Sunday, March 6, 2011

Newly disabled NY minister says his experiences as a wheelchair user will make him a better pastor

From The Saratogian in NY:

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Almost a year after an accident left him paralyzed from the shoulders down, the Rev. William D. Slawter III (pictured0 is eager to resume preaching to his congregation inside of Hope Church.

Despite being confined to a wheelchair, the minister known as Pastor "Kip" said he believes he is better equipped than ever to carry out his mission because his "faith and trust in God have been deepened" by the experiences of being in intensive care units and rehabilitation centers.

Standing between the pastor’s dream of leaving the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx and returning to the pulpit inside of the small Presbyterian church on Greenfield Avenue is that he and the church lack a residence that will accommodate his needs and a van equipped to transport him.

"Prior to Kip’s injury last May 25, we lived in the little manse that belongs to the church," wife Judy Slawter said. "But now that he must depend upon a large motorized wheelchair for mobility, we will need to secure a residence that is not on church property that can be retrofitted with ramps, wide doorways, a wheelchair-accessible bathroom and so on."

The needed structural modifications to the church parsonage are not possible, and the Slawters don’t have the wherewithal to outfit a home.

Slawter, who oversees an 82-member congregation, has been leader of the church for four years. Slawter said he does not want to burden church members with the cost of his special housing and transportation needs. Instead, he is "waiting on the Lord" to provide the answer to his prayer, while holding true to his belief in the adage "that God’s answers are always on time and hardly ever early."

On the day of his injury, the then-62-year-old had hoped to return to his home on the grounds of Hope Church a bit closer to his goal of being fit enough to complete a 100-mile bicycle ride.

Instead, he found himself facing unimaginable anguish as he endured what he calls "a maze of medications, sickness, confusion and fatigue" as he fought for his life in intensive care at Albany Medical Center Hospital and later inside of Good Samaritan Hospital near Suffern.

A highlight in Slawter’s life now comes each Sunday morning when he is able to "visit and pray" with his congregation in Ballston Spa from his room in the Bronx VA Hospital via a Skype video chat.

"The Skype visits, which began last August, have been good for me because they help me feel more connected to the congregation," Slawter said. "But I am anxious to return to my preaching ministry at Hope Church. I miss studying and preparing and preaching; I miss the coffee times and the interaction with members of my congregation after services."

Anxious to return to the pulpit on Greenfield Avenue, Slawter has begun working on the first sermon he will be delivering there since his life transforming injury.

"I don’t want to disclose what the sermon will be about yet, but it’s a message that’s based upon one of my favorite psalms — one I hope will inspire," Slawter said.

"Pastor Kip never refers to what happened to him as an accident," said church secretary Jenkins, who has helped oversee daily operations in Slawter’s absence. "He calls it his injury and firmly believes the injury is a part of his mission."

"He has an amazing attitude and so we remain faithful and joyful as we carry on the ministry during his medical leave of absence," Jenkins said. "We are very interested in having him and Judy return."

From Memorial Day until the middle of August, intern Rev. Dan Emerson served as Interim pastor. Since he departed on a missionary assignment, the 85-year-old Robert Hornlein has done everything from presiding over session meetings to visiting the sick to coordinating most of the "pulpit supply" for the church.

Hornlein and and four other elders along with nine deacon and deaconesses have been carrying out other church operations.

"We’ve had 19 different preachers from as far away as Arizona fill in for our pastor and they have been our saving grace," Hornlein said.

The two who have preached from the Hope Church pulpit the most often are retired Galway clergyman Rev. Steve Cerny and the Rev. Tom McCrossan of the Schenectady City Mission.

Hornlein praised the congregation for the support they have provided over the past several months, including efforts to raise funds through breakfasts, garage sales and other methods. An Elks Club-sponsored benefit held last year was helpful and unexpected, but the need for additional funds to assist Slawter remains high, added Hornlein.