Pastor's disability leads to ministry of inclusion
By Mary Stamp
In August, Chris Snow will celebrate 10 years as the settled pastor of North Hill Christian Church in Spokane, where he is the longest-serving pastor after a series of short-term pastors and a period of instability.
He has brought a ministry that uplifts inclusion, an outgrowth of his experiences from having been born deaf in both ears because of Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic condition affecting craniofacial structure.
His father, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor in the Ozarks of Missouri and Beaverton, Ore., had a mild case. Chris has a moderate case and his daughter, Ruth, has a severe case.
Chris had thought it would be impossible for him to be a minister because being deaf can affect speech.
However, by learning sign language, wearing hearing aids and reading lips—helpful in loud gatherings—he developed speech at a young age. He spent years in speech therapy, adjusting his speech to be clear. A special education preschool prepared him to attend public school.
At a young age, he had surgery to replace a bone in his inner right ear, so he could hear before starting school. Later surgery on his left ear did not work.
Because he began school after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, he was placed in regular schools, but teachers were just learning about students with disabilities. Although deaf, he was treated as if he had a learning disability and had an individualized education plan (IEP). In the ninth grade, he did not like wearing a hearing aid, stopped wearing it in school and dropped the IEP.
Bullying affected his self-esteem, until his family moved from Lebanon to Springfield in his sophomore year.
"I functioned without a hearing aid. Teachers had no idea I had a disability unless I asked to be seated close to the front so I could hear better," Chris said. "Teachers treated me as other students, so I excelled in studies. Bullying ended because I was six feet tall and muscular from running cross country."
Music was always part of his family's life, so Chris began playing percussion in the school band. The drum vibrations "resonate in my body so I can feel as well as hear the music," he said.
Chris still plays drums—hand drums, an Irish style drum, an African djembe drum and Latin conga drums—as well as tambourines and shakers. He uses them with hymns in worship to increase depth, he said, adding that his daughter finds shaking shakers and dancing to be ways she can participate in worship.
During high school, his involvement leading ecumenical youth retreats confirmed his call to ministry as he discovered he loved sharing his story and hearing the stories of peers.
After high school, he majored in religion and philosophy and minored in political science at Culver Stockton College, a Disciples of Christ school at Canto, Mo. There, he helped in the chaplain's office and was fraternity chaplain. Summers, he worked at Camp MO-Val, a United Church of Christ (UCC) camp in Union, Mo.
Chris continues to be active in the regional Disciples camp ministries.
Graduating in December 2005, he lived with his parents in Beaverton, Ore., before entering Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., in the fall of 2006. In seminary, he was an intern at a children's home, worked summers at the camp and was student minister at Webster Groves Christian Church.
After earning a master of divinity in 2009, he spent a year working in Beaverton and in June 2010 began as youth coordinator at First Christian in Salem, where he met and married his wife, Jennifer, in 2012.
Chris began at North Hill Christian Church in Spokane on Aug. 19, 2013, focusing on listening to what the church needed to do to gain stability.
He encourages the congregation to be inclusive, to live up to the words, "All are welcome," on the church's T-shirt. While they refer to LGBTQ being welcome, he doesn't want the words to be a false flag, because the church has not done an open and affirming process.
Although he is straight, Chris joins other clergy in Spokane's Interfaith Pride worship and walking in the Pride Parade.
Other expressions of inclusion include women elders serving communion.
He is aware that the building, built in 1911 and remodeled in 1956, is not accessible for those with mobility issues.
Part of the church's life and commitment to inclusion is the participation of Chris and Jenn's daughter, Ruth, 5, who has a small jaw, no nose and restricted airways. She has a tracheostomy to breathe and a G-tube for feeding.
With no outer ears, she has a bone anchored hearing aid, which transmits sounds through vibrations against her skull. She is blind in her left eye and has astigmatism in her right eye.
"She is bright, fearless and can do many things others do," Chris said. "Ruth understands and communicates with sign language and a tablet."
For her first three years, Joya provided occupational and physical therapy, working with her virtually and one-to-one during COVID. Ruth goes to preschool at Linwood Elementary.
Chris and Jenn knew before she was born of her cranial and facial anatomy, so she was born in Seattle where there were specialists.
"The church responded with grace, granting me not only family leave for six weeks after her birth, but also time to drive to Seattle each week to be with her," said Chris, who now works from home after 3 p.m. each day. Jenn works with Goodwill's Housing and Essential Needs program.
Ruth, who qualifies for 16 hours a day, seven days a week of in-home nursing care, requires trained supervision at all times.
She comes to worship and church events. Members respect her and other immune-compromised members by not coming to church if they are ill. Her suction machine makes noise, but members are used to it, Chris said.
"She looks different, but she is part of the congregation," he said.
Chris described the church's ministries.
• North Hill was an original Family Promise of Spokane host church, but with volunteers aging, they stepped back before COVID.
• The church welcomes Attitude Adjustment, an independent recovery program, to use the building twice a day seven days a week.
• Weekdays the church parking lot is a distribution site where Meals on Wheels volunteers pick up food they deliver to seniors.
• First Ukrainian Baptist Church has used the building for nearly five years, two days a week for Sunday worship, choir and Bible study. Their average attendance is 30 to 50 people.
"Groups use our building and facilities for a low fee to cover maintenance and utilities," Chris said.
• North Hill outreach also includes supplying hygiene items for the Salish School of Spokane and providing Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets for several Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) families.
• North Hill Christian Church has 20 to 30 attending the 10:30 a.m. worship in person. Since COVID, others have been able to join on Facebook.
"Some who work on Sundays watch online. In managing our Facebook page, I see that some people from around the world follow us," he said. "Since COVID, we realize we need to invest to make worship and other services available online so we keep connected with people. We need to meet the changing needs, not just of those who can gather in person, but also of those who can't come."
Chris talks with other clergy about ways to involve people online. Recently, he offered a seven-part online series inviting reflection on "church-inflicted traumas" and discerning ways to bring healing. The topics were fear-driven theology, destiny or bust, money and finances, spiritual gifts and warfare, sin watching, mental health abuse and purity culture.
"Despite a decline in income in the past year, the church can continue because of legacy gifts," he said.
"Since August 2022, we have been discerning who God is calling us to be, what measures are required, who we are as people of faith and whom we are called to serve," he said.
Chris appreciates that the church, aware of clergy burnout issues, urges him to pursue creative outlets in woodworking, pottery and bicycling to care for himself so he can be a better minister with them.
For information, call 509-326-5400 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.