The television commercials were disturbing. Images showed congregants at traditionallooking churches barring or even physically ejecting members of racial and ethnic minorities, gay couples, and people with disabilities. One tag line read, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” This national ad campaign, which aired in 2004, was sponsored by the United Church of Christ and was designed to attract new members. “We included people with physical disabilities in these commercials—in a wheelchair or with a walker—as an extension of the call and hope that churches would be intentionally inclusive of ‘all the people,’” said the Reverend Gregg Brekke, a spokesman for the denomination.
Instead, the imagery provoked grumbling from some denominations because of its implied criticism of other faith traditions. Yet the criticism held more than a grain of truth. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are places where people with disabilities might not expect to feel excluded, isolated, or patronized, but that has often been the norm. For years congregations have effectively excluded people with disabilities from worship—whether by steps and narrow doorways or by straitened attitudes—or segregated them in “special” services.
The U.S. Census in 2000 counted 54 million persons with disabilities—one in six Americans—and that number is growing. Wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, including men and women with amputations, traumatic brain injuries, and posttraumatic stress disorder, are swelling this population. Thanks to dramatic technological advances and improvements in neonatal care, formerly atrisk infants with severe and multiple disabilities now survive into adulthood. With the aid of breathing and feeding technologies and adaptive devices such as electronically operated prosthetics and speechsynthesizing computers, they are able to navigate and communicate. And the huge baby boom generation will soon be aging into infirmity, with attendant challenges of disabilities in hearing, vision, mobility, and cognition.
Members of all these groups want to pray at houses of worship. Yet a 2010 survey by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability found that people with disabilities are less likely to attend religious services at least once a month than are people without disabilities, by a 50 percent to 57 percent margin. The greater the disability, the less likely a person is to participate.
People with disabilities “can attend school, hold down jobs, and turn the key in the door of their own apartments,” wrote Erin R. DuBois in The Mennonite magazine. “They have won the legal battle for inclusion, but by the time they land in the pew at church, they may be too exhausted to fight for something more precious than their rights. Friendship is a gift the law can never guarantee to people with developmental disabilities. Churches across the United States, however, are reaping the rewards of building genuine relationships with those in their midst who are epitomized not by their disabilities but by their rare abilities to deepen the congregation’s spiritual life.”
The prophets, great thinkers, and scriptures of most faiths mandate, at least in spirit, the inclusion of everyone. For most of us, practices of faith can play a significant role in enriching the lives of people with disabilities and their families, friends, caregivers, and faith communities. But how far can—or should—modern religious congregations go to accommodate people with physical or intellectual disabilities?
Even congregations with the best of intentions can face challenges to fully embracing accessibility and inclusion. Seniors and people with disabilities can remind others uncomfortably of life’s fragility and of death. People with emotional and intellectual disabilities can distract other worshipers during solemn moments. Religious people generally want to be sincere, welcoming, and open, but like everyone else, they often lack the experience to respond in the right way. Yet as Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, put it, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”
To be sure, money is an issue, especially for small, cashpoor congregations. More than half the religious congregations in North America, many of them in small towns and rural areas, have fewer than one hundred members, which limits their ability to adapt their buildings for handicapped accessibility. Building a ramp out of plywood is one thing; installing an elevator is quite another.
“When it comes to spending for architectural accessibility, there is sometimes reluctance on the part of finance committees,” said Rabbi Lynne F. Landsberg, who herself suffered traumatic brain injury as the result of a traffic accident. Yet changing people’s attitudes, implementing programs, and making modest accommodations—as opposed to major changes in architecture and additions of paid staff—can be relatively inexpensive, even for smaller congregations.
Nationally, many denominations—and more recently, nondenominational evangelical groups, who view this as a mission—now have ministries and task forces that offer advice and educational curriculums for people with disabilities, as does the Interfaith Initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). These programs are often offered for free online or at a small cost for materials and are designed for volunteer leaders, teachers, and ordained clergy.
Potential benefits—often unintended and unforeseen—await congregations that are willing to invest in architecture and attitudes in order to become more accessible and welcoming. Mainline congregations with declining memberships, for example, have much to gain by making their sanctuaries, social halls, meeting rooms, and rest rooms accessible to all people with disabilities. Elevators and ramps benefit, among others, mothers with strollers and seniors who use canes, walkers, or wheelchairs and long to participate and contribute. More families with disabled members would attend religious services, experts say, if congregations made efforts to open their buildings and programs to them. Older people are more likely to attend services than the young, and they are faithful donors. Communities that adapt to the world of disability are more likely to survive and grow; those that do not will lose out.
The good news is that some churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are already welcoming people with disabilities and getting ready for the coming influx of wounded vets and creaky boomers. They are tapping technology and simple thoughtfulness to reach out in creative ways to this faith-hungry community:
- At Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Norfolk, Virginia, priest Joe Metzger instructs an elevenyearold autistic girl in an empty sanctuary, wearing his vestments, so she’ll feel at ease when she makes her first Communion.
- At Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota, no sanctuary steps lead to the pulpit. Congregants approach it using a long ramp, symbolizing that all people come to the Torah equally. Similarly, when Temple Adath Israel in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, left its old building, the congregation built a new, accessible synagogue with a curved sanctuary and ramps on either side of the bimah—the platform from which the scriptures are read—which look like embracing arms.
- At St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Exton, Pennsylvania, adult members with Down syndrome serve as altar servers, greeters, and Sunday morning ushers.
As these examples suggest, it takes more than just automatic door openers, largeprint Bibles, and improved signage to make a congregation disability friendly. In recent years, many Christian and Jewish denominations have also established—sometimes under pressure—national outreach networks, which often are online resource centers, to make their congregations accessible. Through groups such as Joni Eareckson Tada’s Joni and Friends Disability Center, evangelical churches have become increasingly involved in such efforts.
Although pastoral leadership can be critical, making faith communities welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities should not be a mission that falls mainly on the shoulders of clergy or other advocates. It is largely a matter of attitude on the part of lay people in the pews, on folding chairs, and kneeling on the carpet. Making your congregation welcoming and accessible can be done because it has been done—somewhere, by people just like you.
“Of all the barriers to full participation and inclusion, the barrier of unexamined attitudes is the most difficult to address,” said Ginny Thornburgh, director of the AAPD Interfaith Initiative. The initiative’s goal, she said, is “to bring the powerful and prophetic voice of the faith community to the twentyfirstcentury disability agenda” and to involve all religious communities. “There are no barriers to God’s love,” she said. “There should be no barriers in God’s house.”
Faith is a powerful thing, and children and adults with disabilities—regardless of how profound—benefit from expressing it and being part of a community of family, friends, and fellow believers who share it in worship.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Excerpted and adapted from Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion by Mark I. Pinsky copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion
by Mark I. Pinsky
Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion is a new publication by noted religion writer Mark I. Pinsky. Pinsky has gathered stories from churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples across the country, "stories of people with disabilities and the congregations where they have found welcome." He has taken special care to include the widest range of disabilities, including non-apparent disabilities like lupus, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, depression, and mental illness.
God's Tapestry: Understanding and Celebrating Differences
by William M. Kondrath
Theologically and ecologically, differences foster life and growth, but discord within denominations and congregations frequently has to do with the inability of individuals and groups to deeply understand and value differences. In God's Tapestry, Kondrath shows us how to embrace our true multiculturalism. He demonstrates a threefold process for becoming multicultural: recognizing our differences; understanding those differences and their significance and consequences; and valuing and celebrating those differences.
Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation
by Anne Sutherland Howard
In Claiming the Beatitudes, Anne Sutherland Howard asks the questions, "What would the beatitudes look like today?" and "Is it possible to live a beatitudes life in today's world?" Through nine remarkable stories of ordinary people, we are introduced to a world where the beatitudes are not an unreachable moral standard, but a simple set of guidelines by which we should live our lives.
Living Our Story: Narrative Leadesrhip and Congregational Culture
Larry A. Golemon, Editor
Living Our Story explores how good narrative work—the retrieval, construction, and performance of valued stories—takes place in ministry. Eight chapters examine this question from a variety of perspectives, including the role of the pastor or rabbi as narrative leader, the sacred and mundane stories that shape congregational life and identity, storytelling as a means of community building, and story sharing as a practice of hospitality.
Lending Your Leadership: How Pastors Are Redefining Their Role in Community Life
by Nelson Granade
Drawing on his own and other pastors' work as community leaders, Granade shows that clergy possess invaluable resources for working with people, are trained to look for God's bigger view and patient working, and understand that asking the right questions is as important as finding the right answers. He offers numerous models for clergy involvement in their broader communities and encourages clergy to reclaim their unique leadership role.
Finishing Strong, Ending Well: Crafting the Culminating Chapter of Your Ministry
Are you moving into the final phase of your active ministry within the next two to ten years? Then this seminar is for you.
Act Now! Save $35 on Early Bird Registration through January 24, 2012
Join Larry Peers as he helps you reshape and rejuvinate your ministry for this Culminating Chapter.
Holy Familiy Retreat Center, West Hartford, CT
April 24-26, 2012
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