A recent Twitter thread raised an issue that is, from what I gathered, not uncommon. Someone without a disability (like me) assures a person with a disability, “I will pray for you.” And many people find this to be odd at best, offensive at worst.
It could be noted – perhaps tongue-in-cheek – that according to a 2014 Pew research study, only about half of Americans said they actually prayed every day, and a quarter of the respondents said they never pray. So, the next time someone tells you, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers”, it’s probably even money that you’re really only getting their thoughts.
More seriously, there’s a lot going on when someone says, “I will pray for you.” Presumably, this prayer is not being offered for fair weather or the person’s favorite sports team. It is being offered as a petition relative to their disability. It seems harmless enough at first; perhaps, downright compassionate. But something else is going on here. “I’ll pray for you” in this context is not a posture of mutuality and equality. Much like the concept of mercy, it establishes a certain imbalance of position—one person is weaker than the other. The prayer being offered assumes there is a problem in need of attention—something is wrong and it needs to be fixed.
What needs fixing?
Is prayer a reasonable response in the matter of disability? In my opinion, absolutely. But prayer for what? The list of things that need fixing in the lives of people with disabilities is boundless, but probably not in the way most of us would think. Today in the US, a developmental disability brings with it a high likelihood of limited access to education, social isolation, discrimination, severe unemployment / under employment, poverty, limited access to health care, reduced independence, a lack of available and accessible transportation, a lack of affordable housing, and the ever-present paternalistic attitudes of others. By anyone’s measure, the framework created by that list is perfectly designed to create a thoroughly unsatisfying life. If we are to be about the work of bringing wholeness to that hopelessly broken system, prayer is a great place to start. Then, when we are finished, we roll up our sleeves and set ourselves to the work of advocacy, education and healthcare reform, building relationships, and nurturing a healthy intolerance of ableism in ourselves and our communities.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard suggested that, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather change the nature of the one who prays.” Pope Francis made headlines in 2017 when he stated his understanding quite simply: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” I love both of those observations but, no disrespect to Popes or Christian existential philosophers, I’ll take my cue from an old spiritual: “It’s not my brother, not my sister… not my father, not my mother …It’s me, it’s me, it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”