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Everyone welcome, everyone included

Given the disheartening drumbeat about membership shrinkage in mainline denominations, it’s easy to miss stories about what some of our congregations are doing well.

I heard such a story earlier this year when I attended the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in Cincinnati. When I asked my friend Brian O’Connor how he’s doing after losing his personal finance columnist job at The Detroit News in late 2016 as part of the buyouts, layoffs and other cutbacks at newspapers around the country, he replied: “Well, I’ve got a special needs kid and an 89-year-old mother, so I never know what’s going to be incoming.”

But the real answer he was eager to share was that he regularly gives thanks for finding – and joining, with his wife Jodi Noding and son Casey – First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Michigan.

Brian explained that Casey is “a late talker with a language delay.” Someone suggested that some help might be available for Casey at FAR Therapeutic Arts and Recreation. That organization, it turns out, is housed at First Presbyterian, so Brian, Jodi and Casey began showing up there a few years ago, first for Casey’s therapy and eventually to check out the whole church.

“We were sort of unchurched at that point,” Brian told me. “I grew up Catholic. My wife was a member of a very conservative Presbyterian denomination. It seemed like a good idea for my son to have that kind of community and upbringing. So we started looking around and one of the things we learned was that First Presbyterian emphasizes inclusion. They call themselves ‘everybody’s church.’

“Inclusion is a really basic concept there. I work with my son in a lot of other activities, where he’s accommodated. Like school and Boy Scouts and summer camps. But accommodated is not the same as inclusion. Accommodated sort of suggests we’ll make room for you and won’t be bothered by your differences or quirks.”

I asked, “Sort of like the difference between tolerance and love?” 

“Exactly,” he said. “That’s been a very important lesson for us.”

So when Casey was ready for confirmation class, a pastor worked with him one-on-one.

Casey, like other confirmands, had to write a statement of faith. When it was done, he wasn’t required to go through the trauma of meeting with the whole session. Rather, he met with just one or two elders, Brian said, and the process worked.

“For my son,” Brian told me, “conversations are very stressful because his language is several years behind. It’s a very difficult thing for him to do.”

Cindy Merten, the congregation’s director of Christian education and All Abilities Inclusion Ministry, told me that the congregation began to move toward emphasizing inclusion some years ago when triplets with autism came to the nursery.

Later a separate Sunday school classroom for kids with disabilities was created, but “as we immersed ourselves in the disability world, we became aware that inclusion was really a better model.” Eventually, in worship, “the congregation began to get used to their noises, their behavior, their presence and acceptance grew over the years. Our goal has become inclusion in the whole life of the church and not just in a particular program.”

Soon after John Judson became pastor nine years ago, the session formally committed itself to inclusion in its mission statement.

For this open-arms approach to succeed, says John, “the church has to get used to movement, sounds and noise during the service. People, for instance, will get up and walk out of the service, sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes children will cry out, call out. This is just part of what you have to welcome.” 

When Jesus welcomed little children to his side, he didn’t say, “except those with disabilities.” First Presbyterian in Birmingham gets that. And Brian O’Connor and his family couldn’t be more grateful.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog (billtammeus.typepad.com). Read about his latest book (amzn.to/29F2bmP). Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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