When Kyle Crist, a man with cerebral palsy, took a job at Walmart, a new mission field opened up. RCA Today talked with Kyle about community outreach, disability ministry, and what he learned about people from greeting them at the doors of a big-box store.
Kyle Crist is the director of congregational care for Rejoice! Community Church (RCA) in Le Mars, Iowa, where he leads small groups, offers pastoral counseling, and cares for the congregation through visits and conversations. He also serves as a disability advocate in his church.
When Kyle and his wife, Jess, moved to Iowa, he began to look for employment to supplement their income as he also worked on earning a master’s degree in professional school counseling. As a person with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair, the search wasn’t easy. “Who hires a guy with a disability?” he says. “It comes with so many logistical challenges.”
But when Kyle took a job at Walmart, a new mission field opened up—one that had ties to his future work in the church. RCA Today talked with Kyle about community outreach, disability ministry, and what he learned about people from greeting them at the doors of a big-box store.
Did you ever see yourself working at Walmart? How did the job challenge or educate you?
My family joked with me that I should work as a Walmart greeter one day. Walmart is known for hiring people with disabilities. This is fantastic, but—as their and others’ joking indicates—a negative stigma comes with working there, particularly after having an undergraduate degree and working on a master’s [degree]. However, working at Walmart taught me to appreciate the workers as people. They worked there—just like me—to provide for their families, to achieve goals, or to get them to their next step, disability or not. I think every pastor in the RCA should take a two-week sabbatical to volunteer as a greeter at their local store. I met most of the community—who doesn’t shop at Walmart in small-town Iowa?
How did your experience at Walmart shape your thoughts on outreach?
I found it incredibly important to know something about everyone there—employees, customers, pop vendors. Then I had a starting point for conversation. You use that information to know what the best way to love a person is. This led to an easier transition to an invitation to church or to sharing the gospel. I actually knew them, even if it was at a basic level—so I didn’t come across as just the crazy church guy.
How did your coworkers respond?
Sometimes you’d get someone saying, “You’re weird—why are you caring about me?” So I would just explain that my biblical worldview says that I need to, and that God cares about you deeply, too.
I was open with them. My disability is right in front of people. They can see that. But I also came in to work every day with joy. People would ask, “How do you do this?” And yes, it can be hard, but by opening up to them, sharing my story, being willing to be open with them—I want to be putting the gospel on display through my actions and my life. God gave me my story and this disability for that purpose, of showing them Christ. Even when you don’t want to work at Walmart, and I didn’t always, anywhere can be a mission field if you’re willing to be vulnerable and let God lead.
What parallels do you see between this work and the work of the church?
As a greeter at Walmart, the job was about the idea that anyone can come in those doors, and that person is welcome there. I think churches can take the same approach: that anyone can come in and is welcome there—but that person also needs to be known, which then allows the gospel to work.
In ministry, we tend to forget about meeting people where they’re at. Churches can forget to get to know people. … Otherwise, you have no way to know where they’re coming from or what their needs are. It’s not a cut-and-dry process; it could take a year or more. But just being willing to meet someone’s needs allows the gospel to creep in there. Do someone’s laundry if they need it. Clean the house. It shows that your faith is genuine.
How can “meeting people where they’re at” apply to disability ministry?
I think most of what we need to do is just being willing to make changes and meet needs. Telling people that we will not abandon them just because their disability may make us uncomfortable, or may challenge us to adapt our service or building, means so much. Sending out the message that [they] are no different from us spiritually—which has eternal significance, while a mental or physical disability does not—is important. … In some ways, the secular world with its universal design is far ahead of churches in creating accepting environments for those with disabilities.
Is that why you became a disability advocate in your church?
To be honest, I didn’t want to do the job. But I’m so glad my wife encouraged me to do it. This is a perfect role for me. I’m behind the scenes and I’m helping people! And the greatest thing is that I get to help welcome people to the church for the first time. People with disabilities are heartbreakingly absent from the church. So I am able to say to them that there is hope. And [Rejoice is] getting a reputation in the community that we accept everyone—it doesn’t matter your needs.
What has Rejoice’s willingness to change and adapt meant to you, especially now as a full-time staff member?
It’s cool to see people getting more comfortable with joking around [with me]—one time, Pastor Mike [Metten] accidentally said we were “about to put legs to one of my ministries” and laughter slowly spread through the congregation—and also to see kids not paying any attention to my wheelchair. Except maybe seeing it as a jungle gym!
I’ve been told in the past, “Oh, you’re such an inspiration! I’m so glad to see you out and working!” And I’m just like, “Where did you expect me to be, in a closet or something?” … I believed the lie for a long time that a church would never hire a person with a disability. God sure proved that wrong. And now my whole life trajectory has changed. Now I actually want to be a pastor.
Congregational disability advocates like Kyle help churches become places where everybody belongs and everybody serves. For a position description, contact Terry DeYoung, coordinator for Disability Concerns, at email@example.com or 616-541-0855.