Faith Healing in Harvard Yard

First, one of my friends from high school (who is currently getting her PhD in Entomology) has started a blog all about bees! Click here and check it out!

Second, when I started my blog, I wasn’t actually sure what I was going to talk about. I thought I’d post about things that happened that day, or that week, or even that month. I have been rather bad at keeping with my original plan, and have posted about things that happened years ago. So today you get a couple of stories about people who tried to heal me through the power of Jesus, and why this is problematic (with a bit of medieval history thrown in).

By the time I started my freshman year of college, I was used to people telling me that they were going to pray for me. Generally, when friends and random strangers say that I’m in their prayers, it’s kind of sweet, because I know that they mean well. On the other hand, part of me wants to tell the person that they’re interpreting my disability in a light that is way too negative. And part of me wants to say that my mobility impairment is something neutral, and something that a large number of people deal with. Or that the problem they need to pray for isn’t my disability, but the widespread social ignorance about disability, in addition to a severe lack of access to physical structures and services that people with disabilities need.

But usually whenever people say they’re going to pray for me, their well wishes turn sour if my reply takes longer than ten seconds, so my response has been whittled down to an “Oh, thank you!” Then we part ways and the person may or may not remember to pray for me later.

So when I left my freshman dorm on a quest to scope out the sale section at Anthropologie (I’d had a rough week and wanted a pretty new top) and was approached by two college-aged individuals who asked if they could pray for me, I nodded and said, “Oh, thank you!”

Then they stopped in front of me.

Then I stopped. Well, this was different.

“Where were you hurt?” They came closer to me. This was getting weirdly personal. Also, why were they assuming this was an acquired impairment? But I digress.

“Um…my neck,” I said, and pointed to the general area. It’s not like I make any effort to hide my impairment. “Well, spinal cord, if I want to get more specific.”

They came closer.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”

I realized that these well-meaning people might be part of an unorganized cult. I looked at their smiling, inquisitive faces, and noticed that the foot traffic in Harvard Yard (where my dorm was located) was more or less the same. No one had cared to notice that I had accidentally stumbled into a conversation that I very much wanted to leave.

I suppose I could’ve attempted to wheel away, but they didn’t seem threatening. I just felt rather uncomfortable.

“Um, well, I’m Buddhist, but I think Jesus did exist at some point and he sounds like a pretty great guy.”

I don’t think they listened to my less-than-stellar answer, because next thing I knew, their hands were on the back of my neck and they were praying to Jesus Christ to heal my spinal cord. I stared down at a nearby patch of grass, desperately hoping that the Harvard Yard foot traffic remained unchanged. The last thing I needed was an audience. I remember feeling unnaturally worried that one of my professors or teaching fellows (TAs) would pass by and see this – but I’ve always been overly concerned with looking strange in front of the people who grade me. I imagined students and tourists alike staring at this funny little spectacle – two hands of two able-bodied individuals on a wheelchair user’s neck. They might have wondered whether I was being piously attacked, or if I asked for it. I wanted to tell them to stop, and that this was ridiculous, and ask what on earth they were doing.

Well actually, I knew what they were doing. They were praying. With me right there. And they were making sure I didn’t scurry away.

This wasn’t my first brush with faith healing. Shortly after my injury, while I was still inpatient, a Tibetan Buddhist monk came to my hospital room (at the request of my parents), said a multitude of prayers, and, I kid you not, brought a gong with him. I took his prayers seriously, so it would’ve been rude if I didn’t respect these Christian prayers too, even if I thought these prayers came from individuals who were in some sort of cult.

Who were these people, anyway? Were they Harvard students? Were they part of the Harvard Catholic Student Association? They hadn’t identified themselves, and to be honest, I hadn’t met anyone in the CSA, so this was a possibility. (Note: a couple of years later I met the president of the Harvard Catholic Student Association, and she had no idea who these people were.)

And with an “amen,” they finished. I was about to say a quick “thank you” and flee the Yard, but then they asked me to stand up.

“Excuse me?”

“Try to get up from your chair.”

“Um, I’m really not sure if that’s the best idea.”

“Earlier today, we prayed and the power of Jesus Christ healed a man’s broken wrist in the library.”

“Oh, well, that’s great for him.”

“So will you try to stand up?”

“Umm.”

I half-assed a seated hop. This was not worth falling on the asphalt in front of my dorm. I tried diplomacy.

“You know, I appreciate your attempt. It’s very nice of you. I think I’m going to stick to lots of physical therapy.”

One of the wrist-healers gave me her email address and told me to contact her if anything changed. “Jesus wants you to get better!”

“That’s very nice of him. I’ll be sure to send you an email.”

And, true to my word, I sent her an email a week later to let her know that nope, I was not miraculously healed. She replied that sometimes it takes a while (to which I thought, “That’s what I’ve also heard about physical therapy”).

To be fair, they were friendly (although a bit ignorant of personal boundaries). All the same, I sped over to Anthropologie that day and tried on lots of cute tops – retail therapy had never felt better.

But this would not be the last time someone tried to heal me when I definitely did not ask for it. One afternoon, while I was living in Cambridge, UK (where I got my MPhil), I was waiting for the bus right by the Faculty of History building. It was an unusually sunny day, and I was minding my own business until someone else came to wait for the bus. I smiled at her, which I soon found out was a mistake.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”

Oy vey.

I gave my same answer – that I was Buddhist, but thought Jesus was a good person who probably existed at some point in human history.

“If you pray to Jesus Christ and accept him as your lord and savior, you’ll be healed.” Then she told me about how Jesus cured her cancer. Hey, power to her. I’ve heard about cancer being cured with chemo, travel, or with other means, but I tend to avoid endorsing a particular strategy, mostly because I am by no means a medical expert. This person was not an expert on nerve damage, but that didn’t stop her.

“That’s good to know,” I said. I smiled and stared at a nearby tree, desperate to avoid eye contact as I wondered when the bus would get here.

“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”

“You know, funny story, during my freshman year of college, two people tried to heal me through the power of Jesus Christ, and that didn’t go so well.”

She looked annoyed. I do not recall her wording exactly, but she said something to the effect of, “Jesus doesn’t listen to everyone.”

Well, okay then. “But he’ll listen to me?”

“Just say that you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.”

And then, as if by divine intervention, the bus showed up. I told the person I’d think about it, and then spent the bus ride avoiding eye contact with her until I got to my stop. That’s what I get for smiling at strangers.

To be clear, I have nothing against the people who say that they want to pray for me – they mean well. I am also aware that not every religious person is a fan of faith healing, or is inclined to tap into their inner wannabe saint in an attempt to heal a person with a disability. In my case, these were two isolated incidents where at least one person saw me and decided that I needed some divine healing.

And don’t get me wrong, if I woke up the next morning and all of my nerves were as good as new, I’d be freaking ecstatic and would thank the deity/scientific breakthrough responsible. The people who wanted to faith heal me were not wrong to assume that I’d rather live my life without being dependent on catheters and a mobility device, both of which are cumbersome to deal with.

But these instances reminded me of when I was first injured (and even when I tell people about my injury years later), and I heard things along the lines of, “It’s God’s will” or, “Everything happens for a reason.” Those who have experienced difficult situations may have been told similar things from people who meant well. These phrases are supposed to sound comforting. They can also be taken to mean, however, “You did something to justify this.”

After hearing things like that, and being told that the cure to my impairment lies solely in prayer (or in being more religious), I started to think about everything I ever did that could be considered even remotely terrible. And as a Buddhist, I’ve struggled with this idea. Did I do something terrible in a past life? Did I mistreat someone with a disability? I thought about every time I used a handicapped restroom when I was able-bodied (which is a jerk thing to do if there are other stalls available) – was my current predicament an extreme form of punishment? At my lowest point, I questioned whether I was just some horrible person in high school who deserved to be hurt (which was ludicrous, because who wasn’t a terrible human in high school?).

And questioning whether or not I deserved to become disabled due to some personal failing isn’t exactly a modern idea. When I researched my medieval history Masters dissertation (which was all about early medieval perceptions of disability), I came across stories in which cruel people became disabled as a result of divine justice. They later regained their able bodies after hours spent in prayer. They asked for forgiveness and were eventually deemed worthy of healing.

Actually, medieval texts are fascinating when it comes to disability and divine punishment/healing. In some cases, an individual’s impairments were the result of that individual’s moral failings, those of that individual’s family, or those of the city where that individual lived. In other cases, impairment was a result of divine favor. At any rate, an explanation was typically given to justify the disability.

There are some cases where an individual was mentioned as having a disability without any justification. But these people usually weren’t disabled for long – a saint usually showed up to heal them (because these occurred within a saint’s life, and the saints’ lives genre devotes an enormous amount of text to miraculous healings that emphasize the saint’s holiness), which rendered any backstory for the disabled individual as a waste of text and parchment.

I mention medieval texts both because medieval history is fun to read about, and because these attitudes related to disability and morality (i.e. whether someone with a disability did something to deserve it and must pray and seek forgiveness to heal) haven’t entirely left Western thought.

[Note: If you’re interested in reading a more specific description about early medieval texts with regard to disability and biblical commentaries, I’d be happy to send you part of my MPhil dissertation.]

You might argue that the people who tried to heal me didn’t say that I deserved my impairment, to which I would say that they still thought that prayer was the answer. In one case, it was implied that my recovery would be expedited if I accepted Jesus as my lord and savior, which I had supposedly made the mistake of not doing previously. In the other case, my faith in Jesus was also questioned. Prayer (and apparently a religious conversion) have somehow become connected to health and ability, even though these aren’t completely related phenomena. What does my faith, whatever I believe, have to do with my disability? And would the people I interacted with have kept their mouths shut if I had said that I was already a Christian?

The reality is that disability is neutral. Things happen, and if you’re the type to see my disability as a punishment, as divine will, or as karmic retribution, then you need to reexamine how you understand disability. We – those of us with impairments – haven’t done anything wrong. These are our bodies. People can pray for our health and physical wellbeing, or we can find solace in prayer (which can most definitely be therapeutic), but it’s inappropriate to search for religious meaning or a moral failure to justify our disabilities, or to tell us that the cure to our disabilities lies solely within prayer (not least because how I manage my disability is none of your business).

Also, we shouldn’t try to faith heal each other by placing our hands on an injured body part and praying. Because that’s kind of awkward.

Update: If you wonder what would have happened in any of these scenarios if I had just wheeled away, then you’re in luck, because someone just tried to “pray over me” (her words, not mine) twenty minutes ago. My dad saw me in this predicament right outside my parents’ house, came over, and wheeled me away. The woman who wanted to pray over me then shouted after us, “I GUESS YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN JESUS!” I wanted to reply that I’m sure he existed at some point and was a good person, but I figured that wasn’t the answer she wanted.

4 thoughts on “Faith Healing in Harvard Yard

  1. Val, came across your blog on on Facebook. Simply put -You are an amazing writer! I am very much looking forward to reading more. Your words were witty charming and generous in spirit. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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