A special minister Methodist pastor in Mt. Washington reaches beyond the clergy image

December 23, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

The Rev. Nancy Webb has a new parish. Its members are black, white, Hispanic, Asian and, in Webb's words, "mentally and physically challenged."

The parish of 250 people, Elderslie-St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Mount Washington, is "stimulating" to its new pastor because, she says, "the majority of congregations you find are homogeneous, we-all-look-alike, we-all-think-alike groups of people. That's not the case here."

Webb seems a proper match for her unusual charges. She's pretty unusual herself. She doesn't fit what she smilingly calls the consensus image of a pastor -- "a tall, slender, blue-eyed male. You know, like Jesus."

For her part, Webb is a short, plump woman. And since her early childhood, she has been legally blind.

"All of us, clergy and laity alike, acknowledge that there are physically challenged lay people who require help and sensitivity," says Webb, 44. "But few of us consider that clergy can have the same problems. Clergy are expected to be these godlike paragons of perfection."

Webb knows better. Last month she was elected the national co-chairwoman of the church's Association of Physically Challenged Ministers, and in that role, she has met clergy who are limbless, blind, deaf or afflicted with diseases such as multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy.

Webb is able to see some things peripherally, but most objects in front of her appear as "a blob." She can read only notes that she writes in 2-inch-high letters with a wide-point marker. She hasn't learned Braille, choosing to rely on taped readings of written matter.

"I don't drive, either," she jokes. "Actually, I could, but I wouldn't see the other car until just before I crashed into it."

The pastor says her poor eyesight was a key reason the local Methodist conference recently transferred her from St. Paul's church in New Windsor to Elderslie-St. Andrew's. She mostly got around on foot in New Windsor, in a rural Carroll County setting that lacked the public transportation that would have made it easier for Webb to call on church members at their homes or in hospitals.

Now, at the Pimlico Road church she has tended since October, she just has to phone for a cab or walk to a nearby bus stop when it's time to make her rounds.

"I have a sense of independence these days, and that's what our association is about," the Anderson, Ind., native says. "We want to teach our bishops and church leaders that physically challenged people have gifts, but to make use of these gifts, they'll need help with access. That means better access at church structures and, as in my case, placing ministers in areas where it's not so hard for them to get around."

The year-old, 50-member association will sponsor legislation calling for improved access throughout church properties when United Methodists hold their quadrennial general conference next May in Louisville, Webb says.

Being co-chairwoman wasn't something she ran for, Webb says, adding with a laugh, "It's something I ran from, to tell the truth." She was encouraged to vie for the job by a former co-chairwoman, Kathy Reeves, who resigned to take a church position in New York.

The official's term lasts up to four years. Webb shares the post with the Rev. Thomas Binford of Erin, Tenn. She says the position always will be shared by two people, to reflect the group's philosophy of inclusiveness.

The Elderslie-St. Andrew's congregation has been "remarkably accepting" of Webb's disability, she says. "I think I demonstrate to them that all of us need a hand at times, and that, because the need exists, all of us have so much to give to others."

The only times her blindness hinders her work, she says, are during certain sermons.

"Usually I improvise a sermon off a theme, and that works pretty well," she says. "But there are occasions when I wish I could pull out an index card and read a quote that's too long for me to memorize. But life is like that, balancing the pluses with the minuses."

The association probably won't meet again until early 1993, Webb adds, because church members will be concentrating on the May 1992 general conference and on another major denominational meeting in July.

Meanwhile, she carries the memory of the "powerful" conclusion to the association's meeting last month in Nashville.

"We had a service," Webb recalls, "where we were on the altar -- clergy who were deaf, blind, spastic, in electric carts, on braces -- and we were passing the bread and wine silently from one to the other. It was so powerful for the reason that all of us had our various forms of brokenness, but in that moment on the altar, passing around the body and blood of Christ, we were all there together. We were whole."

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