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Each Ability and Disability Reveals God

A new resource explains that the most disabling aspect of living with disabilities is the attitude of others.

“What does it cost us to not be uncomfortable, to not connect with or to not accept hospitality from people who are different from us?”

“If we don’t put in effort to make a way to include those with disabilities, then we are robbing the church.”

“How do we move from ignoring or pitying people with disabilities, to serving God with and alongside each other?”

These questions and comments surfaced at a discussion meeting the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship recently hosted to learn from people affected by disability. People from metro Chicago and West Michigan met at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan to discuss two resources: Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, & Congregations by Erik W. Carter and “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes” by Elim Christian Services and Dan Vander Plaats.

The main takeaway was an insight your congregation may be experiencing—namely, that ramps, accessible restrooms and hearing loops help remove physical barriers that keep people with disabilities out of churches. But to truly welcome everyone and create a picture of God’s kingdom, congregations also need to journey towards attitudes and relationships in which everyone can give and everyone can receive.

Welcoming everyone

The people who met together had already read Erik Carter’s Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities. The book provides a blueprint for reflecting on how inclusive your congregation is, or could be, of people with physical or developmental challenges. It shows how to develop meaningful church education and fellowship for people with disabilities, connect with community resources and much more.

Some readers reported feeling overwhelmed by this comprehensive guide, especially those who don’t see themselves as “movers and shakers” in their churches. But even if you feel like you are the first person to raise disability issues in your church, you can start using many tools in the book, such as conversation starters for talking with someone who has an intellectual disability or a parent whose child has a disability.

“My biggest worry with the book is that ‘doers’ will rush into programming and not think about relationships,” said Todd Cioffi, a Calvin College professor of congregational and ministry studies.

Several people agreed with him about focusing on relationships. “I dared to become friends with people who have disabilities once I understood that they are people first,” one woman said.

Fortunately, the book’s many checklists, surveys and tips will help you see beyond someone’s wheelchair or Down syndrome to their God-given gifts for greeting visitors, counting the offering, praying for others or creating art.

Journeying together

Dan Vander Plaats led conversation participants through a visual chart of “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes.” He is director of advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois. Elim’s mission is to help children and adults with disabilities reach their God-given educational and vocational potential. Vander Plaats described the five stages of disability attitudes:

  • Ignorance. You don’t know or want to know people with disabilities and may fear or blame them.
  • Pity. You feel sorry for people who seem weak and purposeless. They need your help. You’re glad God blessed you with children who aren’t disabled.
  • Care. You believe that, like you, people with disabilities have value because God created them. You hope someone at church will start a special needs class or respite care for parents.
  • Friendship. You know and spend time with someone who has a disability. Her or his friendship blesses your life with acceptance, fun, laughter or prayer.
  • Co-laborers. You feel most in tune with God’s mission when everyone, with or without disabilities, praises and serves God together and encourages and equips each other for every good work.

One mom at the discussion gave a painful example of ignorance. “Our teenage son has autism. I’ve had people say that either we are or he is cursed and ‘not right with God.’ I’m so grateful for church youth leaders who make adaptations and for Young Life Capernaum leaders who love and care for him,” she said.

Dan Vander Plaats shared his own journey on the disability attitudes spectrum. “Because I have a disability, I talk funny. I hated being categorized with people who have disabilities. I was both a purveyor and victim of bad attitudes toward people with disabilities,” he said.

He developed the disability attitudes spectrum not to make people feel bad about being at stage one (ignorance) or stage two (pity), but to show that moving on requires more engagement with people who have disabilities.

“Each stage teaches us more and more about from whom our value really comes. Disability is neither a curse nor a gift. How do you see the value of someone who is on feeding and breathing tubes, who is nonverbal and doesn’t acknowledge others? The value always and only comes in relationship with God, by what God is doing in, through and around your life. Our relationships with someone who is vulnerable teach us about our own vulnerability before God,” he said.

How worship reimagines the world

Several people explained why it’s impossible for churches to reflect God’s whole vision unless they include the kinds of people that Jesus talked and ate with—people who were blind, lame, had leprosy or mental illness or who were racially separated. “Worship is an attempt to reimagine the world and picture what it will be,” Todd Cioffi said.

True inclusion means accepting all kinds of people as true partners in God’s kingdom. Sara Webb, senior Young Life coordinator at Wedgwood Christian Services, talked about adopting a son of a different race and choosing Kentwood Community Church. “Our church said, ‘We are changing to be a picture of the kingdom.’ Now half the staff is from a minority group,” she said.

Your church’s next step toward more fully embodying Christ may be less complicated than you fear. “All you need to think about in church is, ‘What does this person need at this place in their life to become who God called him or her to be?’ You already have gifts and networks in your community.  As a church, you need to be willing to try and fail, try and fail,” Vander Plaats said.


Learn More

Don’t miss this story’s companion conversation, “Dan Vander Plaats on God and Disability.”

Use the “5 Stages: the Journey of Disability Attitudes” diagram and videos from Dan Vander Plaats and Elim Christian Services to start a conversation in your church. Gather a group to read and discuss Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: a Guide for Service Providers, Families, & Congregations by Erik W. Carter.

Lyn Ten Brink is the Midwest coordinator for Young Life Capernaum, a dedicated program for students and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She created a resource showcase on disability within faith communities. Read her blog post on what she’s learned from Capernaum friends.

Listen to these Calvin Symposium on Worship resources:

Sing Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s hymn “When Hands Reach Out” in worship. Download a free copy of “30 Things You Can Do to Be Hospitable to People with Disabilities.” Read and share stories of Christians affected by mental illness.

Start A Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, fellowship or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about welcoming people with disabilities.

  • Discuss your comfort or discomfort levels with getting to know a person or family affected by disability. Do you feel more comfortable with some kinds of disability than with others?
  • List all the people in your church affected by disability, including dementia. Ask this question to people or families who live with disability: “How well is our church doing at being a community where people with disabilities know they are welcome?”
  • What first steps could you take in worship to name the reality and diversity of disability? How might you find and use gifts of people who have a disability?