I recently returned from a two-week trip to Nigeria. I will be processing my experiences there for quite some time, but one encounter impressed me greatly and returned to my mind when I read a recent post by John Meunier – We Are All Disabled. Like John, my thoughts are not fully formed on the theological issues raised by disability – I’ve never been encouraged to actually contemplate it. But for some reason, I keep returning to it as a significant topic of reflection. While in Lagos, my conversation with Ayuba Buri Gufram intensified that interest.
Ayuba contracted polio as a child and has never walked upright on his feet. Instead, at least until he was a young adult, he crawled on the ground like most other polo survivors in Nigeria. Unlike others, however, his family kept him in their home rather than turning him out to survive alone by begging. Or, as some families do, place him as an apprentice with a more experienced beggar in order to develop his skills, before then turning him out to go solo. Rather than these options, Ayuba’s family kept him at home. He was able to go to school for a while, but the fees were expensive and his father did not see the need to continue to send him.
The turning point came when Ayuba was able to obtain a wheelchair. That was a game changer. He was able to go to school for the first time in years, he met his future wife, and he discovered his life mission – to give polio survivors the opportunity to stop crawling on the ground.
Ayuba founded Beautiful Gate, an organization dedicated to building uniquely designed wheelchairs for children disabled by polio. This is definitely a cause worth supporting, but that’s not what I want to explore here.
The name, Beautiful Gate, is taken from the story of Peter and the crippled beggar in Acts 3. Peter and John go to the temple for prayers and encounter a crippled beggar at the entrance area called The Beautiful Gate. Every day this man’s friends would bring him to the Beautiful Gate where he would beg for money. The climax of the story is when Peter heals this man, and rightly so. But from Ayuba’s perspective two other details are significant.
First, the man’s friends brought him to the Beautiful Gate each day. For Ayuba, that was a sign of caring and devotion. But his next question is a valid one: Why did they leave him at the gate? Why not take him all the way in? Did they not understand that he had spiritual needs as well?
Now I understand that there are all kinds of scholarly answers to Ayuba’s question – laws about purity, understandings of sin, disease, and punishment. But those scholarly answers make his question even more poignant, did they not understand that he had spiritual needs?
For Ayuba, the fact that the beggar had spiritual needs is emphasized by what happens when Peter heals him – the man immediately enters the temple praising God. Certainly, his praise is appropriate; after all, he’s just been healed. As significant as the healing is, however, Ayuba goes on to ask another question: Might the man have wanted to praise God before he was healed? Each day, as he sat outside the temple, might he have wanted to bring all kinds of things to God in worship and prayer – his praise, his supplication, his intercession?
Obviously the beggar’s healing is worthy of praise, and it provides the opportunity for Peter to preach to the crowd that gathers, which is of course, a main focus of the overall story. But what about the man? Was he only defined by his crippled condition, which others determined placed him outside the context of worship? Was he only defined by his crippled condition, which others assumed gave him no reason to praise?
Ayuba left me much to think about. My tendency is to move to the theoretical – to ask wide open questions like, as Christians, who are we leaving at the gate? Or, what are our preconceived notions about praise and our reasons for offering it? Those are good questions, worthy of contemplation and conversation. But Ayuba is less interested in the theoretical than the practical. And so he asks, what about this man, this crippled beggar who is sitting at the gate, this man with spiritual needs and reasons for praise? What about him? And I’m left thinking that’s where I need to start as well.