The Church, a Home for the Disabled and Suffering: Hannah Anderson's Conversion Story
Hannah’s conversion story is the first in our five-part Holy Week series Conversion Stories & Encouragement for New Converts. Learn more about the series here!
State of Residence: South Carolina
Religious Background: Evangelical Protestant/Baptist
Year you entered or came back to the Catholic Church: 2016
Her Conversion Story
Growing up in Baptist churches where the Bible was read regularly, I was always confused by the many stories of Jesus giving blind men their sight or lepers being instantly healed as a sign of their faith. I’d often hear that illness and disability were a punishment for sin and that real faith could cure disease.
I frequently begged God, What great sin had I committed to deserve my deafness and disability? How much more faith did I need in order to be healed?
Those questions persisted into adulthood, and what I thought I knew about God simply couldn’t stand up to my doubts. Even worse, trying to connect with other Christians usually resulted in rejection and shame. If this is what God’s people are like, I thought, I want no part of God’s church. I felt justified in remaining aloof from the Protestant church, and it didn’t seem like there were many alternatives.
Then, on a cold October morning, I heard those three dreaded words: You have cancer.
I’d gone to my appointment alone. The only person there to comfort me was a complete stranger, a nurse, who took the wooden crucifix from around her neck and pressed it into my palm as she wrapped me up in a hug.
A few sleepless days later, I remembered that strange-looking crucifix (unlike any of the crosses I’d seen), and in a last-ditch effort to find comfort I decided to go to mass at a small local Catholic parish. As I entered, I immediately, inexplicably, felt at peace. I sat down in a pew with a Somalian refugee family and looked across the aisle to see wheelchairs, white canes, headscarves, and all the beautifully diverse faces of God’s creation. I was welcomed without hesitation, stares, or judgment.
For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who loved me wholly and unconditionally, and I remember thinking, This must be what home feels like.
That church became my safe haven, the place I could go to find peace and support. When my prognosis unexpectedly turned terminal, I went to the priest with my questions and deep-seated fears. Together, we embarked on a four month-long study on suffering and the end of life. We struggled through everything from, ‘Is there a heaven and a hell?’ to ‘How can God be good when we still face pain?’ When I went through surgery, that church was there to pray for me and care for me. When I traveled out of state to receive treatments, I was connected to the local parish where I received free housing and care.
When I was bald and scarred - when I was at my weakest and could hardly lift my head - they were by my side, unafraid of the ugliness of death and unafraid to love me back to life.
I’m grateful to be healthier and stronger (physically and spiritually!) now, but that didn’t come quickly to me. Just like I had to spend years in treatment, I spent years pouring over the Scriptures and texts looking for inconsistencies in the Catholic doctrines and dogmas that didn’t sit well with my upbringing. All that searching led to the greatest joy yet; in January of 2016, I finally concluded that my questions and deep longing for the truth were answered in the seamlessly consistent, Scripturally sound theology of the Church and in the radical love of its people, and I decided to make my conversion official by joining RCIA and the Church itself during the Easter season. Becoming Catholic changed everything for me - how I see God, how I see others, and how I see myself.
When I read those Bible stories about miraculous healing’s now, I think that perhaps Jesus gave sight to the blind and healed the sick not because they needed a flashy miracle to ‘fix’ their physical bodies, but because they, like all of us, had the greatest spiritual need of all: to encounter life-changing love.
In an ancient culture where the disabled and dying were untouchable, Jesus reached out, dignifying them by choosing to tell the story of grace through them. As I discovered in a tiny Catholic church in the South, God uses His people to reach out with extraordinary love and compassion to tell that story of grace to this very day.
Hannah’s Words of Encouragement to New Catholic Converts
Catholicism is a beautiful way of life. When I first started this journey, I wrongly assumed that the activities of Catholic life are sterile drudgery or a path to self-righteousness. I found the exact opposite to be true; Catholic devotion is living, humble, and beautiful in both its ordinary dailyness and its extraordinary sacredness. It’s filled with joyful, selfless acts of love to God and others. Whether you’re just starting to consider Catholicism, in RCIA, or newly converted, immerse yourself fully in the beauty of Catholic devotion. Meditate on the Scriptures. Attend daily mass and make a friend there. Celebrate the feast days as often as you can. Try forms of prayer or meditation you may not know, like the liturgy of the hours. Join (or start!) a rosary group. The ancient rhythms of the liturgical year are beautiful, holy ways to experience peace and find purpose in our modern lives.
If you’re an introvert like me, you might not feel excited about getting out of your comfort zone and participating fully in the community life of the Church.
It can be intimidating to join a parish, and I know that you may not have the same kind of welcoming community that I talk about in my story. When I moved to another state, I soon learned that not every Catholic community is warm and inclusive. Whether you’ve had a great experience in your parish or not, whether you’re naturally shy or naturally bubbly, I hope my story moves you to actively change the culture where you are. You don’t have to be a full member of the Church.
You can start now with any act of love. Look around every time you go to mass.
Do you see those young families with small children, crying babies, and kids with disabilities? Generously offer your kindness and assistance. Do you see the visibly hurting college students and older people sitting alone? Don’t just pray for them from a distance - offer to pray with them. Do you see all the people who don’t look like you or who look lost in all the confusing church words? Welcome them with all the warmth and joy you’d show an old friend. If your parish isn’t accessible to people with disabilities or doesn’t offer inclusive programming, meet with your parish administrator and priest and direct them to resources like the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.
If there’s one thing I wish I could tell every Catholic woman, it’s this: the community of faith was never meant to be an individual experience. You were never meant to live this life alone.
The church of God is diverse, universal, and growing. God calls us to extend His love to the whole world, and it’s an injustice to our fellow man and to the testimony of our faith when we are self-segregated and self-focused.Commit to being God’s hands and feet, delivering compassion to everyone. You never know who needs to see His love reflected in you.
About the Convert: Hannah Anderson
Hannah Anderson is a runner, cancer survivor, and dog mom - who also happens to be Deaf. She’s passionate about building safe, inclusive, disability-friendly communities that make faith and friendship accessible to everyone. Hannah serves as the Director of Achilles International Greenville, a non-profit dedicated to supporting athletes with disabilities, and is a parishioner at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in upstate South Carolina.