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LaTonya McIver Penny on Worship with Differently Abled People

Churches decide to include people with disabilities when they realize God sees us all as equals and all as differently abled. LaTonya McIver Penny advocates for inclusive worship, especially in African American congregations.

LaTonya McIver Penny pastors New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Roxboro, North Carolina. She is also executive director of Family Abuse Services of Alamance County and leads Mary’s Grace, which provides programs and resources for people with disabilities. In this edited conversation, she talks about what her congregation learned through participating in a 2018 Vital Worship Grant project to include people with disabilities in African American churches.

Will you briefly describe the grant project and key insights?

"No longer do people stare if a child on the autism  
spectrum has an outburst. Instead they offer fidgets
and assistance."
                                         —LaTonya McIver Penny

My underlying theology of the Bible is that we need the whole church to interpret the whole Bible because every culture has its blind spots. I don’t believe any culture is closed off from the ability to critique or be critiqued. Instead, God created each culture to be a maznifestation of his character and glory. For example, there’s a different ethos in how British evangelicals and U.S. evangelicals understand the Bible. African Americans have a unique contribution in biblical interpretation because of our history and lived experience.

It was a year-long collaboration with several African American churches. We had a Responsive and Universal Design Worship Summit, followed by small-group book studies and presentations. We saw true, heartfelt change as people began to understand that we are all called to include all of God’s children. We are all equal and all differently abled. It takes open hearts and willing minds to make room for new ideas and new opportunities for all people.

How easy was it for you to speak personally about disability when you became pastor at New Mount Zion Baptist Church?

The church knew before we came that my twins had some challenges because of being born at 25 weeks. But it took two years for me to tell them more. It’s a big deal in the African American church to hide challenges. We grew up with the idea that what happens in this house stays in this house. That reluctance comes from slavery, because if you had someone with an illness or disability, you had to hide that loved one from the master or risk being separated.

During my five years at New Mount Zion, I’ve had to change my own theology and break the cultural mindset of hiding my family’s challenges. I’m still working through the shame and guilt that women often feel when they don’t carry a pregnancy to full term.

What happened as you began to share more?

My sharing gave others permission to be more open. I shared that our congregation includes a child with sensory processing issues. I explained that we all learn differently. Because I mentioned different abilities, a woman with hearing difficulty asked me not to turn away from the mike as I preach. I walk around while I preach, so I got a headset.

Still, before the grant, people wondered why I focused so much on disability. They automatically thought that disability means a physical challenge, like maybe you use a wheelchair.

How did the grant help your congregation grow in awareness about different abilities?

As we began talking more about abilities, we realized we have at least 30 differently-abled people—a fifth of our congregation. This includes children with learning disorders and adults with mobility issues, dementia, or gradual sight loss. We have people with diabetes whose feet get tingly if they stand too long. Plus we get visitors from adult group homes.

Barbara J. Newman spoke at your summit. What is her “puzzle piece perspective”?

The puzzle piece perspective sees every person as part of a pink and green jigsaw puzzle that pictures God’s kingdom. Each of us is a puzzle piece with green parts for things we are good at or enjoy and pink parts for weaknesses or things we struggle with. Barb says that none of us is all pink or all green. God joins us together and designed us so that each piece is needed to complete the image. We often joke that I am the black Barb and she is the white LaTonya.

What are the greens and pinks for you and your daughter, Taylor?

Taylor’s greens are that she’s very practical, is a natural helper who learns by doing, has an infectious smile, and is a great basketball player. Her pinks are that she’s extremely shy, sometimes struggles to articulate words, and doesn’t speak till she gets to know you. She doesn’t like loud sounds or being touched by strangers. Because of cerebral palsy, her body fatigues easily. Sometimes she plays so hard that she collapses on the basketball court.

My greens are that I’m an organized multitasker who’s pretty good at public speaking. I love wholeheartedly—and sometimes that’s my pink because I care too much. I have a low tolerance for ignorance, like mistreating someone who’s different. My husband is great at remembering history, but I’m not. I can’t sing a lick. In fact, they turn my mike off during music at church. My husband plays three instruments; my son, Hunter, plays two; and Taylor plays violin.

What did grant participants learn about universal design?

Universal design in worship means making worship flexible enough so that each person can receive and respond as God has gifted them. We invite people to be in the presence of God in whatever way they want to be. If we have one child who needs headphones to dampen sound, we don’t just give headphones to that child. Instead of singling someone out, we put fidget bags and headphones on every pew. We simply say, “If the service gets too loud for you, feel free to use the headphones.”

Some members can’t eat gluten. Instead of having a separate basket of gluten-free communion wafers, we use gluten-free wafers for everyone. They are little crackers rounded on top so they're easy to grasp. We’re also working to label allergens for everything served at church potlucks.

How does universal design differ from responsive design?

Even with universal design, you can’t expect that one size fits all. Responsive design means getting to know a specific person well enough to design supports so the person can be included. Even though we used universal design to choose our communion crackers, still, some people with arthritis can’t reach or grasp them. So designated helpers sit by those seasoned saints on First Sundays, when we celebrate communion.

Our church is really good at responsive design. Now that we know our church doors are too heavy for certain older people to open, we have helpers stationed there. Members have learned that my husband and son are severely allergic to peanuts, so they’ll bake special treats just for those two.

What other changes have you implemented?

People who are on the autism spectrum or have sensory processing challenges often find weighted blankets calming. We make them available to everyone. We’ve noticed that some seasoned saints really like them too. We use microphones at Bible study so everyone can hear.

How has your Vital Worship Grant project changed your church?

During the project I watched transformations in the hearts of people who were once hesitant to speak or to ask if anyone needed assistance. No longer do people stare if a child on the autism spectrum has an outburst. Instead they offer fidgets and assistance. They are eagerly assisting and even thinking of new things to implement. They want all people to see that they belong and that we are family in one unified body of Christ.

What first steps can help congregations include more abilities or disabilities in worship?

Start small. Start conversations with congregation members so people feel like they are a part of the changes. Take the time to teach why. The “why” is very important. If you start something new, explain why and how it benefits all members of the body.

For instance, when we switched to gluten-free communion elements, I explained why. We didn’t just change it and hope people wouldn’t notice, because they did notice at the first bite. I taught through the moment of communion that we made the change to gluten free so that all who wanted to partake could partake without having an allergic reaction. People then wanted to know more about gluten allergies and how to prepare meals that were gluten free for our community meals. This was a learning opportunity.

How else can leaders spark a vision for inclusion?

As a leader, I think the key is for the members to really explain the necessity of inclusion. If you do not have lived experience or don’t know someone who is differently abled, it can be difficult to understand why inclusion is so important. But putting a name and face on someone who isn’t being included—and seeing how being left out mistreats and impacts a family—often opens eyes of those who don’t already see through the lens of inclusion and belonging. Of course, you always need permission to share someone else’s story. Or you can ask them to share it.

I was taught to see life through the lens of inclusion. From an early age, my parents taught me to make sure I treat everyone with love and kindness and not to mistreat any of God’s children. My Grandma Mary taught me, “God doesn’t make junk, because God makes everybody just like him (God).” We are all unique and special in different ways, and we are all made in the imago Dei.

What books do you recommend for learning more about inclusion in worship and church life?

The books we found most helpful are Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship by Barbara J. Newman and Betty Grit; Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Barbara J. Newman; and The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy L. Eisland.


See the grant poster for New Mount Zion Baptist Church’s 2018 Vital Worship Grant project. Consider applying for a Vital Worship Grant, whether for teacher-scholars or worshiping communities.