by J. Martin Benton, J.D.
As an individual with a life-long disability — cerebral palsy primarily manifested by way of difficult speech and altered gait — I want to share first hand, rather than through the lens of a professional in the field of disability and/or theology, the experience of being welcomed and accepted into a faith community. By relating my personal experience, I will share some insights into the interplay between building personal relationships with persons with disabilities and overcoming barriers that one can encounter in establishing such relationships. One’s disability, either obvious or hidden, presents challenges normally absent in budding relationships, either for individuals or the community.
Let me begin by articulating my core belief that each person entering into a relationship, whether faith-based or secular, brings with them both strengths as well as their own vulnerabilities. An individual must be welcomed into a community on equal footing with all other members of that particular community for there to be true belonging and recognition of the humanity of the person. As an example, I wish to relate my personal story of how I was embraced by the particular faith community of which I became a member.
Having earned a juris doctorate degree from the University of Georgia in 1972, I subsequently moved from rural Georgia to Washington, DC, to accept a position with the United States Internal Revenue Service. Being new to this large metropolitan area, without any meaningful personal roots, I found myself essentially isolated, surrounded in a sea of strangers. This new environment in which I had been cast was radically different from the small country town of my origins. In the early years in my home town of Monticello, Georgia, I was well known in the community of approximately 1,800 residents. My parents were respected residents of this community and active participants in its day-to-day life.
At enrollment age, I attended the local public school with my peers and participated in the normal age-appropriate activities. Not until the early 1970s in the United States was it widely recognized that children with disabilities may require specific educational and related services not required by children without disabilities. At that time, federal legislation was enacted to ensure that children with disabilities received the appropriate educational and related services that would assist the child in reaching his or her potential. In my case, long before enactment of the above referenced law I was fortunate to have teachers who recognized my potential and did not demand of me lower standards of learning than that of the other students in my class. Having my teachers require that I be judged academically on par with the other children in my classes proved to be one of the greatest gifts that I could have received at that point in my life.
During my youth, the local Baptist church was the place my family worshipped, where I was baptized, taught religion in Sunday school and learned what it meant to be part of a faith community. As a youth, I experienced firsthand the feeling of belonging from adults and peers that I longed to experience as I sought to make a life outside of the cocoon of rural Georgia. Once ensconced in my new metropolitan environs, lacking was the comfortable familiarity of knowing the persons that I passed on the street, the merchants that had always provided the everyday goods and services that must be procured, or individuals with whom I had grown up. Entering a place of worship confronted me with a gathering of strangers, accompanied by a feeling of insecurity exacerbated by the knowledge that as I spoke, the person hearing my words may not feel comfortable with the tonality of my voice nor understand what I attempted to say.
To stave off feelings of isolation and disconnectedness in this new environment, I knew instinctively that I needed a meaningful connection to a community where I might regain the sense of belonging that I had left behind in Georgia. I strongly believe that an individual’s sense of belonging and acceptance not only is essential to ones feeling of self-worth, it also reaffirms our dignity as human beings embraced by a loving God. Several initial attempts to make such a connection proved fruitless, resulting in frustration and further isolation. Fortunately, through no action on my part, such an opportunity to make the connection I sought availed itself.
A NEW HOME: THE POWER OF INVITATION
Through the extension of a simple invitation to attend a worship service, the possibility of making connections and regaining the sense of belonging opened up to me and started me on the path to full participation in a community of faith. However, this invitation required a reciprocal action on my part, i.e., accepting the invitation and taking the risk of becoming a part of that faith community with the possibility of facing rejection.
Initially, I was reticent to avail myself of this invitation. Many unknowns presented themselves that could have made it very easy to avoid the personal engagement that had been offered. Fortunately, I did not allow the reservations and uncertainties to stop me from accepting the invitation. Taking the first step into that sanctuary proved to be the first step in a longer journey that ended in full participation into a vibrant faith community, and friendships that sustain me to this day. It is the picture of this community that I share with you today in the hopes that you see the possibilities that exist when a community is open to embrace and celebrate the frailties, weaknesses, and unique gifts of each member, regardless of disability.
As earlier stated, this faith community is a rather small inner city congregation of around 250 to 300 members. Interestingly, many of the members reside in other parts of the metropolitan area, not in the immediate neighborhood, and made a conscience choice to travel distances to attend services at this location. The membership was composed of both the young and old, affluent and not so affluent, well-educated and not so well educated, as well as those with particular eccentricities. Diversity was one important factor contributing to its welcoming nature, i.e., its ability to embrace a wide range of individual differences.
A characteristic that I want to highlight is the importance placed on showing particular attention to individuals attending services for the first time. Members serving as ushers any particular Sunday were careful to engage in conversation with all newcomers. Inquiring about their reasons for attending and inviting one to make this their regular place of worship was standard practice. It was practically impossible to quietly slip into the sanctuary unnoticed and remain anonymous. I experienced this same enthusiasm for engaging the stranger on my initial visit. What was striking, and extremely affirming, was realizing that my difficult speech pattern did not prevent me from receiving this same type of engagement as any other stranger presenting themselves for the first time. Such openness allows one to begin to feel safe in a new environment and know that you will be accepted for who you are, rather than be merely accommodated.
EXPERIENCING “WELCOME”: AVOIDING “SPECIAL”
It is important to note that in the initial stages of my involvement there was no thought of a need to create a unique program or initiate activities geared at finding specific ways of including me in the ongoing life of the congregation. In many instances, communities of faith feel somewhat ill-equipped at knowing what to do or say to welcome a person with a disability into their faith community. They therefore respond by attempting to develop a program or activity for the individual rather than getting to know the person first and allowing the relationships within the community to develop naturally, allowing the individual’s involvement to flourish on its own. In most cases, the need for special programs or activities may not be needed, and, in fact, may be viewed as efforts to exclude them from full participation in the life of the community. This is not to imply that in all circumstances specific programs or activities may not be appropriate and needed. However, what I am suggesting is that congregations first make an effort to develop a relationship with the individual desiring to become part of the faith community and allow the relationship to guide any additional actions.
Regular attendance at services and participation in various activities allowed me to develop meaningful relationships with members of the community. These one-on-one encounters facilitated the breaking down of stereotypical attitudes toward persons with disabilities that may exist by individuals without disabilities who have not experienced such an interpersonal relationship. Through such encounters, members of the congregation were able to get a glimpse of different aspects of my personality and skills without allowing the presence of the disability to color their assessment of these traits. Once these meaningful relationships were established, my disability became only one aspect of our interactions and no longer the central focus of my contact with fellow congregants.
Reaching this level of mutual understanding requires effort on the part of each individual. One may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable when encountering persons with a disability, a different language, ethnicity, or different cultural background. Lack of knowledge as to how to navigate such encounters or a particular level of discomfort with a particular relationship makes it easier to decline to engage that individual, rather than risk awkwardness or failure. Fortunately, this was not my experience as I became more and more immersed in the faith community. I experienced an openness on the part of those that I came to know and worship with regularly, allowing me to feel welcome and become fully engaged.
CALLED TO SERVE: TRUE BELONGING
As my engagement in the community deepened, opportunities to participate in various activities increased, starting with serving as an usher during the Sunday worship service; becoming a member of the Mission Council whose responsibility was directing the congregational ministerial activities on issues such as hunger, homelessness, etc.; participating in church retreats; assisting in providing meals for homeless men and women; preparing the Sunday buffet luncheon; and a variety of other activities normally associated with a vibrant church community. In each instance, I felt my participation to be a meaningful experience in which I was making constructive contributions to the activities to which my efforts were focused. I felt no sense that my participation in any of these activities was viewed as something to be tolerated, or worse patronized, but rather that I was contributing on an equal footing with other members of the congregation seeking to serve the larger church community.
Perhaps my most fulfilling experience came when I was approached by several members asking that I accept a nomination as a Ruling Elder in the Congregation. Ruling Elders make up what is known as the “Session” whose responsibility is that of guidance and governance of the church body as a whole. Membership on the Session occurs by election to the position by the members of the congregation for a certain time period. The Session was the governing body of the faith community and responsible for nurturing the faith life of the community. Being elected to the Session was a significant affirmation to me as an individual that I had been completely accepted and embraced by the community not because of any disability, but rather because of the gifts that I offered in service to the community. This recognition of the unique gifts that each individual brings to a faith community is an essential characteristic in building a welcoming environment.
Also important to the welcoming nature was its ability to accommodate behaviors of certain members normally not present during a worship service. A concrete example of this that I recall was the behavior of a particular member of the congregation with the tendency to move around the sanctuary during the service, and, at times, make remarks normally not heard during worship. On certain occasions another congregant, who themselves had a long history of mental illness, would share the pew with this individual in a supportive manner. The individual’s actions were accepted as a part of who he was as a person and did not cause any response from other worshipers or actions to exclude the individual from the service. It was accepted that such behavior was just a part of that individual’s self-expression.
This is not to suggest that all behaviors exhibited during worship must be accepted or permitted. Certain behaviors considered unacceptable or inappropriate in the context of the worship environment must be addressed directly. In such instances, the worship community should establish parameters in situations where the disruptive behaviors may occur. For example, where the individual is highly agitated, it would be appropriate for an usher or other worshiper to approach the individual to address the situation in a manner respectful to the individual and not disruptive to the other worshipers.
Although I did not require any particular accommodations, the congregation recognized the necessity to make certain accommodations and architectural modifications to its physical facilities to meet the unique needs of other individuals. For example, a certain number of large-print hymnals were purchased to assist individuals with low-vision, enhanced hearing devices were acquired for those with hearing deficits, and major structural changes were made to bathroom facilities to provide physical access to wheelchair users even though there was no congregation member using a wheelchair at that time. I reference these actions by way of illustrating that although individuals with disabilities are responsible for accepting the welcoming offered by the faith community, it is also incumbent upon the community to which that individual is seeking to attend to assume responsibility for removing any artificial barriers that would hinder the participation of the individual with a disability in worship and service opportunities.
OPENING DOORS: PRO-ACTIVE STEPS
In some instances, the responsibility for reaching out to the faith community may not rest with the individual with a disability and/or their family, but rather with the larger faith community to which they desire to belong. Individuals affected more profoundly by their disability than the mild form of cerebral palsy that I exhibit, may not possess the social skills or ability to clearly articulate their desire to become a part of a faith community or parish. Unlike my own experience, in instances where the disability may be more profound such as individuals with severe autism, significant intellectual disabilities or profound physical disabilities, the faith community may be called to initiate the first step in engaging that individual. These “proactive steps” may require intentional efforts to reach out and may even require repeated efforts from the faith community. Several examples of how this can easily happen readily come to mind. It may be as simple as extending a warm greeting as the person arrives at the beginning of worship, or it may take a more exerted effort on the part of the faith community by offering accommodations and adaptations to meet the unique needs of that particular individual. Concrete efforts may be required to make it known to the individuals or their parents that they are wanted as part of the worship community. Of primary importance is that the faith community takes positive steps to reach out to the individual with a disability, to engage them in a meaningful manner so that they can feel respected and valued as equal members of the community, and to view any adjustments or accommodations that are required for an individual’s full participation as routine and not valiant or extraordinary.
SIGNS OF HOPE: RESPONSE OF THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY
After recounting the various ways in which I felt welcomed and embraced by this small intercity congregation, the discussion shifts from my personal journey into the heart of a congregation to conclude with a discussion of the encouraging signs emerging in many congregations and parishes throughout the United States that give hope to my belief that peoples with disabilities are truly taking their rightful place in the faith communities. The most obvious development that has occurred over the past twenty-five years, since the U.S. Congress passed federal legislation, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is the number of worship places that are architecturally accessible to people with mobility impairment. Despite the ADA’s exemption for religious institutions, most, if not all, new sacred space construction conforms to the ADA architectural accessibility guidelines. Churches are taking the initiative to make worship spaces accessible, recognizing their moral imperative to do so even in the absence of any legal mandate. This allows many people in wheelchairs or other mobility difficulties, once excluded from places of worship, to now have easy access to religious services.
A significant number of congregations and parishes are recognizing the gift and talents that persons with disabilities can offer to the faith community. People with disabilities are called upon to contribute their time and talents in ways not imagined in the not too distant past. Not uncommon is it to see persons with intellectual disabilities serving as greeters, ushers, ministers of the Eucharist, or a variety of public functions. Many congregations have people with visual impairment reading scripture at the worship service or singing in the choir. Without listing the plethora of roles that people with disabilities are assuming in faith communities, one can draw hope from the recognition that barriers existing in past times are crumbling.
Another important development giving hope to a future in which faith communities view people with a disability not as problems to be solved, but rather as members who truly belong and are welcomed, is a new emphasis placed on developing religious education programs appropriate to the needs of children and adults with different learning needs. Many religious education publishers are making concerted efforts to produce materials appropriate to addressing such. These actions validate the emerging realization that all persons must be nurtured and assisted in growing in their faith.
I beg the indulgence of the reader to conclude this article on a personal note by sharing a hope that I carry for the future for individual congregations, parishes, and the Church universal. I envision a day in which the discussion of the relationship of persons with disabilities and faith communities would be considered unimaginable and obsolete. No longer would there be a need to recount one’s personal journey of being welcomed into a faith community, but rather simply sharing ways in which the faith community can enrich the spiritual life of all people seeking to deepen their faith.
J. Martin Benton is an attorney, retired from over thirty years of service with the federal government. He is also an accomplished potter. He is happily married, a father of two adult children, and a very joyful “Papa.”