Earlier this week I went for a follow-up appointment to the podiatrist’s office in Amory, MS, where I’m pastor of the Presbyterian church. While I was waiting to see the doctor, a man came in with a paper bootie on one foot and bandages on the same leg. I was sitting near the receptionist’s desk, so I heard the conversation between the man and the nurse. Apparently he had been referred by his surgeon just that day, and he was a new patient. Of course, he needed to fill out a form, front and back. “I can’t read or write,” he told the receptionist. So, she asked him a few questions and got things done that way.

The man had lost his seat when he got called to the desk. The only empty chair was next to me, and he sat down. We didn’t speak. As I sat there reading the book issue of The Christian Century, I thought about the gap between him, the illiterate, and me, the doctor of ministry. But I also considered that we were both there because there was something wrong with our feet. What is more fundamentally human, besides our brains, than our feet, which contribute to our walking upright and being able to use our hands to make tools?

I wondered how the man made it in life. Maybe he always had folks to help him with forms, like the nurse did, or read or write something for him. It was an existence I couldn’t imagine. Getting your information only from conversations or from the TV, with its inane chatter (like the show that was on while I was waiting) or its biased talking heads. Not being able to read even “See Spot run.” Cut off from the Internet. How would such a person get a driver’s license? How would he survive in today’s fast-paced world? Yes, we are image-oriented, but there’s still a great deal to read and write.

And I realized that the worship I lead every Sunday would be utterly incomprehensible and inaccessible to him. Presbyterian worship is mostly words, written on a page for the congregation to recite. Litanies. Prayers. Creeds. The man would be automatically excluded. And, honestly, I don’t know how to fix that.

Perhaps it’s enough for now for me to reflect on sitting next to the man. Doctor and illiterate. Both hurting.

Common bond.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Please note that I will be taking a break from posting for at least the next two weeks. Thanks for reading.