Embracing Possibility: Inclusivity, Disability, and Meaning in Church
“Inclusion” and “inclusivity” are words we often throw around in Church to the point where they become trite. I do, however, find that when we reclaim these words in light of who we are as the Body of Christ, we return some of the spiritual depth and meaning back to them.
I asked Brooke what an inclusive church would look like as it pertains to her own ministry experience:
“Inclusion has to be done meaningfully and not in a way to check a box to say we’ve done something…[where] somebody with a difference has the opportunity to participate fully in every aspect of church life.”
In my years in various rural and urban churches, be it as a participant, a leader, and especially as a white male, I have noticed how easy it is for us to make tokens out of those who do not look, think, talk or live like the majority. What I like to call the “representation effect” all too often gets the best of our ability to see in the way God truly wants and desires us to see; we do have differences within our communities and we cannot simply choose to be blind to that reality. It is the phenomenon Brooke echoed and described to me where people in churches chalk up someone’s simple presence in a choir or in the pew/chair as inclusive when it is much more than that. Brooke shared with me that the questions we should be asking pertain to how we are fostering an inclusive community that is meaningful to the whole rather than just creating isolated spaces where those with certain needs can be fed. It involves posing the thought of are there ways we can collectively, regardless of ability, worship, connect, serve?
As it relates to Brooke’s ministry here at Christ Church, she believes a community that reaches those who are differently-abled is one that is willing to open its doors not just on a Sunday. Drawing on her own family experiences attending various churches, she told me that it was not uncommon to encounter a faith community that pretty much designated a basement or back room for a ministry to meet those with different needs. The stigma and social harm that have worked their way into the Church institution and many other social places have formed just as many pockets of microaggresion around physical and intellectual disabilities as they have race, gender, and human sexuality.
Brooke says responding to these sorts of reactions begins with the clarification that “We want to be treated like anyone else.” She works with one adult who has a heart for holding the door open. She ministers to others who learn and grow in their faith through multi-sensory means. It’s about letting these adults and children use their gifts in self-advocating when and where they can. If you have a leadership team, having someone with a disability on it deconstructs much of the stigma in place. It was refreshing to hear from Brooke that labeling anything as “special” is not always as helpful as we might think it to be.
With that in mind, Brooke laid out for me some helpful foundations that we can adopt in our churches around how to begin having these conversations the right way.
Much of it begins with the naming of the reality, she said. [Too often we are] “concerned or caught up in having the right, politically correct language” that we stifle inquiry or questions with unchallenged acceptance. She proposed the challenge of engaging in these conversations when kids or youth ask instead of avoiding an opportunity for them to learn. The other piece she put forth is that“Access is different.” We always have to be thinking through questions like, “What does an outdoor picnic look like for someone in a wheel chair? What does inclusion look like in our preschool?”
At Christ Church, we are exploring ways of entering these conversations and engaging in how we worship, connect, and serve. Recently, Brooke and I have come up with creative ways that allow our entire community to experience things like communion and our service of anointing.
Brooke told me the verse that comes to mind for her and her ministry is Luke 1:37, “With God all things are possible” and “not like the cliche healing verse.” She says the most important thing to remember is that Church is about a relationship with Jesus Christ. “As with public education, every one has a right to have that personal relationship with Christ.” One of her friends in our possibilities ministry wanted baptism, saying “because Jesus loves me and I love Jesus.” Brooke affirmed this as it sometimes being their unique understanding that offers us a simplistic and genuine view of Christ. Something we pray and hope captures the heart of what the Church should be about. The core of the gospel and what belonging to the Body of Christ means for us.