If I can’t speak, who will?

Photo: Oleg Laptev, Unsplash.

A few years ago, I lost the ability to speak. Nerve pain in the right side of my face made it impossible to complete simple sentences. 

This was a crisis for me. As a mediator and facilitator, my employment at the time centered on talking with others. In addition to my employment, I traveled around the country speaking about the Doctrine of Discovery, calling on the church to stand with Indigenous peoples suffering from structural violence. 

Who am I without the ability to speak? The call I felt was as strong as ever, but I couldn’t get the words out. 

I was prescribed medication to block the nerve signals causing pain, but the medicines muddled my thoughts, making it difficult to speak fluently. I took to writing speeches or sermons in advance and then reading them, rather than speaking directly to audiences. 

Neurosurgery resolved the problem. Although my recovery felt long and slow, my ability to speak was restored. 

A little over a year later, I lost the vision in my left eye. I could sense shapes in my peripheral vision, which my brain tried to interpret with mixed results, altering my perception in both eyes. 

During my struggle with facial nerve pain, I had begun writing in earnest, completing my first book. If I couldn’t speak, at least I could write. 

But now vision problems have made it difficult to read and write. I struggled to work with reduced ability. While steroids reduced the inflammation that was causing blindness and restored some function to my eye, my vision was permanently altered. 

I was ultimately diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease for which there is no cure.  

Struggling with disability, I ask the Creator: If I cannot speak, who will speak? If I cannot see, who will write? At times I feel despair. There is so much work still to do. My people are not yet free. 

I am comforted by Scripture, which instructs us: Be not afraid.

Isaiah 40:28-31 says this: 

The Lord is the everlasting God, the 

Creator of the ends of the earth.                                                                                        

He does not faint or grow weary; 

his understanding is unsearchable.                               

He gives power to the faint and 

strengthens the powerless. . . .                                     

Those who wait for the Lord shall

renew their strength,                                            

they shall mount up with wings like 


they shall run and not be weary, they 

shall walk and will not faint. 

The Creator’s plan for creation is not diminished by my disability. Instead, disability makes it possible for me to seek mutuality and for others to step forward. 

A Yakama elder told me some years ago: “With our lives we demonstrate to the young ones how to live with courage.” The work of seeking justice is not a solo occupation. We seek justice across generations, leaning on the ones who came before us and preparing the ones who will come after us. We are mutually dependent. What each of us does impacts every other. 

Martin Luther King Jr. said it this way:  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

We try to fool ourselves with individualism, believing that our individual actions can insulate us from harm. In reality, our identity and our security are in each other. 

As Mennonites, we share the value of collective discernment. But do we practice it? I am struggling to live into mutuality in the work for justice.

At MennoCon23, the Mennonite Church USA convention, I was reminded of how good it is to be together. The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery joined the “big booth” space with other groups in the Mennoverse seeking intersectional justice. Our shared banner was inspired by a hymn from Voices Together: “Sing a New World into Being.” Seeking justice cannot be constrained by one imagination. We find hope together.

I saw young people filling up multi-generational seminars and rejoicing in worship. I participated in three workshops, and youth packed each one. As I called out for people to come to the work of seeking wholeness and restoration for all of creation, many young people stepped forward, lending their bodies and voices, bearing me up on their wings. 

In the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, we have a saying: The antidote to despair is knowing we are not alone. The work of restoration is not mine alone. It is the work of the body of Christ, in concert with the Creator, the Spirit of Life. What a privilege to be part of it.  

Sarah Augustine

Sarah Augustine, a Pueblo (Tewa) woman, lives with her family in White Swan, Washington. She is the Executive Director of Read More

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