Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been federal law since 1990, many evangelical churches have miles to go to provide adequate access for disabled people to enter their facilities.
"As Christians, if we care, we ought to be leading the way instead of Uncle Sam," says Marlath Taege, director of the Christian Council on Persons with Disabilities.
Many congregations have ministries to disabled people and some have pastors in charge of outreach. But Gary Velder, Phoenix area director for Joni and Friends, says only one denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, has stated that it has a "moral obligation" to follow the ADA law.
Campaigns are under way to increase awareness of disability and to create churches that are more accessible. The National Organization on Disability (www.nod.org) "is committed to opening hearts, minds and doors for people with disabilities at 2,000 congregations" by next year through its Accessible Congregations campaign.
Access does not mean that churches must undertake extensive renovations, according to Ginny Thornburgh, director of NOD's religion program. "Access is not just about architecture; it's about caring, learning, and loving in new ways."
Churches are also being encouraged to provide ministries for disabled people. The Christian Council on Persons with Disabilities gives a "Caring Church" award to churches that are "uniquely accepting and accessible to persons with disabilities."
One of the 1998 awards went to Phoenix First Assembly of God, which has separate wheelchair, handicapped, and nursing home ministries.
Thornburgh, who hopes more congregations make the disabled feel welcome, counsels, "We need to say, as the church, we will never leave you, we will be beside you."
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