Interview of a Pastor With One Arm
Interview of Rev. Elizabeth Wartick by Rev. Stefanie Fauth, Clergy Stuff Contributor
While I was in seminary, I met an incredible person. She was young, but so smart and self-assured I found her intimidating. Lucky for me, I decided to shake off my worry and got to know her better. Reverend Elizabeth Wartick is a compassionate and caring pastor—filled with grace and patience—but she’s definitely not afraid to let people know the truth!
Why do I want to share about her life on An Exceptional People? She was born with one arm, and I’ve never seen it slow her down. She is a solo pastor of a rural congregation, a mother to two beautiful and smart children, and baker of some of the most delicious and creative treats I’ve tasted. Having gotten to know her, I do know that there are things about church that aren’t always welcoming when you were born with one arm. Her story is valuable and people need to hear it.
She agreed to share some of her story with us—here was our conversation!
Stefanie: Tell us about how you became a pastor.
Rev. Wartick: God spoke to me in the form of my Confirmation teacher, the spouse of a retired pastor. Jean said to me, “You would make a fine pastor. You should consider it.”
I laughed. I can only assume that God also laughed, since over and over again in the following years I was affirmed by mentors and friends that I should really be a pastor. When I was still unsure, I received a generous scholarship to Luther Seminary, where I earned my M.Div. Of the two of us, God certainly had the last laugh.
Can you tell us whether it's easy or difficult to talk about having one arm? Does it bother you when people ask about it?
It is easier now than when I was a child—maybe because I’m more used to it, or maybe because people are slightly less inclined to ask adults personal questions. It doesn’t bother me when people are curious. It does bother me when people are patronizing. I can tell the difference.
Can you talk about what churches (or other places or people) have done to help you feel welcomed?
I have felt most welcomed where it was clear that I could set the terms for how I interacted in the space. In my call, it was no issue at all to anyone that I asked for a stand to rest the communion bread on. I feel welcomed when people think about the language they are using. I don’t have “hands” (plural), so I get a bit tired of praying for God to use my hands.
Are there instances where you felt like you felt unwelcomed, or hurt by an experience in church?
More than once I have felt that I was inconveniencing others—I can’t hold hands in a circle without adapting in some way, for instance—but I know that I am not responsible for others being accommodating. I was once at a synod gathering with my infant and commented to the bishop that this building really ought to have automatic doors. Another person piped up that it was so hard getting around with a baby in tow. True, but my concern was that it can be hard getting around with one hand! We in the church need practice seeing where we are inadvertently excluding due to accessibility.
Can you point to where you have seen God in those difficult situations?
Sometimes simply by saying something or giving a pointed look, I make the person realize that welcome is really much broader and harder work than adopting a welcome statement and calling it good. God challenges us to be both welcoming and accessible.
I’d love to hear the story of the young girl who had an unintentionally deep, theological question for you about your arm.
It had been a long day. I was trying to fly back to college at the end of Christmas Break, and the weather was horrible. Following delay after delay, I had made it to my connecting airport. I just needed to board one more flight to get back to school.
The trouble was, about two hundred other people also wanted to get on that airplane, and there simply was not room for all of us. As I stood in line to make my case to the gate agent, I looked around at the others waiting in line. To be honest, I was gauging whether any of them were likely to have better reasons to get the remaining seats. That was when I realized something.
One of my fellow travelers was staring at me. She was about six years old, a lively redhead traveling with her parents and two older brothers. She noticed that I noticed her staring at me. Self-assured in the way that only six-year-olds can be, she asked, “What happened to your arm?”
“Well,” I replied, “I was born with one arm. I just have one hand.”
“Oh.” She looked puzzled. “But I have two hands.”
“Yes, most people do. We’re all different, though. You have red hair and mine is blond.” Then, as if filled with sudden inspiration, I blurted out, “That’s how God made me.”
She paused. She reflected. The line shifted. I thought perhaps this conversation had come to its close.
“Well, what’s God doing with your other hand?”
Caught completely off-guard, I blankly responded, “I don’t know.”
Small though they be, children are some of the wisest theologians simply because they manage to ask the right questions. What was God doing? Could God be doing something, working through me, not in spite of but because I had one arm?
Years later, I would firmly say “YES.” I see that God’s church needs members as well as leaders who are different. The Church needs us who force others to reconsider their expectations. The Church needs us who adapt and participate and lead in our own God-given ways. God chooses us with disabilities. The Church needs us. Without members and leaders with disabilities, the Church is not the Body of Christ.
I know in some cases, people have tried to make their own theological sense of why you were born with one arm. Can you talk about what your response is when people say that physical disability is caused by sin?
I’d like to start by inserting a gif of Cary Elwes rolling his eyes. I don’t think [an online article] allows for that, though!
There are two problems here: 1) IF disability is a punishment (which isn’t my view, but we’ll roll with it for the moment), what kind of God metes out punishment on as-yet-unborn children? Yikes. Not a God I’m interested in. 2) The whole assumption that disabilities are objectively morally bad. I am not less of God’s beloved child because I have one arm (or if I had Down Syndrome, or ADHD, or hearing loss, or Parkinson’s, or any other so-called disability). Heck, are we calling arthritis the fruit of sin? Of course not. My body is different AND it is beloved by God.
Is there a Bible story or stories you like to refer to when talking about physical bodies?
What do you think that people should do that would be welcoming to folks with physical disabilities?
Talk to them. Remove barriers. Change language where you’re asked to do so. Think in advance about how our language and images lift up certain kinds of bodies as better or more important than others.