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Welcoming All Bodies and Abilities into Worship and the Life of the Church

This session explores a biblical view of disability and practical ways of including people with disabilities in every aspect of the church for the flourishing of the entire worshiping community.

Satrina Reid [00:00:05] I would like to briefly introduce this wonderful panel. We have John Swinton. We've got Lindsay Wieland Capel and LaTonya Penny here with us this morning. I'm giving very brief . . . I'm just giving their names, but I'm going to allow them to tell you who they are, what they do and why they do it. And I'm going to ask them to also give a brief definition of how they would define disability. So we'll start with you, John.

John Swinton [00:00:33] Thank you. Good morning, everybody. I'm John Swinton. I'm professor in practical theology at Aberdeen University. Before I commenced academia, I was a mental health nurse, a nurse for sixteen years or so in the area of mental health, and I retrained and worked in the area of what is now called intellectual disability. So for most of my life, I've been sitting alongside people who see the world differently. And with me, I understand disability is just a different way of being in the world. It's a different way of seeing the world. But then everybody's different. So it's not different [as in] bad, negative; it's just different.

Lindsay Wieland Capel [00:01:15] Hi. I'm so glad to be here this morning. I'm Lindsey Wieland Kopel, and I'm going to start with a visual description of myself for accessibility. I am a forty-year-old, tall woman, white woman with long, brown hair, and I am wearing a white shirt with navy and ruffles today. So my passion for disability advocacy really started as a child as I became friends with kids with disabilities, and I saw the barriers that they were facing in the world and at school and with peers. As I grew, I ended up focusing in social work in school and becoming a social worker. And so that led me to working primarily with people with disabilities and mental health disorders. And as life would have it, I've acquired some disabilities along the way, as probably many of you have as well. So I work currently for the Christian Reformed Church for disability concerns, and we work very closely with the Reformed Church in America. And we help churches do a better job of being accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities.

In terms of a definition, I'm going to read the official one that we use. “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” So it’s impairment plus barriers in the environment, in the world. So a couple of things to point out: People with disabilities are super diverse. You heard the list of physical, mental, intellectual, sensory—the experiences people have depending on what their disability is is very diverse. So some people have a disability from birth, some acquired along the way. Some people's disabilities are apparent—you notice it if you meet them—and others are non-apparent. Some people have disabilities that come and go day to day; they might have a good day or a bad day or a good year or a bad year. And not everybody who has a disability identifies as having a disability, especially older adults who acquire mobility challenges or hearing loss. Oftentimes they don't identify as someone with a disability, but yet still need accommodations.

LaTonya Penny [00:03:51] Good morning. I am LaTonya Penny, and I am bivocational. My primary, full-time job is the chief executive of a foundation, but my calling is being the pastor of Belonging Fellowship. In Belonging Fellowship we have a ministry that is called Mary's Grace, and that ministry was started as a separate nonprofit but merged into our ministry and is named after my maternal grandmother, Mary Stanfield, who brought me into this work by the way she chose to live. So once her children were adults, she began to take in foster children. My grandmother took the children that were hard to place because of their varied level of abilities. And what she taught us was that a child is not broken. They are not broken in any way. They are just different. And whoever’s sitting at her table on Sunday morning is now your cousin. And it doesn't matter how they sit, how they present themselves or what they are facing—whatever barriers the world may give them, it is our job to remove those barriers and be there for them. I too agree with the definition that was presented. But I also would add that disability impacts people as the way that others perceive them and receive them. So, yes, that's the medical diagnosis and definition, but it is also the way in which the world interacts with them.

Satrina Reid [00:05:25] Thank you. I've asked each of our guests, each of our panelists, to present in a particular area as we lay some groundwork, and then we'll jump into some practical conversations and we'll get into some question answering. But I’ve asked John, if you will, talk about disability and theology and this intersection, because oftentimes we will see scriptures in the Old Testament that will connect a disability with sin. And then in the New Testament, we see Jesus saying—the question is, well, this person, who sinned, the mother or the father, because they're this way? And Jesus said neither—neither sinned. So as we look at the Bible and we as the church, I want to look at this intersectionality or this intersect of disability and theology. Will you help us with that?

John Swinton [00:06:28] I'll try. . . .Theology basically means trying to work out who God is and trying to work out who we are before God. And that's not just something you think about; it's something you practice. Theology and practice are always together. And it's important because the way in which you think about something determines the way in which you respond to it. So actually understanding the theology of disability, how we think about disability theology, is really important, not just because we need to know things, but because that will determine how we respond to things. And theology very often is done in places like this, or places like my own university, where academics sit down with the tradition, with the Bible and with tradition, and try to understand who God is and what it means to be before God. That's a good thing. But there's only so many questions that you can ask when you're sitting in your office in a university. These are important questions, but they're not the only questions. So what the theology of disability tries to do is bring questions that emerge from the experience of disability, place them against the tradition and about the Bible and ask, what does it look like when we . . . answer these kinds of questions? So, for example, what does it mean to know God when you've forgotten who God is? People with dementia, for example. What does it mean to know God when you've never been able to, [when] you haven't got the intellectual capacity to know God in the way that religion oftentimes assumes people need to know God? What does it mean to ask the question “What does it look like to be profoundly disabled, to be made fully in the image of God and to be loved just the way you are without having to change anything?”? So these kinds of questions enable us to look at scripture and tradition differently. We don't become unorthodox or allow expedience simply to dictate what we know, but we allow these really deep and powerful questions to challenge us to think differently.

So let me give you some examples of what that looks like. Think about in Exodus, when Moses gets his vocation from God. What does he do? He says, “I can't do it God, because I've got a stutter.” And what does God do? God didn’t say, “Well, just a second. I'll heal your stutter, and then you can go off and do it.” He says, “Now do what you're told,” is basically what he says; “I'll give you people to help you, but go off and do it yourself.” And even more mysteriously in that passage, he says, “Who do you think does these things? Who do you think makes people have sight issues? Who do you think makes people have difficulty in speaking? Who do you think does all of these things?” Now, I don't know the answer to that question. It seems really mysterious. But at a minimum, if God does do these things, whatever that means, then it's not the devil that does these things. In other words, even in a weird—weird to us—Exodus passage, God is in the midst of that.

You see the same thing in the life of the apostle Paul. So Paul has this thing that he calls his “thorn in this flesh.” Nobody really knows what his thorn in his flesh is. Some people think it was a sight impairment caused by his blinding on the road to Damascus. Some people think it was a back problem. Some people think it was a member of his congregation. So if any of you are pastors, you'll understand what I mean! And so Paul prays three times and doesn't get healed. Now, I don't see any indication that Paul didn't have enough faith to be able to be healed. He prayed three times, and he wasn't healed. And what do we discover? Actually, it was in his brokenness and the difficulties and the experiences that he had that he found blessing and grace—not by being taken out of them, but actually by discovering the ways in which they can help to make God . . . more apparent and obvious in his life.

So you can see when you begin to ask these kind of strange questions, you begin to see new things. And finally, the image of the body of Christ is really, really important for the things that we're going to be talking about today, and the thing that marks the body of Christ—before I get to that: the body of Christ is not a metaphor. It's actually meant to be a reality. It is something you think is a nice idea, but no, when we look at the body of Christ, when we look at the church, when we look at you, we're supposed to see something of Jesus. But the thing that marks the body of Christ is diversity, not homogeneity; not that everybody's the same, it's that everybody's different. And we live together in the body of Christ. Not everybody can be the head. Not everybody is a foot. We all have our different places in there. And I think that image of the body of Christ is a really helpful way to think about issues around disability, because it's not that because you can't understand the gospel, then there's something wrong with you. I can understand the gospel. You can't. But we can do it together. I can hold it for you. I can learn from you how I can understand who God is, even though I don't necessarily articulate that in words. And when we think about the different places that we are, spaces that we inhabit within the body of Christ, and we just hold one another in different ways—I can do things; you can do other things—then the beauty of that picture takes away the stigma of disability and enables us to have a vision that is filled with difference and diversity, but not stigmatized difference and diversity. And I think that image is a helpful space for us to begin to think through these things theologically. I wouldn't like to say that that's what the theology of disability is, but that's some of the things that it does.

Satrina Reid [00:12:36] Does anyone else have anything to add to that?

Lindsay Wieland Capel [00:12:41] I'll touch on some of the same things as I talk about ableism.

Satrina Reid [00:12:45] I'm so glad that you brought up the reality of the body. I was thinking about this, and I was thinking about how—I'm just going to give this little example. I broke my toe. Anybody ever broken a toe? And it was that little bitty one on the right, the little ugly one on the side. And I never thought about that little ugly toe until I broke it. And I realized how much I needed that little bitty thing that I viewed as so, you know . . . I needed it. Because I limped around without it, with it not being fully the way it was supposed to be. I limped without it. And it took a long time. The whole rest of my body felt that broken toe when I first broke it. It felt like my heart was going to just pop out of my chest [with the] pain. And I'm so glad that you brought that up, because we need, we need, we need everyone. In between, I'll just give some little practical examples of the flourishing that I've seen. I'm reminded of early in my ministry, a woman who was . . . I don't know how she became cognitively impaired, but she was in a Bible study with us, and nobody expected her to say anything. And we were talking about when Jesus said, “Those who will worship me will worship me in spirit and in truth.” These are the people that God seeks: those who will worship him. And then out of the blue—and it's always stuck with me throughout my ministry—she chimed up and she said, “Well, God's looking for folks that are looking for him.” And I was just like, “Oh, that's so profound.” And then she went back, and she never said another word. She never said another word. But it was that profound moment that she was needed in that space. She was needed in that space. And that was decades ago and it’s still with me. So thank you for that. Thank you for that. So with everything that John has said, . . . everything that John has told us today—I mean, this is a beautiful picture of what God has laid out for us. But we know that as a church, as a society, we often fail at viewing people that way and viewing people [who] just see things differently. We fail at that. And so I've asked Lindsay if she would talk about ableism and what that is and just assist us with that and how it plays out in the church.

Lindsay Wieland Capel [00:16:10] Yes, absolutely. So ableism has been our theme this year for Disability Concerns, and I've been doing a deep dive. And just like you said at the beginning, I still have so much to learn. We're all just on the journey trying to learn more and do better when we know more. Like I said earlier, people with disabilities are a diverse group, so even those of us who have disabilities don't inherently understand the experiences of someone else with a different disability. And so we all learn from each other and also can be ableist.

We had a training last August, a two-day training—t's available on YouTube, actually; I encourage you to check it out if today's talk sparked some interest for you—but it was on ableism in the church. I'm going to be sharing some of the stories from that training so that you can hear people with different disabilities sharing their experiences.

I'm going to start with a story from one of our volunteers. His name is Kyle Crist. And he said—and this is going to really ring true to what you were talking about, John, in terms of theology and healing and all of those conversations—he said, “I was born with cerebral palsy and I deal with now a high amount of chronic pain and then also some mental health challenges. When I was seven to my late teens, every night I would pray for God to heal me. The narrative that I got from the church based on the healing narratives in the Bible was that individuals that have needs or challenges do not have enough faith, and that is why they're experiencing their challenges. And then, secondarily, that they would add on that it was about sin. There's got to be something going on in the family or your parents were doing something wrong, so you were born that way. Any way you could cut it, the onus was on me. And then you get to the point where you're like, OK, this healing isn't happening. Because of those two narratives and the prayers that they prayed for me, praying that I would have more faith and more spiritual goodness, that made me feel like my existence now is not meeting their bar. Therefore I am unloved by humanity, and God is a God that doesn't keep his promises. And God is a God that doesn't love me.”

You can feel the weight of that and the restless nights of Kyle wrestling with God. I think it's helpful for us to put ourselves in other people's shoes and remember their experiences. So as we think about ableism, ableism is anything that puts a person without a disability over a person with a disability, and it can be intentional or unintentional, it can be individual or systemic attitudes or actions. And I'm going to share a second definition because I think it just puts it a little different way that can be helpful. Stephanie Tate said, “It's putting in barriers to access or leaving them there either intentionally or unintentionally, or assuming that the experience of disability is somehow less than, and that people with disabilities would prefer not to be disabled.”

Ableism is what's behind the Sunday school teacher that tells the parent, “Please don't bring your child back.” Ableism is behind when someone in worship makes noises or moves and they're seen as a distraction. When I had depression, I had internalized ableism through the mental health stigma. I still have depression, by the way. It's just treated. So sometimes it's better than other times. But even as a mental health professional, I avoided calling for therapy, and I was avoiding taking meds, and I was professionally working to bust the mental health stigma every day. But when I experienced it myself, I saw myself as the helper and not the person who needs help. And it was really hard for me to reach out and get the help. And let me tell you, when I went on meds, I wished I had done it several years earlier, which is something we hear a lot in mental health.

Ableism is also behind why churches fought the Americans with Disabilities Act and why churches are exempt from following the law that everyone else follows to make their space accessible. So for most people with disabilities who go to church, church is the least accessible place that they go. Sometimes ableism looks like niceness, but wrote with condescension. Leah Reinardy shared at our training, “People like to talk to me like I'm five years old. It undermines my autonomy and it undermines a lot of how I think and how I interact. When you come in with that assumption that I'm less capable than I am, we're never going to be seeing each other as equal human beings.”

I wanted to talk about the words we use too. And this was interesting—LaTonya and I were talking beforehand and she was talking about “differently abled,” and I said, “That's so interesting that you use that word, because I understand from some other people with disabilities that that can be really uncomfortable and that they don't like that word.” . . . Some people will say, like Amy Kenny—she wrote My Body Is Not a Prayer Request, which is our book of the year this year, so I'll quote her a couple of times today. But she talks about how she prefers identity-first language, and she calls herself disabled, and she says there's nothing to be ashamed of, and that's how she identifies. I tend to use person-first language, which is partly because of my training as a social worker; professionals tend to be trained to use person-first language. But anyway, a good rule of thumb, if you're wondering it while we're talking about it, is just to listen to what people say about themselves and use the term that they use about themselves. LaTonya’s daughters say they're differently abled, so that's what you should say. Amy Kenny says she's disabled, so if we talk about Amy, we say she's disabled.

There are some people, though, who feel like words like “handicapable” or “differently abled” imply tragedy or pity. And so, you know, it's interesting how different people respond. Even the term “special needs”— a lot of people still use that; I think a lot of parents still use that term. But a lot of people with disabilities cringe at that term as well. Amy Kenny says, “My needs aren't special. They're just human.”

While we're talking about words, I've been working to find replacements for a number of words, and there are more than this list. But I invite you to join me in finding replacements for lame, spaz, dumb, crazy, insane. We can do this together. When I think about ableism, one of the things I think about is how weary our volunteers are. We have advocates who volunteer at our churches to work within their church, and many of them have disabilities themselves. And they tell me that they are so tired of saying what they need or advocating for what others need because they're just dismissed over and over again. It comes in a lot of different forms. Sometimes “it's not in the budget.” “It's not our priority right now,” or even “I think you should just go to a different church that specializes in that.” We hear that a lot. It's real painful for people. Amy Kenny says the message to people with disabilities is “You're not worth it.”

So how can we turn ableism on its head? We call this being anti-ableist: “anti-” because it requires intentionality. We undo ableism when we follow the lead of people with disabilities. The disability rights slogan is “Nothing about us without us.” As one of our volunteers, Jana Hoff, said, a quiet and humble spirit doesn't just mean welcoming people with disabilities and creating spaces for them, but allowing them to welcome you and create spaces for you. We are to see people with disabilities as equal as you serve beside them or as you serve under their leadership. Our slogan is “Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves,” and that gets to the body of Christ that you were talking about, John. And we talk about that same passage all the time because it's this concept of everybody is made in God's image, and everybody has gifts to offer the body, and that the body is truly missing out. Like you were saying, Satrina, if somebody is not being engaged to use their gifts, if they're being overlooked and they're not being noticed and asked to use their gifts, then the whole body misses out.

We can also undo ableism by being intentional about accessibility. Universal Design is a concept that I could spend a whole lot of time talking about, but just very quickly, it's trying to design a space before people get there. So that you've already thought about there's going to be a diversity of types of bodies and needs and types of minds in this space and in this program. So you think beforehand about what people with different needs and different bodies might need in that space or in that program. We don't wait for people to self-advocate, because as you've heard, that's very exhausting.

So when people name their need, go with it, be creative, and follow their lead to find a solution. Amy Kenny says, “If they share what changes can make the community more inclusive to disabled people, don't waste time arguing or proving them wrong. Don't second-guess whether their experience is right. Be eager to follow the lead of disabled people who are willing to do the heavy emotional labor of educating nondisabled people about our access needs.”

In churches, we want to create a come-as-you-are culture. We want to give ourselves and others permission to be human in all its forms, to voice our needs and normalize the asking for help as part of being human. We don't want to associate disability with a lack of faith or assume people want to be cured. And if you are preaching or teaching on scripture that includes a story about disability, please read interpretations from people with disabilities before you do it so you can be sensitive as you talk about these things.

Two resources on ableism I want to share with you: Amy Kenny's book My Body Is Not a Prayer Request, and also she was on this stage a couple of weeks ago doing a January Series talk, which I think is still available—excellent talk. And our resource on our YouTube channel, that's the CRC and RCA Disability Concerns YouTube channel. And you can there's about four different one-hour sessions that you can watch, panels and lectures. So that would be another free way to learn some more education and learn from people with disabilities.

Satrina Reid [00:27:48] Thank you. One of the things that you mentioned, you were talking about, you and LaTonya were going back and forth with the terminology. Just as people . . . have different terminology for themselves, we can't assume that everyone looks at disability the same way. One of the things that LaTonya studies is dealing with culture and diversity as it relates to disability, because we can't assume that every culture is going to even name the same thing as a disability and then how it is treated and why it's different as well. LaTonya, will you share a little bit about what you've learned through your research and even just through your lived experience?

LaTonya Penny [00:28:54] Sure. I do want to go back to the language use. I always use person-first language in every part of my life. So whether that's gender identity, whatever it is, I try to use your name. I try to use who you are first.

Satrina Reid [00:29:11] Can you give an example of what that sounds like?

LaTonya Penny [00:29:14] Sure. In particular the work I do full time, we do a lot of work with the LGBTQ+ community. I don't want to ever say “the gays.” I want to always call someone by their name. I'm going to talk to Susie, not gay Susie, right? You know what I mean? I'm not going to talk to a person who identifies as trans and call them what I think they may be when their identity . . . they may be very masculine presenting, but they identify as a she. I'm not going to insult them by using language that is insensitive. I'm going to talk to them and use their name first until they decide to disclose to me how they identify. So with my children, and the reason I argue the language, is because if you call my child disabled, my child is going to be offended because they don't think about the word “disabled.” It implies I'm broken. So they choose to embrace their differences and not their disabilities or their different-ness. And for me, I think that comes from my womanist theologian background of being inclusive as a Black woman in all that we do. Part two of what I wanted to bring up before I get to what I'm supposed to talk about—

Satrina Reid [00:30:31] No, no, no, no. This is what you're supposed to talk about.

LaTonya Penny [00:30:35] I think that's why diversity is always needed on any panel. Part two of what I want to say is that I think a very white side of ableism is “Nothing about us without us.” A very Black side of that is “We're tired of trying to teach you about racism as a Black person.” It's not that many of us in this room, so I'm just going to say, white people, we don't want to teach you how to not be racist. That's your work to do, right? So if I am “able bodied,” I don't think it is my responsibility or I don't think it is the job of someone who is differently abled to always educate me on how to treat them and to learn about how they interact with the world. Yes, I understand “Nothing about us without us.” But my Black people who are differently abled will say, “Do some work on your own so that you come to this conversation with us prepared for us.”

OK, so I'm off my soapbox. Diversity in the church: so I have spent a lot of time working in very white spaces helping churches embrace being differently abled, disability, being inclusive, changing their space. But the one thing I struggle with has always been a sense of belonging. And for me it goes back to culturally why my people struggle in this category. So if you were here last night, you kind of got some of the slave trade notions from the sermon. But from the time my people were brought from the shores of Africa to what I guess we call these United States, we were always valued by our bodies. So even the salt content of our body determined whether or not we would be enslaved. Someone literally licked our skin on the shores of Africa. And if we were really salty, they took us because they felt like the saltier we were the more likely we were to be able to make it through the journey in the belly of the boat because we could go without water for a longer period. So all this misinformation. So they started off with licking us. And they started off judging our bodies, disposition, and makeup from the taste of our skin. So when we are brought to this land, we are also, once we are brought into this space, we are judged by how much we can produce. “I want the slave that has more strength. I want the one that is bigger. The one that can do more. The one that can carry things that are heavier.” So what would you do with a body that is less? You don't use them. You cast them off to the side, you give them jobs to do, but they are less valuable to you. So they're sold quicker because they can only work in the house for you.

Take that mentality and put it in the slave quarters, and I give birth to a baby who is weak. I know as a slave who's been on this plantation what master’s going to do with my baby? They're either going to kill it or take it. So from that time, we learned as Black bodies to hide our disabilities. We learned to cover up our challenges. So that's why when you get to modern-day generations, or especially my grandparents’ generation, it was “Don't tell anybody what your disability is. Try to hide it, try to make it invisible, because then you are less valuable to the world when they see you as less than.”

I believe that we have to unpack that, because as you walk into Black spaces or work with Black faces and brown bodies, people need to understand that we don't try to hide it because we don't want people to know; that's ingrained in us to hide our disability so that the world sees us halfway as equal, because we’re still fighting for equality. So if we think about diversity and we think about how we have had to navigate spaces, think about the shame that comes with always being told that you are less than, and now put that shame of “My body is different. My body may not produce the same thing as others.” Put that in a Black body because you've already been seen as less than. So we've chosen to hide disability. We don't talk about it. That's why the Black church is so far behind in mental health and other inclusive ways of doing things because we have been taught to be ashamed. And so for me, my work is walking in churches and saying, “I see you, and you are not broken,” and unpacking that negative kind of talk that they play in their own heads, we play in our own heads, over and over. So if you don't understand that and you show up in a Black space saying, “Let's be inclusive, let's do this, let's do that,” and nobody wants to say “I have a disability,” what you're saying is falling on the ground and no one's picking it up because they don't even want to disclose to you that they have a disability. So a lot of my work is helping churches in the Black community unpack that and get rid of the shame and to get rid of the notion that we are broken, because we're already fighting as a people to be seen as whole. And so I think the diversity question comes into play because that is so relevant to everything that we do as Black bodies and brown bodies in this world fighting to prove our abilities when we should just be able to be a part of the body of Christ.

So as we begin to think about that, think about ableism as you think about racism. It's another “-ism.” Do your own work so that when you are at the table with, you don't come with ignorance to continue to harm. Then you can actually do the work with people that are saying “Nothing about us without us.”

A lot of the times when I'm speaking at churches, it is unpacking that shame mentality and the understanding of why disabilities are not talked about, and also empowering pastors and leaders to make it OK to talk about. I spend a lot of my time helping pastors figure out how to bring that forward as a part of their preaching and their teaching that it's OK. You are fine the way you are. You were created this way. You are uniquely created, and there is a purpose for that. You are not broken; you are whole. And that's not taught in most divinity schools. I went to Wake Forest University. I love my school. I love my divinity degree. That wasn't taught to me. It was kind of skipped over a bit—“Make sure you're inclusive.” But what does that mean to unpack the theology of healing?

I'll share a short story and then I'll stop talking. I remember when I was a child—I don't remember how old I was; I think I was about ten. I've always grown up in the church. And our family reunion was held that weekend, so my cousins came from all over the country and we were at a service in my hometown. I am from Leesburg, North Carolina. You've never heard of it. There's a reason. No stoplight, just a couple stop signs. Country. Pastors there didn't go to divinity school because Jesus called them. They aren't equipped because God called them. No theological training to unpack scripture. So this guest preacher whom I’d never seen before and have never seen since then finds out that I have a cousin who is blind. She's got multiple layers of disabilities, but that is the one that he can see. That's the visible one that he sees as what is wrong with her. All my life, I never referred to her as “my cousin who's blond.” It was “my cousin Monica.” And that's it. We knew what to do. We knew how to include her. We knew how to help her. We knew how to be present with her. It was never about her being blind. It's not that we ignored it. We just did the work to include. So this person begins to pray because he heard the Holy Spirit, reveal to him that there is a person who does not have their sight, and we want her to receive her sight. Oh, my gosh. And he proceeded to say, “If there's one person in here without faith, she will not receive her sight.” I promise you, I couldn't have been more than ten. And I was sitting near my mother, and I tapped and said, “Does he know she was born like this?” And my mother said, “Hush, child.” And I sat there, and when she said “Hush,” I thought, “Oh, I'm in trouble. What if I'm the reason she doesn't get her sight back?” Because I don't believe the bullcrap this man's up there talking about. And I, as a child, sat on that pew, going, “Please, God, I have faith. I have faith. Whatever you can do, I believe. Please forgive me for what I just said. I believe, God. I believe, God.” . . . Because that is the damaging rhetoric that spewed from his mouth. “If there's one person who don't believe she won’t get her sight back!” Well, guess what? Monica is in her forties and Monica still does not have her visible sight. But Monica can worship. She's not broken. But the damage that was done to me was life changing. The damage that was done to our family in that moment took a long time to heal from. Because then people began to see her different because of what someone else said about her. Keep in mind, I was the child who was brought up and said, “Whoever is at this table is your cousin, and whatever they need, you help them.” That is the removal of barriers. And it is not “help them at the table.” It’s “help them with whatever they need.” So that inclusive mentality is how I see the world, because we are all just a little bit different. I'm sorry.

Satrina Reid [00:41:03] No, don't apologize. . . . We have time. Is there anything else you'd like to say? We have time. No, we have time. Thank you. Thank you, all of you, for giving us a view of the scriptures, of who God is and who we are, of what hurts people in the body when we are ableist and how it makes people feel. Because oftentimes I don't think we think about how people feel. I don't know if we even see people, Or we see and we try not to see. Thank you for talking about inclusion. LaTonya’s example is one example, one cultural example, of how disability is dealt with in families and in the church. . . . In any culture that you can find, I'm sure there's something that is different as it relates to disability around the world, but it will always probably come back to the same thing: who is included and who is not.

And so now we're going to just move forward and just talk. Lindsay, you've already started to do some of these things, and I think everybody’s started to do some of these things, but looking at practical ways of including people with disabilities in every aspect of the church and not just for them, but for us, for our flourishing, for the flourishing of the entire body and for the flourishing of the entire church. What would you say are some practical ways that people, that the church can start to do better? Anybody can jump in.

Lindsay Wieland Capel [00:43:06] I'm happy to start. As we think and talk about this, we often talk about . . . two routes to accessibility. One is asking the question “Who is in your church? How does John experience church? Is Kamila going to Sunday school? Oh, I think she stopped going. What happened there? Let's touch base with Kamila or her mom or dad.” So looking at who's in your church and then forming . . . So-and-so would like to be part of a small group, but they don't have transportation, or whatever it is. So looking at individuals and kind of adapting things according to what would make things work for them. And then the other way to think about it is that Universal Design piece. It's been really interesting being in this space. I have gone to Calvin my whole life, but with my new lens of doing consulting with different churches and spaces around worship, I started thinking, when we stood up, can the people in the chairs back there see over the people standing in front of them? I never thought about that before. I caught somebody saying, “Rise if you're able.” Excuse me, please: Rise in body or in spirit. There are subtle ways that I've seen it demonstrated this week. There were gluten-free snacks. So we can be intentional. And I think as we learn and grow, we can just [say] OK, I learned that. When people come to my house, I ask them what food allergies they might have, or food needs. So I think within a church context, there's formal things you can do, like you can do a church survey. We have one on our website. There's lots of other options, but you can do a survey where you might send it out to everybody in your church and say, “Do you identify as having a disability? Are there any things that you would like to do that you haven't been able to do, or are there barriers in your way?” We did this at a previous church and a gentleman wrote on there that he used to lead the church in the prayers of God's people, but he had stopped because he could no longer get up the step to get to the lectern. So the whole church was missing out on his gift of prayer because of a step. So we worked and we moved a microphone down. No big deal. We can pray from anywhere, right? The better long-term solution would be to have a ramp so that we just in our space assume that people with disabilities are leaders as well. But those are just a couple of things.

John Swinton [00:46:14] Yes, a couple of things. The first thing I think is that we need to recognize that disability ministry is not something . . . for people who are interested in such things. I think that's just completely the wrong frame. And I actually think that very often churches frame it within the area of pastoral care, or maybe even ethics, but pastoral care. So “We've got to find some good ways to care for these people.” And as soon as you have that language, you have everything that comes with the language of “these people.” And my sense would be that a really important beginning point is to shift our understanding of disability away from pastoral care—everybody's pastoral care, so I don't mean we don't care for people—into discipleship. I think the most interesting and the most challenging question is how can we enable this disciple of Jesus Christ who has a vocation and a calling from God to fulfill that vocation and calling in this place? And I think that's a really challenging question, but I think it just puts it in a different frame because it's not something that is a disability ministry. It's simply discipleship, and it's discipleship that really takes seriously the idea of the body of Christ. So I think reframing our thinking of a disability in a way, something like that is helpful. And the second thing I think is to be thoughtful and to anticipate. I have a friend whose wife is a minister in the United States in a rural place, and they had a conversation recently about whether or not they should put a ramp into their church because they had nobody with a disability in the congregation, or so they thought. They came to the decision that they would build a ramp in anticipation that one day somebody might need it. And they spent a lot of money on it. I think that's just being thoughtful. It's being kind and it's anticipating those who are not already here. And so you're creating a place of belonging within which people have a space, even if they're not there. Like for me, I mean, I always use the same kind of definition of belonging. But to belong in a place is to be missed. Somebody has to miss you before you know you really belong. And I think what they were trying to do is create that space where they were kind of like missing somebody that they never met. But when that person came, they'd find a welcome. So I think these kind of things, which I think are not difficult to do; it's not difficult to be kind. Kindness is a gift of the Spirit. So it's the ability to tune in to kindness. And I think that's a beginning point.

Satrina Reid [00:49:00] That's beautiful.

LaTonya Penny [00:49:01] I would add, the language portion of it is you can have a parking space outside, you can have a ramp, you can have the little push buttons, you can have everything that allows your building to be accessible, but if your theology and your words are damaging, I'm never going to come back. I remember hearing a sermon of one of my favorite preachers, and I was actually in their pulpit in the moment and the person said—and I can't even remember what the text was—“Nobody wants a child born with a disability.” That's the sentence. And as soon as the words came out, it's like the person thought. And if I ever showed anyone the video, you can see them turn back to me like, “Uh-oh. I just said something.” And they became conscious because I was present. And now this person has decided over the last few years to do very intentional work because they saw my facial expression. And they came up to me after service—they do two services; they’re manuscript preachers. They never changed their manuscript between their 8 o’clock and their 11 o’clock. That particular Sunday they closed their door after their 8:00 service and rewrote their entire sermon. They never change their script. I know this preacher that well. And they said to me, “I never realized what I said.” And I said, “Guess what? I'm not the only mama in here. I'm just the one sitting here.” And so we have to think about the words that we say. And let us pray for poor Susie, whose daughter was born . . .  What? Let us celebrate the life of the child that was born, and let us embrace this child, and let us be servants. You see the difference of that? I think about the four carrying the mat of the one that is on the mat. It doesn’t matter who the person is on the mat, what their ability or disability is on the mat. There are four people carrying a mat. The four people approach, and Jesus is speaking, and they cannot get into the building. There are barriers, right? These four people—I like to make it more dramatic, OK? These four people look around and go, “How in the world are we going to do this?” And one of them said, “Huh. Why can’t we go up top?” So they climb up, they peel back the ceiling. OK, then it wasn't a real ceiling. It's like a couple of leaves. . . . But they're pulling back the ceiling and they go, “How are we going to do this? Let's figure out how to get a pulley system.” And like, think about the work of lowering the person to Jesus. It is not that the person on the mat is saying, “Can y’all get me to Jesus? This is what I need y’all to do.” It is not their responsibility. It is the four people around them. It is our responsibility, the ones of us who don't have to live a life where we have to consciously think about our needs all the time. It is our responsibility to begin to think about the barriers that we put in place and that the congregation puts in place that's stopping people from getting to Jesus. So what is it that you can do to make your church more accessible? Figure out how you’re going to let them get to Jesus. Figure out: If I'm the person on the mat, what do I need? If I'm the person carrying the mat, what should I do? It's not that difficult. Again, my work comes from a grandmother with a seventh-grade education who said, “Guess what? This person is your cousin and whatever they need you do.” You don't wait for them to ask you. You don't wait for them to struggle. You help. You figure out how to create space around them so they don't have to struggle. So I didn't have to wait until my grandmother got Matthew, who needed extra help, for her to decide she was going to rearrange her furniture so that there was nothing in her in the path, just in case she got a child with mobility challenges. This was seventh-grade education. You all are much smarter. Just think about what can I do to decrease the barriers in my space? What can I do so that they know they are loved, whoever they are, whatever ability or varied ability shows up. What can I do to make this space and my words more loving to all of humanity? Don't focus on whether it's a child with autism. Do we need an autism ministry? No, because if you're doing the love of Christ then you are doing it well for all people. Do you need more training? Heck, yeah. You can call one of us; we’ll come train you. But think about it in a way of how can we be more like Christ, meeting people where they are, not allowing this lowering of the mat to be a disruption, but to be a moment of embrace? Jesus doesn't go, “I was in the middle of my sermon, and y’all are just going bring this person in the middle?” No, Jesus just continues and adds this as a part of, because now this person belongs in this group. Because four people did the work. We're called to do the work and be those people who are removing the barriers so people don't have to say what they need because we see them. We want them to be at the table. We love them, we embrace them, and we want to create a space that is welcoming. And then if they need more, they have the comfort of knowing they've already prepared a place for me. But I need a little bit more and I'm safer and I feel like I belong here, that I'm willing to ask for it. The things that we may not see that are more individual.

John Swinton [00:54:59] Amen.

Satrina Reid [00:55:00] I know, I was about to say pass the plate!

LaTonya Penny [00:55:04] Y’all let a Baptist preacher up here!

Satrina Reid [00:55:07] Yes, a preacher. I love this. I love this discussion because it really is a discussion about what we would say for all of us. We all need discipleship. We all need to feel like we belong. We all need help in some ways, and we want other people to see our need, and we want other people to help us. And goodness, it's just a beautiful, beautiful way of seeing people, of seeing God's image bearers, seeing members of the body who are needed. Not just for them to belong, but for our flourishing, all of our flourishing. And so I've said that, but I want to just throw this question out, and it can be a very short answer, because I do want to get to some questions and answers. But why does all this matter? And what impact does it have on our worship? If you have anything else to add. I think we've been talking about this all throughout. But if you have anything else to add . . .

LaTonya Penny [00:56:26] I think now it matters more than ever because we're in a space and time in this world where many people don't feel like they have a place to belong. And if we don't have a place or a space, because it doesn't have to be a physical building, in which we belong, we often feel lonely and forgotten. And that impacts everyone in this room. I didn't ask you your abilities or lack of abilities or different abilities. You just want to belong. And I think as we think about how do we create communal spaces, we have to think about what it takes to feel like you are a partner in this and with this, and how do I become a part of a community and a space? I think it's just a need now because everybody keeps saying we're post-COVID; we're not. People are still dying every day. People are still getting sick every single day. As we're in this space where we are siloed and alone, we all just want a space to belong.

Satrina Reid [00:57:39] Thank you.

Lindsay Wieland Capel [00:57:41] You know, I mentioned the ADA earlier. I think it's really interesting that we have a theology that tells us that we are all made in God's image and that we are to bear each other up and that we are to do life together, and that we are to bear each other's burdens and walk with each other through difficult things and celebrate when good things happen. And we're supposed to do life together. But then the church is so far behind. We should be leading. Our theology indicates that we should be showing the world how to do this. We know what it means to be the body of Christ. But instead we're lagging behind. So I think that's really a call to the church to take action, to not dismiss things. Put in that loop system, put it in the budget. Just do it. Put the closed captioning on when you do your Zooms. Keep those meetings hybrid. Just do these things. Think intentionally. Ask for information when you don't have it about what people need. Just be intentional and make this something that you learn about and educate yourself about. I loved what you said earlier about that. Do the work so that people don't have to always be educating you or educating you and then being dismissed and being frustrated by that.

John Swinton [00:59:16] The only thing I would add is, I think in relation to worship, we need to be more open to surprise. It strikes me that one of the most worshipful moments in history was the birth of Jesus. Talk about diversity! There’s angels there, there’s cows there, there's wise men. It just seems like mayhem, and yet it's like the holiest moment where Jesus comes into the world to transform the world. And so when people say to me, well, we cannot really incorporate this person, that person, because they might be disruptive, I say, “Well, read your Bible. Change your view of holiness; you might see something quite, quite different.” So I think just being open to the possibility of surprise, which is difficult and dangerous, but actually if you're going to be the body, that's what we have to do.