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From August 5 to 6, Disability Concerns hosted its first-ever completely online leadership training event. In past years, this leadership training event has brought together CRC and RCA disability advocates for a few days of networking, connection, and training. This year, due to the pandemic, a new way of delivering this training was required. While many of our meetings do happen via Zoom because our regions are widespread, they are not significantly large in numbers. Planning for a much larger event with multiple speakers and a worship session was an entirely different conversation!

As we started to plan for this event, we realized that hosting an event online has some great advantages. We were able to invite more people because it was hosted online—for free! We extended the invitation to everyone connected to our community this year. Advocates for whom travel limits their ability to attend were able to join! Another advantage of going online was the capacity to record all the speakers. If you were unable to attend on the 5th and 6th, or simply want to revisit some of the conversations we had over those two days, all recordings will be available online very soon. 

Here's a look back at the event: 

As we began each day, we were led in worship by Vinnie Adams and Kyle Crist—and a host of others from all over the United States. This was an extremely moving portion of the event as people of all abilities shared in the worship, and we were able to witness a wide variety of ways in which we can praise God. While we have all been isolated throughout this season, to see so many people coming together virtually in worship reminded us that we have so much we can still be thankful for. It was beautiful to see and hear participants singing words to much loved songs and verses that we cling to as we journey through this time.

Day 1: August 5, 2020

Carlos Thompson was the keynote speaker the first day. Carlos is the Friendship House community director and assistant professor of Church and Community Theology at Western Theological Seminary. For his conversation on agility, he and his wife, Charis Thompson, opened the talk sharing an encounter with a stranger who offered to pray for Carlos solely because he has a visible disability. Their family had recently suffered a significant loss, and therefore the conversation on the need to be agile in life was especially poignant for them. Participants noted that they appreciated the strong relationship between husband and wife and their ability to share about their life as a couple.

In the afternoon the conversation was focused on agility from a lived experience. Terry DeYoung moderated the conversation with panelists Andrea Godwin-Stremler, Michèle Gyselinck, Dan Vander Plaats, Amie Spriesma, and Mana Hashimoto. All shared their own experience of living with agility as it related to their own disability. This conversation gave room for all participants to consider where they have had to be agile to work with the challenges they have confronted in life and what they have learned from the process. (All bios of speakers and panelists are available on the 2020 Leadership Training Event webpage.)

Day 2: August 6, 2020

On day two, Vinnie Adams and Dan Vander Plaats were the featured speakers. Dan Vander Plaats is the author of the 5 Stages of Disability Attitudes and director of advancement of Elim Christian Services. Vinnie is the Special Needs Ministry Director at Faith Church. They focused on the fifth stage: co-laborer. As a community, we are all co-laborers. What does this mean in the life of a church? How are we to be agile when thinking about ways in which we can make sure that we are all participating in the life and ministry of our churches?

In the afternoon, Neil Cudney led the discussion on practical applications of agility in church life. Neil was with Christian Horizons for nearly 20 years and is now a coach, mentor, and speaker in the field of disability theology. Panelists Eric Peterson, Al Gelder, Doug McClintic, Joyce Borger, and Kelli Sexton shared examples from their own ministries of creating spaces for all of us to co-labor in the kingdom of God. Participants were encouraged to consider their own worshipping communities. What could they dream of to expand the vision of co-laborers within their community? (All bios of speakers and panelists are available on the 2020 Leadership Training Event webpage.)

At the end of the two-day conference, the question was given to the participants: How do you define agility?

We received a number of excellent responses, of which we offer these:

  • The need to be agile seems to be so prevalent these days. Part of being agile is letting go of my plans/ideas and continually looking at plan B, C, D... Because of some changes in our personal circumstances, I feel I need to be agile in looking at the future - it may turn out completely different than expected. This also draws me closer to God as I’m reminded that He holds the world in His hands, including my little part. Hold onto things with a looser grip.

  • We never arrive. Arrival is a mirage. Don't "settle" for the "means." What can we do that will help us be more welcoming and inclusive?

  • To be versatile in all things. Inclusive in our words, questions, goals, allow for mistakes, make efforts to allow everyone to serve for the end goal is serving God and his Kingdom.

  • To be able to include everyone in the body of Christ not just as a person who sits in the church but as a co-minister within it. For churches to be willing to make someone else's barrier one that the whole church has to overcome. As a person with disabilities to do as much as I can within and outside the church.

Len and Rynie Bakelaar, Regional Advocates for CRC Classis Huron, shared these final thoughts about the conference in a newsletter to their church advocates: 

Over the two days (three hours per day), agility took on a new meaning. As one speaker noted, “You have to get out of the box.” If you want to participate and want to feel like you belong, you have to act.

Not only do people with disabilities need to be agile in order to fit into today’s complex world, but our churches also need to be agile in order for the variety of people to fit into it. How agile is your church? Is it willing to get out of the box? Is it ready to move from “this is how we have always done it” to creating, re-tooling its architecture, its programs, and its attitude so that all of God’s people, regardless of abilities, race, gender, and culture will feel that this is a place where they truly belong? This time of COVID-19 is when churches are reimagining how to best serve and connect with their members and the community. It’s like turning over a new page. What a great opportunity for Church Disability Advocates to get in on the ground floor in this new chapter in the life of the church and strive for that “Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves."

Another part of the conversation that struck us was that being a Church Advocate was not in itself the end. Doing this work is great and a very much needed task; but like all programs (youth, Friendship Ministry, etc.), it is only the means. It’s a roadway to the goal or the end, which is to have all those who follow Jesus to be co-laborers with all of God’s people in living out their lives and proclaiming the message of the gospel. Can you imagine how diverse that same message would be if all God’s children would be encouraged to present it in a way that they are able to? Remember that those who are different are not deficient. They just add another wonderful element in expressing God’s amazing grace. We have an opportunity to give voice (no pun intended) to those who have not been heard.  

As we look towards the fall, we will continue this conversation during Disability Awareness Week October 11–18. (RCA encourages churches to celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday on October 11 and the CRC on October 18.) We encourage you to join in this very meaningful conversation with your church.


The 5 Stages of Disability Attitudes (multiple translations available)

Please visit our 2020 Leadership Training Event webpage for the bios of all the speakers/panelists, as well as additional resources.

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It was a helpful event for disability advocates and I'm glad I could attend virtually...thanks again to the organizers and speakers!!

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