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Disability Inclusion Sunday is May 28

Presbyterians encourage churches to be inclusive every day

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – May 28 is designated Disability Inclusion Sunday by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an opportunity for churches to help congregations understand what “disability inclusion” means and how they can help people with disabilities feel included in the life of the church.

For years, the Presbyterians for Disability Concerns network of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) has provided resources and guidance for churches within the denomination working to include individuals dealing with disabilities. PHEWA is a community of ministries within the Presbyterian Mission Agency that provides resources, support and network connections for Presbyterians involved in social welfare and justice ministries.

PDC member Alex Brown participating in opening worship service at the 221st General Assembly (2014).

Carol Brown is the Moderator of the Presbyterians for Disability Concerns (PDC) leadership team within PHEWA. She says every Sunday should be Disability Inclusion Sunday.

“Oftentimes, people with disabilities are overlooked. They should be looked at as gifts and not be pitied. The disability doesn’t define them. They are a person,” she said. “I have a son with Down syndrome. He is a unique individual who is made in God’s image. Quite often folks with disabilities are looked on with pity or in need of charity. But that’s not what we are about. We are about including everyone in the life of the church.”

The Rev. Bebe Baldwin, a former Moderator for PDC, agrees.

“I think that whenever we can raise awareness and congregations can see a different way of doing something, it is important,” said Baldwin. “We may have someone who is visually impaired or living with mental illness, but that person can bring something special to the church.”

Baldwin believes there is more awareness of disability issues, but she adds that more people need to act on that awareness.

“I think there’s more lip service, more architectural accessibility than before. We are more likely to find restrooms that are for people who have disabilities and more ramps available,” she said. “But I think in terms of really appreciating their gifts and what people with disabilities bring to society, I don’t think we are there yet.”

Brown says churches need to think about every aspect of worship to ensure that people with disabilities are considered.

“Communion can be very exclusive, leaving people with disabilities out,” she said. “Little things in worship such as asking congregations to ‘Please stand if you are able.’ It’s kind of demeaning — like you are inferior if you can’t stand. The preferred way of saying that would be ‘Please stand in body and or in spirit.’”

Both Brown and Baldwin believe the church as a whole does a disservice to people with disabilities when churches won’t allow them to serve as they are called.

“We heard from someone who was blind and had been going along the pathway toward a church position. Everything was looking good and then all of a sudden, the door closed,” said Brown. “It seemed very obvious that it was due to disability. We want to help congregations to see that a disability should not be a hindrance to calling someone as pastor or to other positions within the church.”

“I think of a pastor with a disability who has some of the most amazing pastoral skills that I know of and a friend who lives with mental illness,” said Baldwin. “As difficult as her life is, she still believes she has gifts that she can bring because she talks with churches about the fact that she is loved by God and is created in the image of God regardless of the disability she lives with.”

The 217th General Assembly (2006) approved Living into the Body of Christ: Towards Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities, a PC(USA) policy calling for every church body to include people with disabilities in its life and leadership. 

Brown says inclusion has made the difference for her 23-year-old son. After moving from Michigan to North Carolina, Brown says, her family visited several churches, but settled on a small congregation in the Asheville area because he felt welcomed there. He often participates in worship.

“He might be hard to understand, but people know what he’s saying because it is repeated every Sunday. He loves it, and it is so important for him,” she said. “It has impacted his personal faith life and his self-esteem. Sometimes I will be busy and not thinking about personal devotion time, and he will remind me.”

Four consultants with PHEWA are now available to assist churches with questions and issues concerning ministering to and including people with disabilities. For more information about Disability Inclusion Sunday and related resources, click here.

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