Cassie Lokker says empowering people with disabilities means inviting them not just into the church building but also into leadership roles.
Cassie Lokker has been preparing all her life for her roles at First Reformed Church in Baldwin, Wisconsin. On staff, she serves as music and worship coordinator, and as a volunteer, she is the congregation’s disability advocate.
Lokker has been singing and writing music for years. She’s performed at the state fair, plays the piano by ear, sings at coffeehouses, and recorded a CD. She also has lived with a visual disability since birth. She draws on that experience as she helps her congregation get even better at embracing and empowering people who have disabilities.
“I’m probably a more impactful person because I’ve been through the tough stuff,” she says, “and I can hopefully be a testimony in saying, ‘God has been with me, and he’s carried me through.’”
This winter, Lokker also became one of Minnesota Classis’s first regional disability advocates. (First Reformed is the only church in the classis outside of Minnesota; the town of Baldwin is closer to the Twin Cities than to other RCA churches in Wisconsin.) She and Angie Kimmel, another regional disability advocate and a member of Peace Reformed Church in Eagan, Minnesota, advise the classis on steps to better welcome and empower people with disabilities. They also consult with RCA congregations in conjunction with Disability Concerns, a joint ministry of the RCA and the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Congregational and regional disability advocates help churches engage with a range of concerns. Lokker thinks accessibility modifications are the top priority, but she says it’s also crucial to navigate subtle interpersonal issues. She finds it telling that while many churches have a ramp into their building that’s ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, fewer have one to the sanctuary platform. It’s hard, she says, to regard individuals as ministry partners—or potential leaders—if you think of them primarily as people who need your help.
She’s acutely aware, too, that “disability can be a very lonely place.”
“Unless you have lived with a disability, it’s hard to understand,” she says. “It’s okay to ask God why. He hears all, he knows all. Even Christ felt hunger and fatigue, and wept, so it’s totally okay. But it also is important to try to move forward.”
As far as Lokker knows, she’s the only young person in her church who is legally blind. But disabilities that come with advancing age are common at First Reformed. Lokker, who grew up singing at First Reformed and joined the staff after earning her master’s degree in church leadership, is pleased with its long record of investing in accessibility—most recently, an automatic door.
“I know small churches would say they can’t afford it. But there are inexpensive things you can do,” she says, such as providing large-print Sunday bulletins or even using more hospitable language during the service. For instance, when Scripture is read during services at First Reformed, people in the pews are invited to read along in their Bibles or on their tablets or phones, which is inclusive of people who need an app to make text readable.
Small steps like that can be equalizers. And for Lokker, equality for individuals with disabilities is what it’s all about.
“A person with a disability quite often just lives their life and embraces the challenges they have, just like another person does,” she says. “My life might look really difficult to you. But you might have gone through cancer or a traumatic car crash, and I might look at you and say, ‘Wow, you’re amazing!’”
Editor’s note: First Reformed Church in Baldwin, Wisconsin, is part of the Regional Synod of the Heartland. This story celebrates God’s work around the RCA.