Welcome to First Church, Everyone!
by Mark Stephenson, Director of Christian Reformed Disability Concerns
The expression on her father-in-law's face one Sunday morning haunted Mary Kalmink for years afterward. The Kalminks' daughter, Katie, made profession of faith in 1993 at First Christian Reformed Church of Detroit, and Grandpa and Grandma Kalmink came to celebrate. Mary explains, "Dad was in a wheelchair, so he had to be carried up the stairs. I will never forget the look in his eyes; he was terrified of falling and humiliated at being so helpless."
That event, and others like it, motivated First Church to make their beautiful old facility accessible. They needed much more than a ramp. An audit done by an architect found that the church, classrooms, and attached school had twelve different levels.
After a great deal of work planning, soliciting bids, voting, pledging, and fulfilling pledges, construction began. It stretched out much longer than anticipated--nearly two years. But it was worth it.
The congregation undertook this work because faithful members of the congregation could not come to worship or fellowship events. They could not enter or move about the building, nor could they use the bathrooms. That all changed with the renovation. People who had not come to First Church in years worshiped there again.
The new accessibility helped others too. Shortly after the elevator was operational, several younger members needed it. Two of them, both choir members, broke their legs at about the same time. They would have been sorely missed in this small congregation, but an elevator ride made it possible for them to sing with the rest of the choir.
The congregation received added benefits. The former fellowship room became a new hub for ministry as the children's annex. The space in the attached school, now used during the week as a day care/early learning center, became accessible as well. This change allowed a brand-new, much more hospitable building entrance than the old one, with new accessible bathrooms close by.
The day after members of First Church voted in favor of proceeding with the renovation, First's former pastor, Mark Van't Hof, encouraged the congregation with an email message: "This is good work that we are undertaking. Pretty soon we will be able to say, even to those in wheelchairs, 'Welcome to First Church!'" Sadly, Van't Hof did not get to see the beautiful finished product because he passed away suddenly in 2008, but his prediction came true. First dedicated their newly accessible facility to God in May. Now they can indeed say to everyone, including people who use wheelchairs and walkers, "Welcome to First Church!"