Because God Wants to Reach Everyone, Including Those With Disabilities
By Natalie Meeks, BBI Guest Writer
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
GREENVILLE, South Carolina – One year ago, a young woman with a big smile and a big vision stepped onto a Latvia-bound jet plane in the big state of Texas. Katie had journeyed to Latvia on several occasions for short-term mission trips. She had developed a true love of the land and its people and forged long-standing friendships.
Latvia, it seems, has a way of seeping into one’s soul.
But Katie’s story began in a different setting than most. Born with a health condition that caused her to spend quantities of time in and out of hospitals, from an early age she “became accustomed to being around people that were different from her.” She grew up with an informed knowledge of what makes a person unique and the key understanding that all persons are children of God; some are merely in need of more tangible aid than others. Essentially, Katie found herself “wanting to help people.” And so she prayed:
“If you give me the skills, I will use them for Your glory, wherever that might be.”
Upon earning a graduate degree and certification in Prosthetics and Orthotics, Katie practiced in her home state, working with a passion to better the lives of those under her care. Yet, throughout these years of practice, she began to feel ever more the calling of God regarding her life’s work. She prayed fervently that He would reveal His will for her future. She had pursued and acquired skills to help those hurting and in need, but how did God want to use her? As she prayed, Katie recalls, “it became very evident that this was God’s plan.” She committed to give her work over to the Lord.
Designed to Live was born.
As founder and director of this new mercy program of Bridge Builders, Katie would move to Latvia to serve those affected by disability to share the love of Christ. She would develop a uniquely mobile ministry in order to provide prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces to those in need – those with disabilities who are unable to access either government or private Latvian care. But, one wonders, of the vast range of ministry possibilities, why prosthetics and orthotics? Katie’s response underscores the heart of missions.
“Because of the importance of working with the person.”
The process of fitting for prosthetics requires time, interaction and follow-up, allowing the practitioner to develop a relationship with her patients. A relationship such as this, engaged sacrificially in service and Christ-like in love, is a shimmering reflection of God’s own love for us. It facilitates the growth of a bond of trust with hurting individuals who need to hear the good news of the Gospel.
Katie’s insight is important. “Working with the person” does not merely provide an opportunity to witness; it is a witness.
“Just because they look different, doesn’t mean they are – my privilege is to help them express that.”
Katie explains that the same leftover-Soviet “fatalist” mindset that affects the destitute and fatherless in Latvia slams shut the doors of opportunity to disabled men, women and children today. Historically, many have been institutionalized or locked away behind closed doors in poverty-stricken homes. This history has resulted in isolation, guilt, and shame from their families and their communities.
The cause of this isolation is two-fold. Stigma and discrimination is multiplied by the practical and logistical dilemmas of a nation boasting a historic infrastructure that, while important and worthy of protection, is exceedingly ill suited for accessibility to those with a physical disability. The various privileges we take for granted, i.e. accessibility to goods and services, participation in public life and recreational activities, healthcare, education, church attendance, etc. are incredibly arduous for a person with disabilities in Latvia.
The purpose and vision of Katie’s ministry Designed to Live is clear:
“To serve Latvians affected by disability by empowering them physically, emotionally, and spiritually with the intentional demonstration of the love of Jesus Christ.”
Those affected by disability in Latvia suffer in ways that are enigmatic to the majority of the general public. Society at large tends to be afraid of the disabled. They struggle to understand, to know how to react and interact. They see a person who looks and speaks differently, and wonder whether they can communicate or how to begin. They don’t want to offend, but their aloofness is an affront in and of itself.
Furthermore, Katie explains, the Church is uncertain of how and where to use her disabled brothers and sisters in Christ. Those who are walking with the Lord and bravely step forward with a desire to serve in leadership are often met with confusion. People with disabilities are “accidentally excluded because the Church doesn’t know what to do with them.” Katie emphatically states, “It is more for our benefit that positive change in opinion must take place in including people with disabilities into the full fabric of the church; it will help the church itself more than the disabled.”
Of critical importance in mercy ministry is the ability of the missionary to connect in kinship and empathy with the community that he or she has come to serve.
This is where Katie’s heart shines.
Her team of volunteers and aids is formed largely of Latvians who have a disability or are directly connected with someone who does, seeking to serve Christ and those in need. In this way, Katie and her ministry team are shining rays of hope and possibility to those who hurt and, frequently, have given up.
“I believe that God can reach anyone, and it’s my job to open up doors where I can.”
Katie’s vision for disability ministry is long-term and her goals for Designed to Live reflect both the spiritual and the practical nature of mission work. One of the most pressing issues facing persons with disabilities concerns the infrastructure; the majority of churches in Latvia meet in very old buildings that are not accessible for people in wheelchairs. Katie’s plans include facilitating the provision of necessary resources (financially and/or physically) to equip churches in Latvia with wheelchair ramps, handrails and electronic opening doors, while providing resources and training to equip the church to best serve and include those affected by disability.
“We hope to help eliminate a physical barrier of entering the church building so that all can come into God’s house and know Him.”
Natalie Meeks is a freelance writer from South Carolina. She and her husband recently adopted a young boy from Latvia and in that process she fell in love with Latvia and ministries to Latvia. She is a frequent guest writer for BBI. This photo was taken when Natalie and Katie Leatherwood hung out together a few months ago. Katie showed her around the Old Town as Natalie interviewed Katie for this piece.