Culture shift

Making inclusive spaces can require churches to reorient their building and their beliefs

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Letiah Fraser

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Letiah Fraser’s recent dissertation is on understanding disability as a culture. “We reach out to so many cultures,” Fraser told the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong during this week’s edition of their podcast, A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast. “If we understand disability as a culture with its own history, languages, worldviews and theology, then perhaps the voices of people with disabilities would be lifted up as well.”

Catoe is managing editor of Unbound, while Doong is a mission specialist with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. Previous episodes of their podcast can be found here.

An ordained pastor with the Church of the Nazarene as well as a hospital chaplain, disability rights advocate, activist and organizer, Fraser participated last year in Unbound’s Disabling Lent: An Anti-Ableist Lenten Devotional. Read Fraser’s devotion on Ash Wednesday here.

“My legs assisted by my crutches make a rhythmic sound that announces my presence even before I enter the room,” Fraser wrote in that Ash Wednesday devotion. “And my bent knees and angled feet set a slow pace for me that enables me to engage in conversations and enjoy the kindness of strangers … The body I inhabit is what makes me human because that is where God lives. Yes, the disabled body is human: crutches, leg braces, communication boards, white canes, wheelchairs, walkers, and all other assistive devices included. The shared experience of being human is where disabled and abled bodies can offer solidarity to one another.”

Doong asked Fraser which characteristics about a church “indicate clearly this is a welcoming and inclusive place or not.”

“Can I access all parts of the church, or most of the church?” Fraser replied. “Once I’m in there, is it set up so that I can participate fully in all functions of the liturgy and worship? Who are the folks in leadership? Is there someone I can visibly see who has a disability? If it’s an invisible disability, is it shared and accepted, just as it would be to be Black? There is nothing shameful about it. I look at the songs being sung. What do they say about people with disabilities? I would look for ways to invite people to participate [in worship].”

Some churches ask worshipers to stand during the reading of God’s Word. “While that might be helpful for some folks, are there other alternatives?” Fraser asked. “Can we put our hand over our heart as the Scripture is being read … as a sign of respect?”

Catoe pointed out that Lenten scriptural passages often focus on people with disabilities.

“I would wonder, is this Scripture prescriptive or descriptive?” Fraser said. “Is it describing the atmosphere of what was, or is it saying this is the way it should be? We can’t discount there were healings in the Bible. But Jesus often says first, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or something of that measure, and then, ‘Get up and walk’ or ‘Be healed.’ I wonder if it was done that way because folks are questioning Jesus and his authority to forgive sins, and physical healing was something that people could see with their physical eyes.”

“I just think because I am an activist and organizer — I think Jesus was that too — perhaps Jesus was saying more to a culture that was ableist,” Fraser said. “By providing healing he was allowing folks to participate in society as well as the religious institution.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) podcast “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drops each Thursday.

Asked by Doong about online worship and accessibility, Fraser said that “in some ways the virtual space has made it more accessible for folks and at the same time less accessible. I think there is a tendency for folks in the church to say, ‘We are closer to the point where we can be meeting [in person] again and not do our virtual spaces.’ I think a hybrid model might be more helpful.”

“But that’s not an excuse not to update the buildings, when possible, or to reorient our ideas around what church can look like,” Fraser said.
“If updating the physical space isn’t possible, where in the church building is the most accessible place to meet? Let that become the place of meeting — not just because we have Letiah who uses crutches coming, but just a whole reorienting.”

If that thinking “is incorporated into the culture of our churches, hopefully that will infuse the whole life of the church” as well as the church’s leadership, Fraser said.

To close the broadcast, Catoe congratulated Fraser on adding “doctor” after the “reverend” title.

“I can now sleep,” Fraser said. “It’s good.”

Unbound and the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program are Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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