When I dream about the church as a welcoming community of God, I picture a church that fully engages people with disabilities in its life and ministry. Some churches have made this a reality, but most are still on the road. In fact, many people with disabilities and their families are staying away from church even though they would like to be involved. Studies show that a smaller percentage of people with disabilities attend church than one would expect based on their numbers in the general population. (About 20 percent of the population lives with a disability such as an intellectual disability, mental illness, visual or hearing impairment, physical disability, or chronic illness.)
Chelwood Christian Reformed Church in Albuquerque has done exceptionally well at including people with intellectual disabilities, so well that this is a significant part of their outreach ministry. A typical congregation has about one member who has an intellectual disability out of every hundred people in the congregation, but at Chelwood the ratio is one to eight!
Furthermore, Chelwood has a mix of Latino, Native American, and white members. Recently, I talked by phone with two of Chelwood’s members to learn how this remarkable congregation became such a hospitable community. Here are some characteristics I heard about.
A man named Mark first started attending Chelwood about 25 years ago with his parents, because he became involved in the Friendship group that met there. Since that time, Mark’s parents have both passed away and the Friendship group no longer exists, but Mark has become an active member at Chelwood. He received a loving welcome from other members of the congregation; so loving, in fact, that he invited fellow members of his group home to become involved. Some did, and they invited their friends and family members who in turn invited other friends and family members. Some did not stay, but others found a church family in Chelwood.
Responsive to the Spirit's Leading
Recently, Chelwood began a new Friendship group that meets twice a month on Sunday evenings. Some of their members who have intellectual disabilities opt to attend the Friendship group; others are more comfortable in the adult class. Member Sherry TenClay explained, "We added the Sunday evening times in response to [the question] 'Where is God working, and how can we join that work?'"
Too often, congregation leaders assume that someone who lives with a disability, especially an intellectual disability, has nothing to offer. At Chelwood, members with intellectual disabilities contribute to the congregational life alongside nondisabled members in ministries such as receiving the offering, leading various aspects of the worship service, greeting, and leading Bible studies.
Healthy churches provide training for members so that they can succeed in ministry. At Chelwood, members with and without disabilities get training before they serve in ministry and receiving ongoing support in their ministry work. In addition, several members with a background in special education have helped the congregation understand how to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.
Many people with disabilities, especially people with intellectual disabilities, cannot drive. Chelwood’s members who can drive provide transportation to anyone who wants to participate in church events.
Engagement with Group Homes
Chelwood has made strong connections with residents and staff at the group homes where several of their members live.
Transforming culture and attitude takes time. At Chelwood a gradual transformation has taken place as people with intellectual disabilities have served in prominent roles within ministry. Anyone who has come to call Chelwood their church home in the past 10 or 15 years knows that Chelwood embraces a diversity of people in its life and ministry.
A Winsome Personality
Both people that I talked to before writing this blog expressed admiration and appreciation for Mark’s winsome personality. Dick Weeda told me, “We minister to Mark, and Mark ministers to us in the way he draws people around him and takes interest in people.”
Sadly, other congregations have turned away people like Mark and missed out on the blessing God had intended for them. I hope and pray that more congregations will become welcoming communities like Chelwood. If you are in Albuquerque, be sure to visit there some Sunday. I’m certain you’ll be blessed.