Over the past few months, faith communities around the world have adapted to gather and worship remotely during the pandemic. While doing church online has had a learning curve, it has also removed barriers for some people with disabilities, allowing access to communities and spaces that were inaccessible before.
Yet, some disabled churchgoers have remarked how frustrating it is that it took a global crisis for many churches to offer more inclusive and accessible options for their full involvement and participation.
As the whole church is now reexamining what church means and how we do it, Christians have an opportunity to create communities of true access and welcome. This moment invites us to be flexible with how we structure our church meetings for the sake of including more members of Christ’s body.
When I (Bethany) worked as the director of a seminary’s accessibility office, I encountered people at all points in their disability journeys. Being a self-advocate and navigating unwelcoming structures are things many people with disabilities have to learn as a basic survival skill, but they can also take time to develop. Some students expressed what tremendous effort it took just to contact the accessibility office in the first place. Some did not have a disability you would notice upon meeting them and didn’t use mobility aids, but the need to walk on uneven terrain or climb stairs made some environments inaccessible to them.
Point being, there may be people in your community for whom meeting in homes (or potential other new spaces or models for gathering that church leaders may choose in the interim) will make it impossible for them to participate—because of literal steps to enter the space or another barrier. And you might not know who these people are, and it might be difficult for them to tell you.
So, for leaders who value worship gatherings that welcome the diverse, God-created bodies and brains of everyone in your congregation, we’d like to ask: As we imagine a way forward, how might we create space for people in our congregations to share with us the barriers they are encountering in ways that feel welcoming and honoring?
Often these conversations get framed in terms of legal requirements, even in churches. For example, though normally exempted from following the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a church planning to build something new or modify an existing building may be required to follow certain measures of architectural accessibility.
Outside of legal code, conversations about accessibility are often framed only logistically, as a way to meet people’s practical needs. This isn’t a bad thing entirely—the logistics and practical aspects of creating an accessible community are vital—but as Christians, we don’t create more accessible structures and practices simply to meet practical needs. We do it because we are followers of Jesus. And this Jesus commended the faith of a man on his mat and those carrying him after they destroyed a perfectly functional roof to make a way for him to get to Jesus (Mark 2:3–5; Luke 5:18–20). Creating access can be a mark of faithfulness. We are called to be a people who look to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4).
Do we believe God has called and equipped people with and without disabilities with gifts for ministry that are essential to our community? If we do, then that’s our motivation to create accessible communities. It’s not for them, it’s for all of us, because we are incomplete as a church without the gifts and presence of our disabled kindred.
Several months before the pandemic began, I (Rosalba) embarked on the exciting and dreadful journey of finding a new church community. As a wheelchair user, I am keenly aware of existing barriers, whether attitudinal or physical. I connected with the worship gathering at a church recommended by a friend, so I began looking for chances to get involved and plug in. The next Sunday, the pastor explained their approach to building community through small gatherings for worship, meals, and prayer. He enthusiastically invited newcomers to join. My heart dropped when I heard him describe the groups as “house churches.”
I knew I could not participate. Most homes are inaccessible to wheelchair users—think outdoor and indoor steps, narrow passageways that don’t allow for turning or maneuvering, thick carpeting or rugs—and even if I managed to get inside, there’s little chance that they had an accessible restroom. I emailed the church expressing interest in joining, inquiring about wheelchair accessibility, and sharing my concerns about the barriers within their house church model. A pastor replied with an apology but didn’t offer to find a solution.
I tried to find a wheelchair-accessible home group. One after another, the leaders regretfully informed me—as I had assumed—that their homes were inaccessible. The irony was that their way of doing church, created intentionally to foster connection, was the very thing that excluded me from belonging. I left two months later. This is just one example of how people with disabilities seek to be full participants and contributors in church communities yet too often find themselves frustrated and excluded.
Now that we are in an extended season of adaptation, churches that have been less flexible or unwilling to change their structures may be called to a new sense of imagination. This is a chance to see our worship and communal lives together anew. It would be a real loss if, just as churches are beginning to develop more accessible options for participation, our next iterations recreate old barriers—or create new and improved ones.
We are called to keep people with diverse disabilities in mind as we discern what form our church’s activities and ministries will take in this time of pandemic and beyond. We have been given the unexpected opportunity to be able to make our communities places of greater accessibility with fewer barriers to participation.
We should realize, too, that the best ideas for new accessible options for engagement are likely to come from people with disabilities themselves, so invite your members with disabilities to collaborate in planning and solutions. Eliciting and heeding the ideas and perspectives of people with disabilities in the community lets them know that they are valued and welcomed.
Emphasizing this welcome may mean continuing to meet virtually in some ways even after gathering in person is again possible, as well as making sure that at least one home group meets in a fully accessible location with accessible restrooms—perhaps even a space on the church premises. It could mean realizing that physical distancing requirements and/or meeting outdoors may create barriers for people with visual or hearing impairments.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to accessibility and inclusion. Every worshiping community is different, and includes (and will include) people who engage, move, and participate in wonderfully diverse ways. The point isn’t to give up and stop trying new things when we find out that some of our newly planned approaches might be inaccessible to some members of our community. It is instead an encouragement to keep on trying new things to continually deepen our welcome. And truthfully, increasing the variety of ways people are invited to participate and connect ends up benefiting everyone, disabled or not.
Church is about connecting with God and each other, growing as disciples, and loving our neighbors. We’re learning anew that it is less about going to a specific building and more about being the church in all of our lives. Let us relish the opportunity to be churches that remove barriers for all of our leaders and participants with disabilities instead of making new ones.
Leading worship in a time of pandemic has forced us to find creative and unconventional ways to tend our communities’ connections to God and each other. Let’s not stop now! As we move forward, we can work together to find ways for all members of our community to participate and contribute. We can do this with the assurance that the Creator of the universe has endless creativity to share with us along the way.
Bethany McKinney Fox is organizing pastor of Beloved Everybody Church, an ability-inclusive church startup in Los Angeles, and author of Disability and the Way of Jesus (IVP Academic). Rosalba B. Rios currently works as a bilingual mental health therapist serving underprivileged children and families in the Los Angeles area and is a visual artist.
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