Story and photos by NATALIE CHRISTENSEN
Religion plays a huge part in many people’s lives, not only those living in Utah, but also throughout the United States.
According to a 2007 Pew Research Center study, about 78.4 percent of the U.S. is of a Christian faith, while 4.7 percent are of other faith, and only 16.1 percent of the population is unaffiliated with any religion.
Some people with disabilities who have faith look toward their deity in a way that people without disabilities don’t. In Utah especially, religion plays a big part in the lives of many people. About 62 percent of Utahns are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Three local LDS individuals who have disabilities have a range of different thoughts toward their relationship with their creator.
Jeremy Chatelain is a seminary teacher for the church. Just after he got married, he was on a trip with this family in Idaho because his brother was going to leave on an LDS mission. A tradition in his family when he was growing up was jumping off a bridge near where they liked to vacation. His wife dove in and realized it was really shallow, but she wasn’t able to warn Chatelain. He dove off and broke his fifth and sixth vertebrae, an injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
“Religion is a huge aspect of people’s lives who have disabilities,” Chatelain said. “It (religion) gives you a reason to get up in the morning. I think that’s why I keep going every day.”
Chatelain still doesn’t know why this had to happen to him. He admits he doesn’t always have a smile on his face because of what he has to go through every day. But he still looks toward his religion that believes after this life, his body will be made perfect, and that God has a plan for him.
“My faith has been motivation to accomplish the things I’ve wanted to do, along with my family,” Chatelain said.
He earned his master’s degree in education from Idaho State University in 2005, specializing in curriculum and instruction. He is now working on his dissertation about First Amendment implications in LDS Church history from 1829 to 1844 at the University of Utah.
According to a study done by the National Organization on Disabilities, as reported by Disabilities and Faith.org, 85 percent of people with and without disabilities say that religion is important in their lives. Unfortunately, only 47 percent of people with disabilities can attend their church services once a month because of the struggles of getting to their meetings.
Some don’t choose to worship because they feel alienated by their congregation and don’t like the culture of their religion, not their deity, but the way their religion portrays how a person must always act.
Kirsten Morrise, 20, who attends Utah State University, is an active member of the LDS church and loves her religion. But the culture of the religion is something that has rubbed her wrong.
“There’s a stigma to not being within the status quo, the status quo being happy sunshine,” said Morrise, who suffers from Pierre Robin syndrome. The condition makes breathing hard for her because of the way her jaw is structured. She also suffers from forms of cerebral palsy and depression. “Being disabled, people in the church sometimes like to say ‘God made you this way so you could have this trial’ or ‘God is punishing somebody else and making you this way to punish them for something they did.’”
Morrise said she wishes people wouldn’t see her disability as a punishment or a challenge.
But for other people with disabilities, religion can help not only them, but also those in the congregation.
“I’ve learned the hard way that being imperfect and allowing people to help provides blessings in their lives,” said Jeni Sewell Roper, who lives in Orem. “(It) blows me away sometimes at just how much this happens.”
Sewell Roper, who has cerebral palsy, doesn’t like being seen as a person with a disability. Growing up, she didn’t like people helping her. To her, everyone has a disability — hers just happens to be something that everyone can see.
“Well, I teach and I know that we are all divinely designed to be imperfect,” she said in an email interview. “And I believe personally that I said ‘ok’ to this before I was born.”
Sewell Roper admits that during her teenage years she would have committed suicide if it weren’t for her religion. “If this was all that life had to offer what’s the point?” she said.
She taught herself how to walk and doesn’t have to use a wheel chair or crutches. She now participates in and helps out with 5Ks around the Salt Lake Valley and is a part of the National Speakers Association. She speaks to LDS youth groups around the state about her life. The title of her speech is “Wiggle Room.”
“And I’m learning as I speak that my disability helps me relate to people on a very intimate level,” Sewell Roper said. “Because ALL of us have ‘stuff.'”