Q: Therese, was your disability one of the factors for you to become a Christian?
A: Not directly. I was raised in a school of Catholic Nuns in Belgium. They helped me understand what the gospel is about, but the relationship to Christ was not really an issue. I was in boarding school at that time, and I did not come home often. When I finished school at about age 20, I finally came home. I had no friends. I was pretty much depressed at that time. Then I met with some born-again Christians and realized that I was missing something deeper in my life. One night we saw a movie in which someone died so that one of the other characters could live. At that time I realized that someone had already died for me. I got a new perspective on my disability – if God made me that way, then I am good with it.
Q: The topic of Healing is an important issue both in the gospels and in everyday life – how did you deal with that as a Christian?
A: Some of my friends said: “Therese, don’t you know that Jesus healed the disabled?” I went to my pastor and we agreed that we would ask Jesus for healing. I expressed my feelings, that if the Lord would not heal me, I would really accept that; but, on the other hand, I really wanted to ask Him for healing. To ask for it was important for me because He is Lord and I knew He has the power to do it. I wanted to ask Him according to His mighty power, according to who He is: GOD, my creator. And so we did, and a group in my church did. But my disability did not disappear.
Q: What were the reactions when you were not healed?
A: I think most of them (laughing) did not expect it anyway. One of the elders had said before: “Therese, probably we will not see you walk better, but you will receive an answer from God.” And that was a prophetic, true word; because right after that evening of prayer for my healing, this ministry started.
Q: Yes, another aspect of your life did change – you started a ministry for disabled people. How did that happen?
A: At that time the Wall came down and my pastor went to Romania. When he came back, thequestion came up: How could I as a disabled person help other disabled people? Then, our focus was on Belgium, but the only source where I could get some help to find out something about the situation in my own country was the organization Joni and Friends in the USA. We got in contact, discussed questions like “Why are so few disabled people attending church? How could we help them?” Finally, Joni and Friends decided to have a European Conference here in the Netherlands.
I also came in contact with a church leader in Belgium who, because of an accident, sat in a wheelchair. We did a little survey and sent out about 400 letters to churches. We had 80 responses – which is not too bad – and found that, according to these responses, 136 disabled people were in church regularly. In most of these cases, the churches they attended were not too good in helping them with their individual needs. For example, it seems that churches could improve their way of welcoming disabled persons and help them offer their own gifts to the church; help them get involved and be real members of the local church. One of the very well known leaders in Belgium was not too excited about setting up a special ministry for disabled people. He thought there were only about 10 people in the Belgium church who could benefit from it.
Joni and Friends had opened an office in Brussels, and after 5 years we came to the conclusion that we should have a network over Europe. In Eastern Europe, there is still need for much practical help. In the western part, people get practical help from the government. These governments are paying for help, but the result is that disabled people miss the relationships. This would be important especially for the disabled people who very often get isolated. I personally am not married, my family does not believe in Christ, so I usually would turn to my church.
Q: What are the challenges you have faced – how do Christians think about disabled people?
A: People just don’t think about it. That is something I cannot understand. Even if it comes to the most basic things in life – like helping me with my wheelchair and so on – it seems that it is difficult for a lot of people to see these needs. I am not saying this to offend anybody, but that is my experience. Actually, I feel that people sometimes seem to think that if they address my disability they could offend me, but in that way they can’t. I have lived with my disability for about 50 years now. The only way to offend me is to neglect me with my needs. If people are going for a walk, they would need to push me in my wheelchair, and often they don’t even ask me to come along. They do not offer their help. I feel uninvited and so I stay behind.
Q: From your experience, what could people do for people with disabilities?
A: It would make a great difference if people would care more about each other! And if they would care more for the weak among them. First, one could start by just looking out for those who need help. I feel that, for example, singles are in the same position. They, like many other groups of people within the church, are in a situation where they might need some specific support.
Secondly, there must be some encouragement so that people with disabilities can be full members of the church and get the opportunity to serve with their God-given gifts. The Lord has opportunities for disabled people. It would be encouraging if people without disabilities would try to think like disabled people. Once when we went for coffee, my friend went to the bathroom; and when she returned, I asked if there were steps. She said she did not know! She did not even remember if she had to walk a small stairway. As you can imagine, I recognize steps every time there are some.
This fear of getting into a situation without having someone with me who would help, drove me – as it frequently happens – into isolation. I feel that I cannot know what will come next for me. For example, some people invite me to a movie. I do not know if I can sit very well, if there are steps and so on, so I don’t go. In short, people could be more aware of the special needs disabled people have; they could be more helpful in practical things, and could be more comforting by showing that they would not let a disabled person down.
Q: What are the special duties/obligations of the disabled persons? What are their gifts?
A. First of all, disabled people have a deep understanding of not having something they want. If someone is bitter, disabled people would understand that. Disabled people can show that our bodies are not perfect, even if they are a model. It is not important how you look. The Bible implies that each individual is totally different from every other individual. How can we best understand this? My body is not perfect, but I can live the life I should. I wish I could bring this message out much more to all the members of the churches. They could choose to understand this message. The world cannot understand. Thinking about the disabled is to think about the minorities in our churches--what do they need? We have fought for accessibility. So often we have heard, “Why should we renovate our entire church, are we ready to do as much as possible for the weak? “
Q: What can people do to help a person with a disability?
A. In approaching people with disabilities, please don’t try to hide your own limitations. Openness is always a giant step in the right direction. Honesty and creative thinking are ways to help this interaction. Sometimes, just plain, practical help is needed. Sometimes, when a disabled person has a severe speech impairment or a deep learning disability, it is good to approach the accompanying person first, but never ignore the person with the disability. Always try to include both in your attempt to help. Accompanying persons do a great job, especially as “bridge-builders”; you can learn a lot from them!