LaTonya McIver Penny on Inclusion in Black Churches
The common thread in LaTonya McIver Penny’s pastoral and professional lives has been God’s calling to help faith communities, especially Black churches, become more inclusive. Learn why she sees inclusion as broader than welcoming people with cognitive or physical disabilities.
LaTonya McIver Penny is lead pastor of Belonging Fellowship, a virtual ministry based in Mebane, North Carolina. The church works to create spaces where all of God’s children can belong. She founded and directs Mary’s Grace, a nonprofit disability advocacy group. Penny is also chief executive of Laughing Gull Foundation. In this edited conversation, she talks about disability and inclusion in Black and other churches.
Why did you and your husband, Minister Charles W. Penny II, start Belonging Fellowship?
I’d been pushing myself for years, especially during the pandemic. When the church I was pastoring returned to in-person worship in September 2021, my physical health was breaking down. My doctor told me I couldn’t keep up all I was doing. God helped me see that I didn’t need to be in a physical church to fulfill my calling to help faith communities become more inclusive of people with disabilities or people who don’t feel comfortable going to a traditional church.
I set out to do something different, something I needed and thought many others needed too. God gave me ten people to connect with about starting a virtual ministry, and all ten said yes, including my previous minister of music. Three were young adults, two were millennials, and the rest were over age 50. They live in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and we are developing relationships in South Carolina and Virginia too. Our leadership team members are from different walks of life, but most are financially stable.
What’s the same between Belonging Fellowship and brick-and-mortar churches?
We are a regular church in that we serve all ages and have weekly Sunday services and Wednesday Bible studies. Belonging Fellowship meets for worship at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings so as not to compete with in-person services. We are affiliated with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and are in the North Carolina General Baptist Convention. Our church theology and perspective are inclusive, affirming, and welcoming—and not just regarding disability or mental health. We use gender-inclusive language as much as possible.
As our Facebook page says, “Belonging Fellowship is a virtual ministry which seeks to reach God's children where they are and to foster relationships in and throughout communities by doing ministry projects. Ultimately, our goal is to show that you BELONG in a community that glorifies God, exalts Jesus Christ, and serves and welcomes ALL of God's children. We hope you enjoy yourself in worship! Bless you and thank you for joining in!”
How does being a virtual church help you be inclusive?
We’re different from traditional congregations because we meet virtually, along with regular pop-up events. Being online helps us connect across a wider geographic area and interact through Facebook Live, YouTube, and Instagram. Someone from our leadership team helps respond to typed comments and texts during service or Bible study. YouTube is now easy to navigate by phone, and even younger people with cognitive disabilities can use many smartphone features.
What are the demographics of Belonging Fellowship?
Our core Belongers are majority Black. Those who are faithful givers seem to be financially well established. We have some givers we’ve never seen. They don’t get involved in our day-to-day operations but want to support our ministry of inclusion. Our greatest population is young adults ages 20 to 45. Our second largest group is above age 60. We also reach out to group homes because those residents are often abandoned by family, and group homes are often forgotten by churches.
What kinds of in-person events does Belonging Fellowship do?
We realize there’s so much more we can do when we meet face to face. Once a month we show up in one or the other of two North Carolina communities where we have the most people. We often meet in schools and don’t necessarily advertise the event as specifically church based. This helps non-churchgoers feel comfortable attending. Sometimes we do community events such as an Easter egg hunt or healthcare outreach. Sometimes we have conversation over free coffee and breakfast and then share communion; this is our Coffee Conversation and Communion Connection. The teens in our fellowship come up with game ideas, arts and crafts tables, and other fun things to do with kids.
Can you share a story or two about how your in-person events help foster relationships?
We hosted a health outreach event for people to get free mammograms, COVID-19 shots, food, and clothes and to enjoy different activities. A woman realized by our T-shirts that we are a church but were including and feeding everyone. She talked with me about raising a nephew who is in a special education class at school. “I didn’t even know till today that Billy likes to paint,” she said. “At school, they thought he would eat the paint, so he’s never been allowed to try painting.” I asked, “What’s his IEP [individualized education plan]?” She responded, “What’s an IEP?” We’ve started an email correspondence about how she can learn about Billy’s needs, advocate for him at school, and get legal guardianship.
I also remember talking with a white woman at an event. From talking with her, I could tell she hadn’t had much education. She asked me what Belonging Fellowship is about. I helped her download an app on her phone so she could join us for Sunday services. She stated she felt safe with us and that she typically doesn’t do church but enjoyed our interaction and wanted to learn more.
How did Belonging Fellowship start reaching out to group homes?
Someone on our leadership team works in social services in Roxboro, North Carolina, and connected us with six group homes. Every group home has staff who can help residents interact online. Because we are virtual, the home doesn’t need to arrange transportation to worship. Being virtual also keeps our overhead low, so we can ask each group home what they need or want and use offerings to try to get it for them. Often they want fuzzy socks or sweatpants without strings. Our church is really feeding into these group homes. We ask whether [worship] services are enough or do they want a Bible study where I talk slower or deal with subject matter differently.
What inclusion services do you offer through Mary’s Grace?
Mary’s Grace provides resources and programs for people with disabilities and their families. Charles and I still travel to teach or host events about disability and inclusion in congregations. We’re working with a church in the Outer Banks to host a training. Sometimes our teenage twins travel with us. They like to be helpful and have such warm and loving ways of interacting with group home residents. Our son loves gaming and is pretty tech savvy.
When you talk about inclusion, do you mainly mean including people with disabilities?
We have broadened the definition beyond physical or cognitive abilities because we’ve realized how important it is to talk about mental health challenges such as depression. Charles was diagnosed as a child with ADHD. He has battled with stress-induced alopecia [hair loss], but, through God’s grace, now has shoulder-length hair. I’ve had my own depressive seasons. When a published story mentioned a miscarriage that I hadn’t even shared with my previous congregation, so many people responded. That helped me feel OK having my miscarriages written about, though I don’t feel ready yet to speak about it publicly and I realize the seasonal depression and grief associated with that.
I have walked with a level of shame, afraid people would see me as broken. I think that people in all cultures, not just Black culture, experience shame that they often don’t dare to share in church. Their unshared stories might be about disability, depression, economic inequity, or LGBTQ+ identities. Charles and I have noticed, though, that when we share our stories, it frees up other people to talk about their struggles.
What first steps can other congregations take to model inclusion?
You can show up in different packages, with your church identity less or more prominent. Whether Charles and I show up as part of Belonging Fellowship or Mary’s Grace, the principles are the same: Listen and learn so you can have a bigger impact. Identify people and needs and prioritize. Do a self-check to ask who’s missing. What can you do differently? Maybe your language needs to change. We’ve learned we need greeters at events, including people outside the doors of the venue where we’re gathering.
It’s important that flyers and social media use languages, pictures, and images to show who all is welcome. For an Easter egg hunt in Roxboro, North Carolina, we put on the flyer that we would have a low-sensory zone with trained aides to offer one-on-one support. This was back during COVID restrictions, when you had to register to attend events. Our online registration option also had a link to click so people could state other needs.
Is there a wrong way to do inclusion?
Well, it’s not a good idea to look around and say, “Huh. We don’t have any Black people or people with autism. Let’s go get some.” It’s better to show what you are willing to do. Your church might state on social media, event flyers, or a church sign: “We are inclusive of families of all abilities. Please let us know what we can do for you.” And then do the work.
Bring in someone like me, who sees what you might not see and can walk you through the inclusion process. You may find experts in your area by Googling “L’Arche parenting group near me.” Check out autismpastor.com, where you can watch and listen to Lamar Hardwick, a church pastor with autism. Read his latest book, Diversity and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion.
Inclusion can sound intimidating, especially for smaller churches with few resources.
I think people overthink inclusion. It’s not that hard. Everything Jesus did was inclusive. We’ve just got to walk the talk together—not overhaul everything. Be attentive to who’s already there and what they need. There are lots of aging adults who may have been well-abled leaders in your church. But now, right in front of you, they may be losing sight, hearing, and cognition. Ask what they need to feel like there’s space for them. Maybe you need to use larger print and other visuals or install a hearing coil.
- Connect with Belonging Fellowship and Mary’s Grace.
- Gather a group to read and discuss Diversity and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion, by Lamar Hardwick.
- Listen to the podcast episode "Disability as Diversity" from the Diversity and Inclusion for All podcast.
- Explore Calvin Institute of Christian Worship resources on disabilities, mental health, pregnancy loss, and trauma.