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Churches must value the disabled

Although churches have become more intentional about inviting persons with special needs into their buildings, there is so much more to learn about the practical implications of full participation in the life of a church family.

By Gayle Soper, 4/10/2005
Copyright 2005 The Grand Rapids Press
All rights reserved; used with permission

It takes more than a ramp for a person with disabilities to be included in the full life of our churches. Although churches have become more intentional about inviting persons with special needs into their buildings, there is so much more to learn about the practical implications of full participation in the life of a church family.

I am concerned, because as a mother of a son who has special needs, I’ve prayed long and hard that his dignity and abilities be affirmed in all his relationships and encounters each day of the week, Sundays included.

There was a time when Andy was literally lost in our church. Several members were put on alert to find him. After searching a long time all over the church, we discovered that he went to the wrong Sunday-school classroom. We now make others aware of the necessary routine to help Andy find the right rooms in the church. What I learned was that orientation and training are essential tools if we are to help those who have made it up the ramp into our churches.

One of the best tools for churches to discover ways to help is a pilot program that Hope Network has started. Hope Network is an agency with 190 locations that serves families and individuals who have disabilities. With 40 years of services, Hope understands many of the practical challenges and special abilities of persons who are disabled.

The new program is designed for 10 churches to learn together in an ecumenical fashion how best to "enhance the dignity and independence of persons dealing with disabilities and disadvantages." The goal of the program is to develop specific plans for the inclusion and recognition of persons with physical and mental disabilities in worship, fellowship, education, service and justice activities of the churches.

I am participating in this pilot program, called "To Worship and to Not Bow Down." Each church in the program, including Thornapple Evangelical Covenant where I am a member, has been sending a task force of six persons to various workshops. In addition, each task force has met monthly since last fall to address concerns of inclusion and care for their local church and community.

In the past, state institutions hired chaplains, who provided spiritual counsel to patients and families. During a period of "de-institutionalization" in the 1980s, many persons with mental and physical limitations were moved from large state-run institutions into group homes located in our communities. The chaplains were no longer available since the funding did not provide for spiritual care costs.

Hope Network recognized the need to address the spiritual needs of people with disabilities in a new and unique way. Acting on national studies that revealed more than 89 of people with disabilities do not have the spiritual support of a neighborhood church, Hope Network hired a chaplain to challenge leaders and members of neighborhood churches to become "chaplains-at-large" in the many homes throughout the state.

In addition, Hope Network received a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to start a partnership with churches. The grant, made possible with funds provided by the Lilly Endowment Inc., calls for a year-long effort to help the 10 churches build a strong network of support.

Recognizing the gifts

A series of three day-long workshops have already been conducted (the fourth and last will be April 22 at Thornapple Covenant Church). They focused on theological and practical ways to understand how to recognize the gifts of persons who are differently abled, and to connect these persons, with their gifts as well as their needs, to the programs and ministries of the church.

Church coaches from Hope Network are providing consultation to assist the church task forces in providing practical solutions for various architectural modifications. Many of the teams are finding that churches are physically barrier-free at an entrance, but there are other barriers to accessibility and participation. They observed obscure parking lot signs, poorly placed curb cuts, lack of pew-cuts for wheelchairs (the back of the church and the back of the bus are similar), and the "fronts" of many churches designed for only the "abled-bodied." Can a person with disabilities participate by attending, but not leading?

These building issues may seem insignificant until we consider the message they send — a message that "you are not welcome."

One of the churches in the program produced a list of more than 100 items of "Did You Know?" to help members become more aware of the issues of disability. The church, a Catholic parish in the pilot program, regularly includes items in its bulletin regarding how to engage more people as companions for persons of special needs.

Other churches are providing in-depth discussions of issues with various groups of participants. Several churches are planning to share their findings with other churches and neighbors in their communities.
All the churches are reporting their action plans and are seeking means of addressing issues with the other churches.

All of us have shared our struggles with God’s purposes in our real-life situations. Dr. Kathy Black, who wrote "A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability" (a book made available to all church libraries) was the keynote speaker in the first workshop. She helped me with a new understanding of why disabilities happen.

Dr. Black said, "God does not cause them (disabilities), but God is present in their midst to uphold us and transform us."

I am delighted to report that my church family has taken on the challenge of "finding room" for others like Andy. Thornapple Covenant Church is supporting a "Covenant Enabling Residence" designed for individuals with developmental disabilities. Church members through the years have not only supported Andy but now are extending that care to others.

Opening more spaces

Hope Network’s program is working to open up more space for people like Andy in other churches and for those in our communities. Several churches in the program are considering partnership with Hope Network in the support of specialized homes in their neighborhoods by way of "adopting a home."

Churches are using new tools to survey and help their congregation and community to more intentionally identify persons who are dealing with disabilities and cognitive impairments, as well as such symptoms as depression, dementia, and other forms of mental illness.

All of us are pondering together the questions: How do we offer encouragement and relief to those who care for their loved ones in their homes? What care can we give to the caregivers of persons with special needs? How can we deal with the uncomfortable stare of those not knowing how to respond to people with disabilities?

We need to move beyond awareness-raising, accessibility audits, and advocacy. People with disabilities are inside our churches and out in our communities. We need to work with them as partners, not as objects of pity. We need to accept them and love them for whom they are as God’s people.

What I have gained from this innovative program of Hope Network will be long-lasting relationships with others who are involved in significant ways in providing solutions to the problems and opportunities of disability in our churches.

I wish the best to Hope Network as it is responding to the churches that want it to continue and expand the program.

I am excited to be involved in this program with our church and others, as it has helped me to affirm the dignity and skills of Andy and others to be a part of their church and community. I have a new hope for his life and for many others beyond the ramp.