Moving Forward … With a Cloud of Witnesses

By Daryl Hopkins Denelle ’22 M.Div.

I had put off a visit to Yale Divinity School a long time—after all, I would make the trip only to prove that this was not the place for me, I thought. I had drifted from denomination to denomination. I had no real idea what divinity school was. And there was no way I was as bright as those who attended YDS. Besides, I use a power wheelchair and need assistance in most of my daily life. There was no way that I could or would move almost three hours from my support system for a seminary.

With a resounding yes, I double mask and renew my commitment to advocate for others and remind the institution we are still here. I enter this year with a broken heart and the will to fix it.

And yet, I was astounded that day in October 2018 to be visiting these sacred halls of education, exploring the corridors that the academics and justice workers I idealized wandered. I remember it clearly as the day I first truly felt called to do God’s work—the work of creating a more just and equitable world. I witnessed students and theologians eating together discussing immediate social justice issues. I felt more connection and support from everyone in this place than I had ever before. I reluctantly started calculating the ways I could get back here and could not help but think that this was a place that would support me.

Sacred Halls

This was a place that could sustain someone with differing needs—I could make this move and transition to this special place. Answering God’s call at YDS seemed so possible—even with my false ideas of what being disabled meant. Bustling with activity and ripe for new ideas—this was the place for me. It had to be. These sacred halls were only opening wider.

Still, getting to YDS was not easy for me as a person with a significant physical disability. I need assistance with most things, from getting my laptop out of my backpack to opening a water bottle. Finding accessible housing, personal assistants, parking, classes, etc., was all exceptionally difficult. So much so that I could only stay at YDS for the weekdays—on the weekends, I returned to my family in Massachusetts. It was supposed to be the best of both worlds, but it was breaking me in reality. I already was a 24-year-old woman in a wheelchair who felt so different from my peers, and this commute arrangement was only making it worse.

Pandemic Times

In the spring semester of 2020, I resolved to find a way to stay at seminary all the time. I was determined to make this experience work—in whatever way possible. Unfortunately, the path would be more different than expected. When I left my friends, colleagues, and mentors in March 2020 as the pandemic closed in, I had no idea it would be the last time I got to occupy the same space for more than a year.

So I reentered YDS in August 2021 with fear and trepidation. The home I had made in this space felt frozen in time. The hallways seemed the same, and yet it was all different. The bookstore I would loiter in when I was waiting for my accessible ride was closed, the friends at the front desk who would always help me open the doors were gone, and the remaining happy faces that were once eager to assist were masked and hesitant. My once spiritual home felt small and so odd—was this the thing I had remembered? Or had I idealized the experiences to begin with?

Zooming In

For the past eighteen months, I had been living with my parents again. I felt left out and left behind, again. Yet on Zoom, I attended every class, every community event, every chapel, and every meeting. On Zoom, I preached and led worship from the comfort of my wheelchair and accessible home. I sustained great friendships and made new spiritual mentors. I thrived on that tiny screen. I was included wholeheartedly, and for the first time, I was more prepared for this virtual world than so many of my peers. But inside me, there was still an emptiness and ambivalence. I wanted the ease of a Zoom meeting, but none of the letdowns of the “leave meeting” button.

I would be remiss if I did not say this: Zoom, remote, and other hybrid learning models are valuable and valid. They are practical tools for creating true accessibility, inclusion, and community. No student should have to choose between personal health and in-person attendance at a prestigious academic institution. Sometimes it’s more tempting to want to go back to normal than to acknowledge and embrace that that normal was not good in the first place. The YDS community I found two years ago was good because of the people, but the daily pre-pandemic routine on campus still failed to meet my own needs.

Hegemony’s Radar

This year, now that we’re all back at school for classes, I’m finding myself in a liminal space. I want to enjoy my time here and thrive in the community and my own body. However, I also know that many people in the world are not getting such an opportunity. Most of the people who passed away during the early stages of Covid and continue to pass away in excessive numbers are disabled folks. The breakthrough cases afflict disabled folks disproportionally too. This year I’ve realized that my disabled community is disposable. Like many other marginalized and oppressed communities, we are viewed as a blip on normative and hegemonic society’s radar. The Covid pandemic has only proved to me and so many others that accessibility and accommodations are easy when the whole community needs them. We have the tools to create and sustain communities through various streams—unfortunately, society is still resistant to making these inclusive changes.

Often I feel the same frustration in church and other sacred spaces. Especially right now. The people who claim to love me are unhealthily gathering in masses and getting people like me sick. As a seminarian, I can’t help but ask, What God do we follow if we cannot simply follow the instruction to love our neighbors as ourselves? And so, I enter this year with a broken heart and the will to fix it.

Cautious Optimism

Because even in these progressive and welcoming spaces, some voices and bodies are continuously erased or devalued by the words or actions taken. Traditional hierarchies continue to oppress and exclude those who have othered lived experiences from living flourishing lives. Yale Divinity School and the church are my home, my sacred space, and I refuse to allow for continued isolation and pain to take place within these walls. Community and infinite grace—in whatever way possible—is the only way forward, whether on Zoom or another platform.

I know that I risk my health every time I enter the YDS building because I am more vulnerable to the virus. But, it was and continues to be my choice to take this risk—not everyone has the privilege of choosing this risk. I am entering my third year of divinity school with cautious optimism; I have a year-long supervised ministry at the University Church in Yale; I am the Vice President of Yale Divinity Student Government, serve as a consultant for anti-ableism, and co-lead of DivineAbilities. With a resounding yes, I double mask and, in the hardship of this time, renew my commitment to advocate for others and remind the institution we are still here. It’s not easy; behind my mask, tears typically flow, and I am challenged to seem okay—but I know that I carry a cloud of witnesses with me. Because community and adaptability got me here. And I believe that is the only way forward. 

Daryl Denelle ’22 M.Div. is a graduate of Stonehill College. An Andover Newton Seminary student at YDS, she plans to pursue ordination as a United Church of Christ minister.