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By Len and Rynie Bakelaar, Regional Advocates

 In our home, it is common to see a jigsaw puzzle scattered out on the puzzle board. While some individual pieces  may seem dull and insignificant, they are needed to make up this beautiful picture. When the puzzle is done, there are no pieces left lying around the outside of the picture; each fits perfectly into its own place. This reminds me of the church, the body of Christ. There are areas in my life where I am weak, but those are the areas where you are strong. We complement each other and overcome that weakness. I do not end up on the outside, on the margins, because of my weakness.

  In our churches, does everyone fit in, or are some pushed out to the margins because they are not needed (from our perspective) to complete the picture? Like most of us, I feel I am not racist or sexist. I certainly don't push ableism. But because of our unconscious bias, that may not always hold true. Does ableism exist in our church? Certainly, human nature leans very much in that direction. Let's take an open and thoughtful second look at how churches might practice ableism.

  When construction is planned for an apartment building, the owners don't first go and do a survey to see if they need to install an automatic door and elevator. They put them in from the start, knowing there may be people who will need them. Do we use that same thought when we make plans in our churches?

 Let's look at a few simple scenarios. A youth leader comes with lots of potato chips as a snack. What happens if someone shows up with allergies that prevent them from enjoying that snack? A teacher in the six year-old class brings a picture suitable for each of them to colour. A visiting child shows up for whom that picture is beyond their fine motor skills. The men's Bible study group decides to hold their weekly session in their homes. It's a much friendlier and cozy atmosphere than in a bare room in the church. A man in the community has some interest in checking out this group, but is certain that the home is not accessible to his wheelchair. Each of these scenarios starts with the assumption that all who attend possess a typical ability level. That is ableism; there are many such ways in our society where this is common .

   Each of them could avoid that practice by having options in place, not as an afterthought, but right from the start, at the planning stage. Make sure there is always a selection of snacks so noone is left without. Pictures to colour should be in a variety of skill levels. The men's group meets in an accessible setting where there is an accessible washroom. Like the builders of the apartment building, we start by anticipating that those with different ability levels will not only show up but fully participate.

  Churches can be a welcoming place for all but this will only happen if we plan for it. We look at the whole picture when planning for programs, events, worship, and activities. We anticipate and prepare to be a place of belonging for those with physical limitations, those who are of typical ability, those with intellectual and sensory impairments. Each of us are pieces of the whole puzzle that God has surrounded us with, and each is needed to complete the picture.

   These three scenarios also show us that including someone physically in our space is a good start, but it does not mean that they will feel they belong. Belonging is relational, knowing you are wanted and needed. The circle is only complete when all are there. It also shows that being treated equally is not always correct. We may all receive the same assignment, but it is not equitable if it is well beyond someone's skill level.  

  You can learn more about practicing hospitality that looks to the heart of each person. This acknowledges that we want to go beyond inclusion to a place of belonging. That equity, not equality, shows the heart of a welcoming church. Check out this website to follow interesting stories and helpful resources. Or, read the easy-to follow manual, "Everybody Belongs, Serving Together."                                                                  

We trust and pray that our churches will strive to be places where "Everybody Belongs and Everybody serves."


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