Be Not Afraid: Love, Acceptance of Disabled Bring Gifts of Faith to Congregations

Want to put the joy of Christ back into Christmas?

Attend the annual “Our Journey to Bethlehem” service for people with disabilities and their loved ones in Cleveland.

One cannot help but feel the biblical accounts of Christ’s ministry come to life as some 20 blind, deaf and physically and mentally disabled worshipers bring up the gifts in the offertory procession, and serve as readers, liturgical dancers and Eucharistic ministers.

It is a place where people so hurting they need to cry out frequently during the service will never be asked to leave. A place where a woman with cerebral palsy, her face almost frozen in a gaping smile, will be hugged repeatedly. And a place where her sibling can share a joyful time with a 49-year-old sister severely disabled from birth.

“It’s such a welcoming feeling here. You just belong. You just feel the love and the warmth,” said the woman, standing over the wheelchair of her sister. “Everybody’s equal here. You feel God’s warmth and love, and you see everybody loves everybody.”

And no one is left out.

Would that this biblical tableau stretching back 2,000 years could be experienced more often in local congregations.

Yet research, and the experiences of people with disabilities, suggests many congregations are not so welcoming.

A 2010 survey found that while 57 percent of people without disabilities attend religious services at least once a month, just half of people with disabilities attend with the same frequency. And the percentage is even lower for people with moderate and severe disabilities.

The gap in attendance was the same as in a 2004 study, “suggesting that not much has changed in the way of removing architectural, communications, and attitudinal barriers that prevent people with disabilities—especially people with severe disabilities—from regular attendance,” concluded the final report issued by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability.

In a separate survey of 416 parents of children with disabilities who were attending or have attended congregations, just 43 percent described their religious community as “supportive.”

Almost a third of parents reported having changed their place of worship because their child had not been included or welcomed and more than half had kept their sons or daughters from participating in a religious activity because of a lack of support. In addition, more than half of parents said they had never been asked about the best way to include their daughter or son in congregational activities.  Researchers Melinda Jones Ault and Belva Collins of the University of Kentucky and Erik Carter of Vanderbilt University reported the study findings in the journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

The lack of inclusion in religious communities is of special concern because the positive outcomes associated with religion – from being a place to develop supportive social networks to helping provide hope and optimism in challenging situations – may be particularly beneficial to people with disabilities who face discrimination and prejudice in other areas of their lives.

The more frequently children with special needs attended religious services,  the higher parents rated their family lives together, researcher Andrew Whitehead found in analyzing data from the 2011-2012 National Study of Children’s Health.

Religious service attendance is significantly and positively associated with “family functioning,” including coping with the day-to-day demands of raising children with special needs, Whitehead, director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, reported at the recent annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Boston.

The pain and loss of exclusion, however, is not limited to the disabled community.  A theological history associating suffering with sin has left many people facing challenges in life reluctant to seek social support in congregations for fear of being judged as less than faithful.

And just as small signs of inclusion, such as including women and men of differing ages and racial and ethnic groups in prominent roles in services send a message that all are welcome, so, too, does excluding people with disabilities because they may read a little slower or require special attention contribute to a hardening of hearts.

And a loss of joy.

The journey to Bethlehem service in Cleveland doesn’t always start on time, and not everyone sits and stands in unison. But it is one joyous celebration.

Worshipers get the up-tempo, not the mournful, version of “Amazing Grace” and people boom out, rather than mumble, “Merry Christmas” in response to the celebrant’s prompt.

“I feel Jesus inside of me,” one of the liturgical dancers, a 53-year-old man, told me at one of the services. “We’re all of us Jesus.”

If you and I have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the unconditional love that is present in welcoming all people in a spirit of mutual respect and dignity, what can we do to make our congregations more welcoming places for people with disabilities and their families?