UMCOR

United Methodist Committee on Relief

Is Your Church Accessible?

Tom Kayser is able to ride horses at a church camp in Oregon.
Tom Kayser is able to ride horses at a church camp in Oregon.
Drew Frisbie

By Julia Kayser*

August 3, 2012 —Nancy O’Loughlin says that the first time she visited Morningside United Methodist Church in Salem, Oregon, “there was no place in the sanctuary where people in wheelchairs could comfortably sit without feeling like a road block.” She parked her chair awkwardly and joined in worship. The trustees met the very next week to discuss shortening a pew to make space for her. “You can imagine my surprise when I returned the following Sunday and found wheelchair seating,” says O’Loughlin. “Now, I can sit comfortably and feel part of the congregation instead of apart from it.” O’Loughlin remains an active member of Morningside UMC to this day.

“Accessibility is a visible sign of hospitality and welcome,” says Lynn Swedberg, UMCOR’s disability consultant. “It lets everyone know as they walk in the door that this congregation is intentionally inclusive and wants to have a diverse group of people worship.” The United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries has just released a new disabilities audit that can help your congregation assess strengths and weaknesses as it strives to welcome people of all abilities. Extending this kind of hospitality is a scriptural, denominational, and ethical mandate.

Our Scriptural Mandate

In John 9:1-3, the disciples saw a man born blind and ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus’ response is clear: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus stood up against the mainline understanding that disabilities were God’s way of punishing the sinful—an assumption that justified discrimination. This passage makes it clear that the Christ-like response to disability is not judgment, but compassion. 

Jesus healed paraplegics, gave sight to the blind, chased away the demons of the mentally ill, and cured a boy with epilepsy. At every turn, he tore down the barriers between the abled and disabled. And Jesus expected his followers to show the same generous compassion: in Matthew 10:8, he told his disciples, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Our Denominational Mandate

Paragraph 139 of our Book of Discipline says: “The services of worship of every local church of The United Methodist Church shall be open to all persons. The mark of an inclusive society is one in which all persons are open, welcoming, fully accepting, and supporting of all other persons, enabling them to participate fully in the life of the church, the community, and the world. A further mark of inclusiveness is the setting of church activities in facilities accessible to persons with disabilities.”

Our Ethical Mandate

According to a 2012 study by Erickson, et al, of the Cornell University Employment and Disability Institute, only 33.9 percent of disabled adults in the United States were employed in 2010 and 27 percent lived in poverty. The 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that more than 42 percent of homeless adults in the U.S. experienced disability.

These statistics make it clear that physical and mental disabilities are diseases of poverty. Our social services are not sufficient.  The differently-abled are among society’s most vulnerable.

The Benefits of Hospitality

The new disability audit form is simple, and anyone can fill it out. It requires a yes or no response to statements like “Clear signs direct people to accessible entrances,” and “Disruptions are accepted and incorporated into worship.” It also provides space to note several goals for improvement in the upcoming year. Debbie Wade, secretary and chair-elect of the UM Task Force on Disability Ministries, encourages churches in her North Alabama conference to complete the audit every year. She even offers incentives to churches and districts through the Bridge Builder Award Program. “Accessibility shouldn’t be optional for our churches, because it’s so vital,” says Wade. “It lets God’s children in, so they can worship.”

Tom Kayser has been worshipping at Portland First United Methodist Church for more than 20 years. Tom is severely autistic and has been causing disruptions ever since his baptism in 1991, when he was so fussy that he was christened as “our new reluctant brother in Christ.” Today, Tom hums along with anthems and echoes the pastor during sermons and prayers. In an outpouring of love and welcome, the church embraces these interruptions. One fellow parishioner even sits near Tom on purpose to catch his “sermon re-caps.” 

This welcome means the world to Tom and his family.

Find out what you can do to make your church more welcoming. Even if a construction project is not feasible, consider celebrating Disability Awareness Sunday or modifying your curriculum with developmental disabilities in mind.

Accessibility is an ongoing process. As Tom Kayser would say, “Jesus is never finished.”

Your gift to Disability Ministry, UMCOR Advance #3021054 helps build awareness and create more welcoming spaces in our churches.

*Julia Kayser is a writer and regular contributor to www.umcor.org.

Your gift to Disability Ministry, UMCOR Advance #3021054 helps build awareness and create more welcoming spaces in our churches.