Helping People with Disabilities Belong – 2

How Hard Can It Be? Not As Hard As You Think!

“They have been told—in one of many different ways—that including them would be too difficult.”

This comment on one of my Facebook posts triggered Part 1 of “Helping People with Disabilities Belong.” In that article, I named just some of the ways that people with disabilities have been told that it’s just too hard to include them and ended with some broad ideas to help people belong. In this article, I get into a few specifics. (Part 1 is appended to the end of this post).

The First Step

It’s not that hard, really. All people are made in God’s image and are loved by God. Seeing all people through God’s eyes and loving with God’s heart may take some practice, but it isn’t difficult. Slowing down, taking time, listening well with heart as well as with ears are the keys to seeing everyone as someone who belongs in church and everywhere else. All people are people. All are worthy of love. An open heart is the first step. Pray for God to open your heart to a new relationship that might seem, on the surface, to be different from any you have considered before. But since everyone is created by God to be unique, it really isn’t different. It just might seem that way from outward appearances. God created us to be in relationship with each other. Live into that! I think you might be surprised by the new friendships you make.

The Second Step

Keep listening and pay attention to facial expressions and body language. If there is sadness when your new friend sees the inside of the sanctuary or they wince when the music starts, ask a gentle question. Maybe they see steps into the choir loft or they have to go through an alley to get into the building and they wonder if they are really welcome. Maybe loud music causes them pain. Don’t ignore the signals that all is not well. Care enough to ask. It might not be easy for them to tell you what’s going on and they may not tell you why at first. Be present, but don’t be overly invasive. Give them time to trust that you care about them.

The Next Step

It occurs to me that this might be the first step. On the other hand, you might need to develop a relationship first before you know what to look for, so do the steps in whatever order seems right for you.

Pay attention when you look at your church. Try to see it as if it were the first time you saw it. Do you see stairs going into the main entrance? If so, is there a sign pointing out the accessible path of travel? When travelling between the accessible parking places and the building, is it necessary to cross lanes of traffic? Is there an power door opener?

Conducting an Accessibility Audit might reveal problem areas and help you set priorities for changes to your facilities. Don’t forget to ask people who live with disabilities about what problems they experience! This might uncover some unwelcoming attitudes that are barriers to helping someone belong. Changing those attitudes (e.g. believing that things are fine even when they’re not) will take education and study and maybe a few words from the pulpit. This may take time, but it will be worth it!

The Step After That

Prioritize the changes that you uncovered in the previous step and make one change at a time. Allocate the necessary funds according to those priorities. Often a congregation will say that they don’t have the money to improve access, but they do have money for other programs and improvements. Your budget reflects your priorities! Make helping everyone belong your highest priority! And if the money really isn’t there, check with your district union, your annual conference Congregational Development office, your annual conference Disability Concerns Committee (Discipline ¶ 653), and/or the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church. If you rent your church facilities out for public usage, the local city government may have grants available. It’s worth checking!

Please don’t forget to check out the resources (including the Accessibility Audit) available at umcdmc.org. There are many ways to help people with disabilities belong that are not expensive. And always remember, the most important thing is a welcoming heart!

Sharon McCart, Deaconess

Vice Chair, DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church

Helping People with Disabilities Belong, Part 1 (May 6, 2019)

“Including Them Would be Too Difficult”

“They have been told—in one of many different ways—that including them would be too difficult.”

One of my friends responded to one of my Facebook posts with that comment, and I read it slowly several times, letting it sink in. How many of those ways have I heard about? Here are some of those ways.

“I will not pray for your son to be healed. I will pray instead that he will not suffer long.”

A young couple’s baby was born with severe medical challenges and would have severe, multiple disabilities. They asked for prayers for his healing, but their pastor would only pray for him not to suffer long. The couple soon stopped coming to church. They had been told, by that refusal to pray for what their hearts yearned for, that including their son, and thus their family, would be too difficult.

“We don’t have an appropriate Sunday School class for your daughter, but she can come to our fellowship time on Wednesday evenings for youth like her.”

It was too difficult to find a way to adapt Sunday School to her needs so that she could be included and not segregated. It was too difficult to make a way for that entire family to be at church at the same time, so they left.

“It’s too bad that your family treated you badly, but the way you are trying to reconcile with them is manipulative. You need to understand that.”

It was too difficult to understand that his desire for reconciliation was real and deep, and that his different approach to doing so was complicated by autism, which is defined by social skill deficits. It was too difficult to be an advocate, to empower him, to help him find a better way to reach out to his family.

“No one likes you and here is why!”

It was too difficult to get to know him well enough to understand him. It was too difficult to realize that he needed help filling his plate at potlucks. It was too difficult to reach out to him in love and with grace, to accept him even though he is different from them. It was too difficult to find a way to help him belong.

“We are just not set up to include your daughter.”

Before a caring relationship could begin, it was cut off by that statement. By those ten words, a wound was opened that would only deepen and not heal for years. Including a young girl with mental illness would be too difficult, and the result was that the entire family was also too difficult to include.

There are many more ways that we tell people “It would be too difficult to include you.”

How can anyone really join a congregation when this message is given? People leave church because they are not welcomed, because they are rejected before they can be loved.

How can we find a way to include people when it is “too difficult”? How can we begin a relationship that will lead to belonging?

The answers are as varied as the people who have gotten this message, but they have a few things in common.

Listen. Get to know the people who come to you looking for a place to belong. Listen deeply, with your heart. Stop thinking about how to respond and imagine what it would be like to love them.

        Look. What does God see in this person? Look with the eyes of Christ. How is the image of God embodied? Stop thinking about your reaction and imagine God knitting them together in their mothers’ womb.
  

         Touch. What happens when you touch? Whether it’s a fist bump or a handshake, a hug or putting your hand on an arm, loving, respectful touch can begin a relationship. From that start, a relationship can be deepened by your responses to each other.

      Interact. Even babies and other nonspeaking people respond to the presence of other people. Pay attention and nurture that interaction. Smiling, relaxing in one another’s presence, responding to movements and words are all part of acknowledging each other’s humanity and capability of loving each other.

How do you become friends with someone else? 

Do you focus on how you’re different? Or do you look for how you are alike? Remember these two things—-being friends is belonging to each other and God loves all of us so that we can love each one of us.