime as a Christian, I have been shaped by the notions that “the last shall be first,” and that the meek shall inherit the earth. I am so grateful for this formation. It has helped me to give profound value to those with whom I now live. These Christian reversals of customary power and status have prepared me for my new community, and even a new ministry. I have a calling that I never expected.

At British Home, I am one of the few who — because of spinal rather than brain injury — is both verbally able and “with competence” (to use the language of care plans). I am learning to use these uncommon gifts on behalf of others.

Notably, too, my rootedness in the Streatham neighbourhood has brought benefits: music from Everyone Matters, and termly adventures with St Leonard’s “Open the Book” team. First off the mark was “Pulse”, the church youth group, selling their home-made Christmas cards on behalf of British Home. And now the Mindful Movement group at St Leonard’s has put British Home on its list of beneficiaries. All very modest, for sure, but the impact is significant, and, with virtuous dynamics, gaining momentum every day.

When you are profoundly disabled, you rely on carers who will wash and tend to you in intimate ways. My carers have their roots in Jamaica or St Lucia, Kampala or Lagos. I know little of their struggles, but I suspect that they are many. I know how their faith is alive and a great source of comfort, as well as a great antidote to my disbelief. I am also aware of the generosity of care and affection that I receive as someone who rejoices in a same-sex relationship.

My carers labour for a modest hourly rate; my ambition is to ensure that they receive the real London living wage, plus plus. Another task for the list, and a reminder that the body might fail, but ministry does not end.

Ann Morisy is a community theologian, and is a member of the congregation at St Leonard’s, Streatham, in the diocese of Southwark. For more information about the work of British Home, visit: www.britishhome.org.uk

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