Grace Lutheran Church, Evanston, Ill.
Violinist, teacher assistant at Park School in Evanston, Ill., violin/viola instructor and music minister at Grace

I’ve been playing violin since I was 8. Growing up, I was always part of youth orchestras, school orchestras and ensembles. Giving that to a kid is so important—a place to belong, and a place to be whoever they are in whatever way they can. I think that belonging to a musical group becomes even more important for kids with disabilities because there can be language barriers—some are unable to communicate their wants and needs in a way that’s easily understood. Music can break through that.

Orchestra gave me a place where I could be more than just the girl in the wheelchair. I was born with spina bifida; I’ve lived with this my entire life. When people didn’t know my name at school, I was known as the girl in the chair. At orchestra, however, I was just another musician.

When my mom and I searched for a church together, Grace is one of the places we decided to look at. We previously belonged to a Catholic parish but decided it was time to move on. Immediately we felt welcomed and comfortable at Grace. All of the things that had bothered me about Catholic mass were the things that were different here, like more inclusive language, more inclusive clergy and our pastor taking communion last instead of first.

The biggest difference between Grace and our old parish was the music. As a musician and music teacher, I experience life through the lens of music. There was more variety than I ever knew existed, which was really cool—our music director takes pride in utilizing diverse music. I really love that.

Playing my violin in any sort of worship space enhances my prayer. It’s the way that I can express all that I can’t put into words. I make myself available to play at Grace whenever they need me.

I’d wanted to teach music since high school. In college, I studied music for four years, then went back to school to get my teaching certificate. For the last nine years, I’ve taught private violin and viola lessons from my home. Although I paused in-person lessons due to COVID-19, in the interim I’m offering my students phone consults. I work full time teaching kids with disabilities at Park School. I’ve never been happier. I love my job. I love going to work.

As a musician and music teacher, I experience life through the lens of music.

My passions are disability advocacy and music. I feel like I’m fulfilling my dream of teaching in both of those realms, though I still have this dream of someday having an organization that teaches children with disabilities how to play instruments.

After we started going to Grace, I noticed there were things I couldn’t be involved in because the sanctuary wasn’t accessible to me. So they bought portable ramps and took steps to make me feel like I was welcomed. I was very moved.

My congregation is small, so you feel like you’re really in a family. You’re not lost in the shuffle of things. There are real opportunities for you to make a difference and also for you to have the opportunity for a more enriched prayer and spiritual life.

My mom and I facilitate a monthly lectio divina group at Grace, first in person in the sanctuary and now via Zoom because of COVID-19. You read Scripture once, then sit in silence, then put into the space words that stand out to you. After the next reading you share feelings. Then, after the final reading, you say how God’s calling you and how you might respond. It’s not a traditional Bible study—you’re putting reflections out into the room and letting them go.

At the end of each day, I do what Ignatius (a Spanish priest and theologian; 1491-1556) called the Examen. It’s a gracefulness prayer for taking stock of your day, finding what went well, what didn’t go so well, and then asking God for guidance for what’s coming next.

I’m a Lutheran because I am one of the marginalized: I am a disabled woman who is also half Egyptian. And I felt, coming into my church, Grace, that they were truly living like Jesus and welcoming the marginalized. Jesus wouldn’t turn away people who are gay, people with disabilities or people of color. I cherish the actions of welcoming all, especially folks on the outer edges.

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Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago and author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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