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Imperfections are part of life, ministers note

A family that empathizes with Terri Schiavo, and takes in pets with maladies, wants to tweak how churches treat disabled people.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rus Cooper-Dowda is an ordained minister. She's also disabled. For the most part, her congregation consists of people she pastors on the Internet.

As a minister, Ms. Cooper-Dowda, 47, is particularly concerned about how disabled people are treated by religious organizations. To encourage change, she has taken to writing sermons and articles about the topic. Sometimes, she thinks, it is necessary to take more innovative action.

Last weekend, she, her husband and son held a combined vigil, fast and celebration of life for Terri Schiavo, the St. Petersburg woman whose comalike state and subsequent court wranglings have made her story a national one. In November, a judge ruled that her feeding tube could be removed on Jan. 3. That order has been stayed because of an appeal.

The vigil organized by Ms. Cooper-Dowda and her family began on the day the feeding tube had been scheduled to be removed. That chilly Friday afternoon, Ms. Cooper-Dowda, her husband and son waited on a sidewalk outside the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg to greet those they hoped would come. In a press release, they had advertised the weekend nondenominational event, which included a Saturday communion, as a chance to "to embrace the life of Terri Schiavo and all the other people with disabilities, their families and supporters."

The early showing was small, but Ms. Cooper-Dowda said the attendance picked up and reached about 70 for both the Friday and Saturday afternoon gatherings.

"It was very warm, very intimate, very comfortable," said her husband, Roy T. Sniffen, 60, also an ordained minister.

"We didn't need thousands. We knew together that we had gone through a spiritual experience," he said.

His wife says she understands what it is like to be given up for dead. In 1985, she said, she lapsed into a coma and doctors, one of them her husband at the time, considered taking her off life support as she lay in a Boston hospital.

She spoke about her illness during last weekend's event, telling of waking up to hear doctors discussing disconnecting her ventilator and feeding tube.

"I immediately started screaming that I was there," she said in her prepared talk.

"No one but me heard me. But they did notice my sudden agitation and heavily sedated me. For a time, every time I woke up I would make as much noise and move as a much as I could to show them I was 'in there.' "

Ms. Cooper-Dowda said nurses were able to help her convince doctors that she was not brain dead. One helped her to communicate by writing on a clipboard. She has since gone on to earn a second master's degree and give birth to her son, with whom she was pregnant at the time. Her experience made it easy to empathize with Terri Schiavo, her family says.

Sniffen, a methadone clinic counselor, remembers their reaction to the Terri Schiavo ruling.

"We were in the living room trying to sort it out. We thought, as a family with a disabled member in it, it was important to talk about our agony with a larger group than just the three of us," he said.

Max, 17, Ms. Cooper-Dowda's son from her previous marriage, added: "We knew that we had to do something. We felt that need. I feel a strong connection to Terri because my mom was in the same position."

Max, a senior in the visual arts department at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, said his mother's disability, brought on by lupus, has influenced the way he relates to other people.

"I really don't see disabled people as different from other people. It's just a different facet, like brown hair," said Max, who wants to be a minister like his mother and stepfather and will begin studying at Eckerd College this fall.

"I hope that as a minister, I will be as inclusive as possible," he said. "While I'm at Eckerd, I really would like to learn sign language and I have the idea of signing my own sermons."

His mother, who sometimes uses a wheelchair, said religious organizations should realize that "it's not as scary as it seems" to accommodate the disabled.

"And it is cheaper than it seems. ...They don't have bad intentions. It's just that they have trouble dealing with disability when there is someone in the congregation with a disability. I think there's just a lack of knowledge and a lack of awareness around disability," she said.

Classes should be held on ground floors if a building has no elevator, she said. Bulletins can be made easier for the elderly to read if the print is enlarged. A simple suggestion to "stand if you so wish" can "get rid of the stigma of dividing the congregation into those who can stand and those who can't," she said.

"So much of the Jesus story goes around the ill," said Sniffen, going on to recall the story of the sick man whose friends had to lower him through the roof of a home so he could see Jesus.

"Sometimes you feel that the disabled have to be dropped through the roof to get attention," Sniffen said.

As student ministers, he and his wife had a pleasant experience at a church in Pittsfield, Maine, he said, when the congregation got together one weekend to build a ramp for an elderly member.

"It was a treat to watch them do that," he said.

The family's concern for the disabled encompasses more than their fellow humans.

"We take care of disabled dogs. ...We have more than I want to admit to a reporter. We took in one disabled dog and now we have a tribe," Ms. Cooper-Dowda said.

The menagerie includes a limping dog, one that can see from only one eye and a deaf cat.

"Some we took in because they were so old. We lost three old pets last year. God's creatures deserve to be treated well," she said.

"For supper, we have a prayer that we sing and all the dogs sing with us. And it is the most incredible, massive noise you have ever heard. ...It's the funniest thing."

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