Over 20 years ago, a wonderful woman was brought to church by the missionaries. During the preceding weeks, they had taught her the discussions. She was single, in her upper 40’s, an overall delight of a person, and . . . excited about the restored gospel. One characteristic set her apart from all other members of the congregation. She was wheelchair bound.
A baptismal date was scheduled for the next Saturday. The bishop was so happy to see such a quality person coming into his Ward. Her wheelchair was brought to the edge of the font stairs. Four Elders lifted and gently carried her down into the water. A beautiful and sacred ordinance was performed in a crowded and joy filled font.
One day later, the new convert was warmly welcomed into the ward, both from the pulpit and by the membership. One week later, the bishop was happy to hear that the new member wanted to meet with him. Unfortunately, she informed him that this would be her last Sunday at church. Being in meetings for any length of time was too uncomfortable. There were no handicap equipped bathrooms!!! An embarrassing accident was all too likely. This sweet woman was going to be denied all the benefits of church attendance because of deficiencies in the building’s toilet facilities. In effect, a person who was different from all others in the congregation was being excluded from church blessings. The bishop was heartbroken.
The existence of this problem was already known to the bishop. It just hadn’t directly touched him yet. One of the other wards in the building had a member with limited control of legs or arms. From time-to-time, discussions were had about bathroom difficulties. But, no action had been initiated to acquire handicap accessible facilities.
Now, that a new convert had been lost, the bishop sprang into action. His mission was to secure a bathroom makeover, ASAP. He contacted the Stake President, who seemed sympathetic. The high councilman over meetinghouse remodeling was assigned the task. Then, organizational red tape set in. Eight months passed. Calls were made, letters exchanged, discussions had, but no action. Finally, the bishop, in frustration and with a bit of anger, decided to take matters into his own hands. He was not going to watch another handicapped member slip away because of a potential bodily function mishap.
A bid was obtained to retrofit one of the building’s bathrooms. $16,000. Of course, this was way out of the budget bounds allotted by Salt Lake City. At the time, fundraising was only permitted for youth camps. This did not deter the bishop’s plans.
He called the construction department at church headquarters. With one of the head architects on the phone, the bishop made the following statement. “We have no handicap equipped bathrooms. I recently lost a new wheelchair bound convert because of this. In the other ward, there is a member who has limited use of his arms and legs. Bathroom visits for him are difficult and dangerous. Over the past 8 months, I’ve tried to get the needed remodel done through the proper stake channels. Nothing is on the horizon. I’m not calling to ask permission. Rather, I’m calling to inform you of my plans. The build out is going to cost $16,000. Two weeks from today, I’m going to start a fundraising campaign. I thought you would like to know.”
Less than two weeks later, a church architect crossed the same chapel threshold that the wonderful wheelchair woman was never to cross again. In three months, construction was completed with funds, design, and support from Salt Lake. But, it was too late. The convert, from 12 months prior, was not to return.
Fast forward twenty years. All the LDS churches now have handicap stalls.
However, there are still people in the church who are in a situation that sets them apart from all other members of the congregation. As a result, they are excluded from the blessings that can be found in the church. This situation did not exist until November of last year. Like the bishop of years ago, I feel heartbroken.
Oh, how I wish that I could just call the church construction department, describe the situation of members leaving, and then have a ‘policy’ architect quickly cross the threshold of my chapel. And . . . do it before more of my friends depart, never to cross the chapel threshold again.