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Sunday Worship Lacks Inclusiveness

From CRC Communications

One-third of families who have a child with a disability changed their place of worship, and some of them abandoned their faith tradition altogether, because their child was not included or welcomed, said Erik Carter, a special education professor and researcher at Vanderbilt University.

Accommodations such as large-print bulletins, wheelchair ramps, and automatic doors are helpful, but when they are not accompanied by personal gestures of welcome and hospitality, people with disabilities frequently remain outside the reach of the church, Carter recently told Disability Concerns leaders and advocates from the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA).

Carter made his remarks, largely based on his own research, at the two-day "Practicing Inclusion: In Church and Neighborhood" conference that drew about 70 Disability Concerns advocates to the annual leadership meeting for the CRC and the RCA.

At the meeting, which took place at the Prince Conference Center on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., Carter said that a significant barrier a person with a disability, or that person's family, faces when attending a church are stereotypes based in a community's fears and misunderstandings about disabilities.

"Having a disability is not a reliable predictor of someone's faith. Also, having a disability is not a reliable indicator of people's aspirations for their lives," said Carter.

Carter says his research shows that there are several other barriers that lead to this lack of inclusiveness. Barriers that have caused parents to leave a church include:

  • Architectural barriers that do not allow individuals with physical disabilities to navigate the space.
  • Communication barriers such as sight and sound limitations that curb participation.
  • Programmatic barriers that do not allow individuals with disabilities an opportunity to share their gifts and talents with the community.
  • Liturgical barriers that make it hard for people with disabilities to participate fully in the Lord's Supper and other worship activities.
  • As a result of these barriers, said Carter, people with disabilities often find themselves on the fringes of the worship experience.

But by making a few adjustments, and especially by offering Christian hospitality, said Carter, a church can easily welcome a family with a member who is disabled and make worship more inviting and meaningful for everyone.

"It really is not that hard ...It is not that much different than welcoming anyone else. People already know 90 percent of what they need to know," said Carter.

Along with presentations by Carter, the conference included short devotionals offered by persons whose lives are impacted in one way or another by a disability.

"We hold the conference so that our disability leaders and advocates can be better equipped to serve as advocates to people with a disability," said Rev. Mark Stephenson, director of the CRC's Office of Disability Concerns.

"But we also have the goal of inspiration and not just providing information."

The CRC and RCA Disability Concerns offices work closely together and function in various ways as a shared ministry.

"The RCA has focused on disability-related ministry for just a few years, so gatherings like this are instrumental in laying a strong foundation," said Rev. Terry DeYoung, coordinator for RCA Disability Concerns.

"Since RCA advocates are new to this work, it's encouraging, on so many levels, for us to build the relationships of support and encouragement that happen here."

Tom De Vries, the RCA's General Secretary, said the joint outreach is one more example of the denominations doing work together.

Especially exciting to him, he says in a prayer letter, is that the vision of unity is extending to Sunday mornings when children who have a disability are able to worship and learn alongside others.

"Disability leaders today are advocating the movement of people with disabilities – mentally, emotionally, and physically – from the margins into the mainstream," writes De Vries.

Mic Altena, a regional advocate for CRC Classis Northern Illinois, said the annual meeting reminded him of how people with disabilities can be shunted aside.

He found that "heartbreaking," but he gained "a notebook's worth of ideas to help the church embrace and welcome people with disabilities."

Cassie Lokker, a newly appointed church Advocate at First Reformed Church in Baldwin, Wisc., had never been to one of the conferences before.

She says she was "inspired by the stories and personal experiences of those who attended and was particularly blessed by the five-minute devotionals that were presented before each session."

She returned home thinking of how the mission of a church is to build relationships between all members and then to come together in service to one another.



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