Sharon, a member of our church, asked me what I do for a living. I told her that I help churches learn how to include people with disabilities in their life and ministry.
Her eyes brightened, and she asked me how.
I eagerly told her a few ideas, but there was more to say. So for Sharon and for all who want their church to be a healthy, vibrant community where everybody belongs and everybody serves, here are some ideas.
Start with kindness. Few people intend to be unkind. But many people with disabilities experience unkindness. Even in church. Our daughter Nicole is non-verbal, but she knows when she is being treated kindly, and when she is ignored. Inclusion begins with a relationship, with recognizing the image of God in every person. When we are kind to others, we are kind to God. Greet people with disabilities warmly, including people who cannot respond with words. Ask the person using a walker how you might help. Greet the woman with a cognitive impairment, and use her name. Ask the mother of an autistic son what life is like; then really listen.
Make easier changes first. Instead of saying, "Please stand," during a worship service, worship leaders should use a more inclusive phrase like, "Please rise in body or in spirit." This phrase includes all members of the congregation, whereas "Please stand," does not. Provide large print bulletins for people with visual impairments. Distribute print copies of lyrics displayed on the overhead screen for people who cannot stand. Build a ramp to the foyer and make a pew cut-out for wheelchairs. Later, install a fully accessible unisex bathroom.
Acknowledge differences. Offer grape juice and gluten-free bread for those who need these alternatives to wine and regular bread at communion. Stop wearing perfume and aftershave to church so that people who have allergies can breathe freely while they worship.
Find a gift and unleash it. The old church growth saying was, “Find a need and fill it.” This approach patronized people in need by assuming that they had nothing to give. God gives spiritual gifts to all his children, including people with disabilities. Churches that invite everyone to share their gifts for ministry find God’s grace flowing in new and wonderful ways.
Dig deeper. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) In healthy church life, the further a congregation walks down the road of including all members, the greater the cost and the more difficult the process. Real friendship, and not just foyer fellowship, takes work—especially, say, with the developmentally delayed young woman who dominates every conversation. Listening to the mother whose son has autism takes energy, but finding ways to help her family with the challenges they face takes long-term commitment. Visiting a young man from your church who has schizophrenia means overcoming your own fears about what to say and do.
As congregations dig to this deeper level of inclusion, Disability Concerns stands ready to help with a network of hundreds of volunteers, with various print and Internet resources, and with a variety of workshops and conferences offered across North America.
Discover the joy. God doesn’t make mistakes. “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them just as he wanted them to be.” (1 Corinthians 12:18) As we fully include all whom God has brought into the congregation, our joy is made complete, and our ministry is made whole.
This article appeared in slightly different form in Breaking Barriers, Issue 75, Fall 2007. Used by permission.