“As a church have we forgotten how to go to the lengths of cutting open a roof and lowering our disabled friend in through the ceiling just so they could meet Jesus?”
In church circles we often plaster phrases like “everyone is welcome” and “come as you are” across lawn marquees and in Sunday morning bulletins. But how often do we back that language up with authentic, Christlike inclusion?
More specifically, what are some ways we fail to remove barriers and obstacles to worship for our brothers and sisters who bring disabilities (or different cultural gender experiences, role, or sexual orientation) with them into the sanctuary on Sunday morning?
Julie Clawson—herself disabled, having been born missing her left arm up to the elbow—poses some valid questions when she challenges the Church to ante up on its promise to love everyone. Because there is a gaping chasm between “tolerating” or “dealing with” people and really welcoming them unto the very throne of God to worship with people—both disabled and able—together as one.
This is a matter of compassion, but also one of justice. How can we who are able-bodied followers of Jesus allow our brothers and sisters who live with disabilities to feel left out, marginalized, or denied access?
Fortunately, Clawson’s candid and honest challenge to the Church isn’t a lone voice in the wilderness. There are many people who are calling for inclusion and access:
- Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche International movement, set out on a pilgrimage in 1970 that gave birth to Faith and Light communities of worship.
- Paul Leichty, Christine Guth and others in The Anabaptist Disabilities Network formed a Congregational Accessibility Network aimed at providing churches with resources and support to more fully welcome people with disabilities and their families.
- William Gaventa at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center works to empower pastors and community members to create better access to people with disabilities in worship and daily life.
- Tim Nafziger and Mark Van Steenwyk and their cohorts here at Young Anabaptist Radicals made an appeal to people in places of power and privilege to seek ways to become an ally of those who are marginalized, following the vision of Ann Bishop.
They are among a cloud of witnesses who are passionate about creating access and loving others, just as they are. They are calling boldly with love for justice and acceptance.
Problem is, many of us aren’t listening. Myself included.
But recently I’ve heard Clawson’s voice as a call to do something. So I worked with ADNet, Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, and others in the disabilities community to create something I hope will spur us all on in love, birthing new and stronger worship communities to provide .
Last Wednesday, Envision Access collected and amplified these and other voices for a free hour-long webinar around accessible worship for people with disabilities. Participants were able to ideas and stories shared by people like Clawson, Vanier, Leichty, Guth, Gaventa, Nafziger—as well as many others in various roles, including pastors, parents, practitioners, friends.
There was also a live chat and a panel discussion for further dialogue and resource exchange. If you missed the webinar, simply visit the Envision Access homepage to listen in, gather resources, and envision new, creative ways you can strive for access and welcome for all in your midst.
I realize this one hour didn’t—nor will it—change everything we know and do around accessibility for people with disabilities. But hopefully it will spur on the attention and creativity—and, dare I say, love—of people who are followers of Jesus, and lead to further conversation and action to create more welcoming, inclusive communities of worship.
Author’s Note: Brian Paff is a converted Anabaptist who lives and works at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Western Pennsylvania with his wife, Maria. There they are actively engaged in the life of Scottdale Mennonite Church and in the local ministry of The Table Coffee Shop, a community-oriented cafe owned and operated by Peter and Deb Haddad and Phillip Haddad.
Brian is a runner, writer, and idea-conceiver whose justice interests include (but are certainly not limited to) human rights, poverty, war and immigration. He blogs at Beyond Laurelville.