At Home in the Body of Christ

Extravagant Hospitality and the Call to Disability Inclusion

As so many denominations find themselves struggling with fractures over polity, the United Church of Christ is proud to stand out. Although the UCC, like any denomination, has its conflicts and growing edges, the UCC embraces a spirit of extravagant welcome. Throughout the UCC’s statements about Purpose, Vision, and Mission, the one word that pervades and unifies all three statements is, quite simply, all. As the UCC, we commit ourselves to a just world for all, welcoming all, loving all, and doing it with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

And yet, sometimes our inclusivity practices aren’t quite as all-encompassing as we might hope. Although we dig deep into conversations about LGBTQ+ inclusion, supporting women in leadership, and discerning how our churches can be part of racial justice, we can sometimes forget about the complexities of disability inclusion. Kevin Pettit, founder of the nonprofit Faith4All, is working to help RMC churches change that. As the chair of the RMC’s Conference Inclusion Team, Kevin’s goal is to help churches expand their inclusion practices by adopting an Accessible to All (A2A) Covenant so they can become more welcoming for people with disabilities.

Although UCC churches embrace the spirit of extravagant welcome, many balk at the A2A process because of their fears about expensive building upgrades. “Most people are thrown by the elevator. It’s the big stopper,” Kevin explains.

This financial fear is nothing new. Over thirty years ago, churches successfully lobbied for exemption from the 1990 Americans with Disability Act, arguing that the financial demands of building updates would be disastrous for many church budgets. Although the 1995 United Church of Christ ADA Resolution encouraged UCC churches to stay true to the spirit of the ADA, many churches haven’t had the necessary funds to add ramps and elevators to their structures. Older church buildings might also be protected by laws designed to preserve historic buildings, which can prevent certain construction projects and can end up forcing a church to remain physically inaccessible.

But, ramps and elevators are only part of the conversation. “What keeps people with disabilities away from church is not the lack of an elevator,” Kevin emphasizes. “It’s the attitude of the congregation and the staff.”

This is something that Kevin learned firsthand after a car accident left him with a Traumatic Brain Injury over twenty-five years ago.  “People just didn’t want to talk to me,” he explains. “Some even wanted to ask me what I’d done to deserve something like this.” This friends-of-Job approach to disability dialogue didn’t make Kevin feel particularly at home in the church.

These experiences inspired Kevin to start Faith4All, a nonprofit that helps faith communities learn how to invite, embrace, include, and empower people who are living with disabilities. I recently spoke with Kevin about how RMC churches can work toward these same goals. His answer? Starting a conversation at your church about exploring the creation and adoption of an A2A Covenant.

The first step in assessing how your church can be more welcoming to people with disabilities is recognizing the sheer diversity of disabilities. The A2A process reminds us that accessibility is about more than ramps and attitudes, in large part because many disabilities aren’t visible and have minimal impact on physical mobility. Deafness and hearing loss, vision impairment, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), mental health conditions, Alzheimer’s and dementia, and neurodevelopmental disabilities can all have an impact on a person’s experience of worship and the ways in which they participate in church life.

This variety of disabilities can lead to all kinds of barriers, but there are also lots of solutions that can improve your church’s accessibility even if certain upgrades can’t fit into this year’s budget. For instance, people with neurodevelopmental disabilities like autism can sometimes experience hypersensitivity to sound, which can make worship services and other large events unbearable. Adjustments to your church’s sound system and minimizing ambient noise can help make church participation easier for individuals with these symptoms. Large-print materials and Braille resources can help facilitate the participation of people living with varying degrees of vision loss. Connecting with an American Sign Language interpreter in your community can help your church be better prepared to communicate with people living with deafness. Also, a simple reminder to your worship leaders and clergy to speak slowly and clearly during services can make worship more accessible for participants with varying degrees of hearing loss. Finally, keeping your public spaces free of clutter can help improve access for participants with mobility issues.

One of the central elements of the A2A Covenant is Access Sunday, which is the second Sunday in October. Access Sunday is an opportunity for congregations to embrace the multifaceted nature of our bodies and our God through prayer, liturgy, and preaching. As members of the Christian faith, we claim an embodied God who is both visible and invisible, who experienced the unique gifts and limits of the human body, and who created the complicated world of the senses. On Access Sunday, we are invited to reflect on our inclusion practices, contemplate creative ways to expand our welcome, and celebrate a God who made our unique bodies and unique gifts. For those who are new to this particular liturgy, the website for the UCC’s Disabilities Ministries has a wealth of resources to get you started.

If this path toward improved accessibility improvement feels daunting, remember that the A2A process begins and ends, quite simply, with conversations. The first step is to start talking with the members of your church about accessibility. Are there areas of improvement in your church, not only in its physical structure, but in your worship practices and attitudes? It can be helpful to start by discussing the basic etiquette of disability inclusion. For example, always speak directly to persons with disabilities, and always ask for their permission first before providing any physical assistance. Remember that a person with disabilities may need extra time to get things done or say what they wish to say, so give them the time they need to speak and act authentically and at their own pace. Allow people with disabilities to make their own decisions, and trust them to ask for assistance if they need it. And, although it’s important to be mindful of the limitations that can come with disabilities, remember too that people with disabilities might want to participate in the life of the church. Invite them to be part of what your church is doing, and ask them if there are specific ways in which they wish to be included.

Even if your church already has an A2A Covenant, remember that inclusion is an ongoing process. No two disabilities are alike, and two people who are living with the same disability might experience it in completely different ways. It’s okay to ask questions about what would make a person more comfortable or feel more included.

Reverend Cal Kemper, who is on the Conference Inclusion Team, also has firsthand knowledge of the intersections of church and disability. Back in 2010, he spent several weeks in a coma, which was followed by a lengthy recovery as he attempted to resume his duties as a lead pastor. The members of his church made this process easier by embracing open communication. “There was a great deal of talk among the parishioners about making sure I didn’t feel overwhelmed,” Cal explains. They consistently checked in with him about his level of comfort with his workload, which made it easier for Cal to set boundaries or take on more responsibilities as he felt able. “I felt like I was the parishioner and they were the pastors,” he explains. “I felt loved.”

Cal continues to embrace this approach, and he emphasizes the importance of open communication. When in doubt, simply ask a parishioner how they’re feeling and ask if there’s something you can do to help. “I always try to assess what was going on, rather than jumping to conclusions,” he explains. “And I try to do my research.”

Again, it’s important to remember that disabilities aren’t always obvious. On one occasion, a new parishioner visited Cal’s church, and during worship, he noticed just how much she was sweating even though it wasn’t particularly warm in the sanctuary. After the service, Cal wondered if she was okay. “I simply asked her if she was comfortable,” he explains. The woman told him that she’d walked two miles to visit Cal’s church (hence the sweating), and she added that the church she’d been attending previously didn’t want her anymore because she was different.  She went on to explain that she was taking medication for a mental health condition and the dosage caused her to “blurt things out” and talk out of turn.

In that moment, Cal realized just how important this conversation was. He made sure his visitor knew that the congregation wanted her to be with them and that her whole self was welcome.  “I told her, ‘We want you here,’” Cal said. “I told her that we all have difficulties. We’re all different.” He added that this visitor became a member of Cal’s church and remained a member until she passed away. And all of it began with Cal’s decision to start a conversation, respectfully ask questions, and listen, rather than ignoring behavior that seemed out of the ordinary.

Cal and Kevin’s experiences remind us that disabilities can come in just about any form. They also remind us of how quickly our lives and bodies can change, and of how many people in our communities are living with some kind of disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 1 in 4 adults in the United States are living with at least one disability. Traumatic Brain Injuries are the leading cause of disability in the United States, and each year, 5% of the U.S. population sustain a TBI. Although not every TBI leads to a longterm disability, the statistics tell a story of the body’s vulnerability, a vulnerability that our Creator chose to inhabit. The UCC’s commitment to extravagant welcome invites us to lean into this reality and to make our churches more welcoming for all of God’s children.   

To get more conversations started about disability inclusion at your church, you’re encouraged to explore the resources below:

·       UCC Disabilities Ministries: How to Become A2A

·       Any Body, Every Body, Christ’s Body: A Guide for Congregations, Associations, and Conferences for Becoming Accessible to All

·       The A2A Disability Etiquette Guide

·     Visit

  UCC Disabilities Ministries Access Sunday Resources

·       The UCC Mental Health Network

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