The sign outside many churches reads “All are welcome.” Doesn’t that go without saying? Jesus welcomed all: the stranger, the poor, the weak, the marginalized.
When Jim and Ann stopped by the church I serve one afternoon, they came to see if we were serious about welcoming and including their fourth-grade son, Aidan, in our church. Aidan has autism, and they were looking for a place where he could participate with his peers and make connections at church. They had been searching for a church home, and none “felt right.” One church had a “quiet room” where children with disabilities were isolated, which felt alienating. Elsewhere, when Aidan made noises in worship they felt the turned heads and stares.
This is not an uncommon story. A pastor from another denomination called and explained that particular church wasn’t “equipped” to handle a new family. She told them to try us out because she knew of our ministry. According to Erik Carter, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University, 32 percent of parents changed their place of worship because their child with disabilities was not included or welcomed.
Children’s programs are often an entry point for families. If a child is not welcomed and fully embraced with all the child’s uniqueness, then the whole family feels unwelcomed and will go somewhere else, or maybe nowhere. When a family arrives with a child with disabilities, they may come with a history of being turned away from other churches. Hurtful as this may sound, it happens frequently when a child has behaviors that don’t easily fit into a traditional classroom or worship setting.
Often, we think we need to launch new programs and ministries before we can talk about inclusion, but belonging begins with relationships — one person, one family at a time. Willingness is far more important than having specialists or experts. We need to take seriously the apostle Paul’s call to value the whole body of Christ in all its fullness.
From welcome to belonging
While a warm welcome in the whole life of the church is essential, it’s merely a beginning. The challenge is to move from welcome to belonging. According to Carter, “we foster belonging through relationships, not through programs.” Carter’s research is based on a multiyear study that included nearly 500 young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, and out of that he suggests 10 dimensions that help foster a sense of belonging in faith communities among all people: to be present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, supported, cared for, befriended, needed and loved. These elements are essential for all of us. So how do we welcome people of all ages and abilities in the whole life of our faith community and beyond?
If you think your church doesn’t have people with disabilities, you may be surprised to learn there are 60 million Americans with disabilities, roughly 19 percent of any community, and most are conspicuous by their absence in our congregations. While churches often proclaim they welcome everyone, physical inaccessibility and attitudinal barriers cause us to miss the mark of true hospitality.
Present and invited
Partnering with local agencies and care providers is one way to intentionally invite people with disabilities to cross the threshold of your church. According to Carter’s research, 52 percent of adults with an intellectual disability don’t attend a faith community.
Kevin came to us through a partnership with Angel’s Place, a local nonprofit provider that offers “homes for life for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” He was introduced to our church through our twice-monthly Rejoicing Spirits services (rejoicingspirits.org/about-us), a “no-shush” worship experience that affirms the gifts of all people and is followed by a community meal. However, Kevin soon began attending all our Sunday services, and serving as an usher. He is very proud of his official usher nametag worn by all our ushers. He enjoys being responsible for lighting the candles at the beginning of worship and extinguishing them at the end. This central role provides an opportunity for Kevin to meet and greet new people in both service settings.
- Provide transportation on Sundays and for events through the week.
- Offer social events that bring all people together and specifically invite them. (We have hosted picnics, ice cream socials, Bingo nights, holiday events and concerts.)
Clayton is known for his joyful (and not-so-joyful) noises in various settings. Born healthy, Clayton contracted spinal meningitis in the hospital leaving him with multiple disabilities. One Sunday morning he repeatedly called out, “You gotta have patience,” prompting some to say it was the sermon of the day. His twin brother explains that Clayton is excited to be with us, and it’s his way of praising God. His mother, Sara, shares how when the kids were very young, another family would stop by on Sunday mornings and help her get her three children into the church, physically taking Clayton’s brothers in ahead of her and caring for them until she managed to get Clayton settled. It was the ordinary gesture of helpfulness that spoke “welcome” to her.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for cultivating a culture of belonging. What may begin as a children’s ministry must be embraced by the whole congregation, and especially its leadership. It cannot be a ministry of a few people, although that’s how it may begin. It takes a whole church to truly welcome, include and embrace the gifts of all people.
Taking this seriously, our session created a mission statement that says: “As Everybody’s Church we commit ourselves to following Jesus by cultivating, mission, inclusion and community.” We are known as “Everybody’s Church” not because we think we are the only church, but because “we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the full participation of all people of any ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.” This is regularly proclaimed in worship, posted on our walls and website and guides our decisions.
- Re-brand written and digital materials to make it clear that all really are welcome.
- Offer large-print bulletins, a hearing loop and noise-canceling headphones.
- Train ushers, greeters and the whole congregation in disability etiquette, person first language (which focuses on the person rather than the disability) and disability awareness.
Known and accepted
Kevin is known for his friendly and welcoming personality. He keeps us all informed about upcoming events in the community with texts and verbal reminders. He lets us know about his transportation needs, reminds us about the changes in daylight saving time and loves encountering his church friends in the wider community. When we hold new member gatherings, he is there to tell prospective members all about the church. He has a network of people he calls on to help him with transportation and who accept, support and care for him. “My week is better when I come to church,” he frequently tells others.
- Hold inclusion awareness events or observe our denominational Access Sunday (May 26 in 2019) or any Sunday it works into the schedule. Worship resources and articles are available at:presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/pdc.
- Network with area churches and host speakers on disability inclusion.
Supported and cared for
When families arrive with children with disabilities, sometimes they are obvious, but not always. On our Sunday school registration forms we ask questions of all parents to help us identify ways we can best support each child. We invite each family desiring support of any kind to have a conversation with either our associate pastor for congregational care and inclusion or our director of Christian education and inclusion ministries. Once a year we meet with parents who identify specific needs to develop a spiritual/educational plan for their children.
On Sunday mornings volunteers serve as designated buddies to support our children in worship and the classroom. A key ingredient is the input of the parents who provide us with the child’s interests, strengths, challenges, triggers, calming techniques and more. A card with the pertinent information is placed in a bag for the volunteer’s use. It is helpful if the educational program is interactive and engages different learning styles and multiple intelligences. We use the workshop rotation model, which is adaptable for all ages and stages of development.
On several occasions we have had young people with disabilities volunteer for leadership roles who have been supported by a job coach, a person who guides and mentors them. Vacation Bible school is one setting where this worked well. Tory, a teen with developmental disabilities and a love of music, assisted in our music room passing out instruments and enthusiastically participating with the children who found her enthusiasm contagious. Others of all abilities have served as helpers with their peers in the art room or making and serving snacks.
The conversation around individuals with developmental disabilities sometimes centers on what they can understand. But Jesus didn’t say, “Come to me if you can verbalize your faith,” or “Come to the table only if you understand its full meaning.” Each young person who has participated in our confirmation process does so in an individualized way. You can see videos of the faith statements of some of our confirmands on our church website at: fpcbirmingham.org/disability-inclusion-resources.html.
- Ask parents how you can support their child in religious education and develop a plan together.
- Whenever possible use peers to support children and youth rather than adults.
- Offer respite events such as a movie night staffed by volunteers and church staff.
- Notice when people are missing and communicate with them.
When we get to know individuals well we learn to recognize the gifts they have to offer and can affirm them. Too often we focus on a person’s disabilities instead of acknowledging and celebrating their unique gifts.
Terry and Marcie are active, contributing members of the church who happen to be visually impaired. Each Sunday Terry stands in the hallway outside the sanctuary greeting those arriving for worship. Terry, who is a commissioned ruling elder, not only greets people but gets to know them as he checks in about their families and their lives. Marcie sings in the choir and both are active in our Rejoicing Spirits ministry.
Terry recently related his experience of first coming to the church and told of a time when he arrived early for an event and he and Marcie were asked to fill pitchers with water and ice. As he tells it, they were “given a task that allowed them to contribute.” He related that in another setting, leaders busily rushed past them without any acknowledgment or thought that they could be helpful. We need to remember not only to ask how the individual wants to participate, but then to follow up on making it happen.
Our congregation recently hosted more than 40 homeless adults and children in our building for a week. Our youth assisted with meals in the evenings, and Claudine, one of our middle schoolers who has Down Syndrome, was among them. Claudine loves to help, and several nights she worked closely with Ginny who oversaw the meals. As a result, Ginny and Claudine struck up a new and special friendship. Claudine can frequently be found serving and helping others.
Mission projects are a great way to include people of all ages and abilities in reaching out together. We have a team of women with developmental disabilities who love to help pack food baskets around Thanksgiving and school bags in the fall, and they are among our most faithful volunteers.
- Provide intergenerational mission opportunities where everyone can work together.
- Ask how an individual wants to serve and provide options.
- Provide opportunities for individuals to help in worship and beyond. Possibilities might include recycling bulletins, filling water glasses for the pastors, picking up used communion cups, lighting and/or extinguishing candles, greeting and passing out bulletins.
Befriended and loved
Nicholas has been with us since he was a preschooler, and he happens to have autism. He has taught us much, transformed our congregation and is a vital part of our community. A regular attender, Nicholas looks forward to coming to church. One Sunday morning while in elementary school, he started a ritual that lasted for several years. He rushed from the back of the sanctuary to find Marge, an older woman who always wore her hair in a bun with a shiny metallic hair accessory. He threw his arms around her and gave her the most enthusiastic hug one could imagine. No one knew how or why the connection was made, only that it was a very special one that both Nicholas and Marge cherished until the time came when she moved away.
For Nicholas and others ritual and routine are important. When he was younger we used visual schedules and numbered the things that happened in the service before he left worship to go to Sunday school. Transitioning to middle school took careful planning and time.
One Sunday a few years ago, Joanne, our associate pastor for congregational care and inclusion, was standing next to Nicholas, as she often did, and it came time to sing the opening hymn. Usually his mother would help Nicholas follow the words in the hymnal. He would move his lips, but he didn’t sing. On this Sunday Joanne told him she wanted to hear his voice, and he sang for the very first time. His mother commented afterwards that she had never asked him to sing. Joanne claims that she doesn’t sing well and says that Nicholas gave her the gift of joy in singing together.
Nicholas continues to teach us that God uses everyone’s gifts. During his confirmation year the confirmands were asked to serve in the church, so he regularly collected the bulletins for recycling following the service and helped pick up communion cups following our communion celebrations. He has continued to contribute in these ways, which is a significant help to the Sunday morning ushers.
- Provide spiritual care and counseling as needed.
- Share positive news with parents and caregivers.
- Invite people with disabilities or parents of children with disabilities to tell their stories for those in the congregation.
- Host a community conversation and show a screening of “Intelligent Lives” (intelligentlives.org) followed by a panel discussion on inclusion.
To move from welcome to belonging, we need to listen and hear the stories of the people in our congregations. It is in our stories that we learn to know, accept, care and love one another. It’s easy to treat our visitors and members like mission projects rather than care for them as though they belong to our faith family. Families are messy and so is the church. Families are challenging, quirky, funny, incredibly loving and worth every bit of attention we give them. We need to share our stories and experiences, and let them transform us and our churches.
Cindy Merten serves as director of Christian education and All Abilities Inclusion Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Michigan, and is an associate certified Christian educator in the PC(USA).
Erik Carter’s “10 Dimensions of Belonging”
“Disability and Spirituality: Recovering Wholeness” by William C. Gaventa
Presbyterians for Disability Concerns (PDC): Resources for Inclusion Sunday
Welcoming People with Developmental Disabilities and Their Families: A Practical Guide for Congregationsby Courtney E. Taylor, Erik W. Carter, Naomi H. Annandale, Thomas L. Boehm and Aimee K. Logeman