One in the Spirit: Involving persons with disabilities in worship

Harold Wylie is an elderly and significantly retarded member of Grace Church. Though ambulatory, he walks with difficulty; his language skills are limited. Conversation with Harold consists mainly of a few stock phrases, the most frequent being "How ya doin' buddy," accompanied by a pat on the back. Harold speaks this line many times each Sunday, occasionally with a twist. Once I heard him greet our pastor with the words, "Hello you devil you!" Only Harold could get away with that, though others of us are tempted to try!

One communion Sunday I came to understand the importance of Harold's presence in our congregation in new ways. The liturgy that day included what we have come to call "come forward" communion. Small groups are ushered to the front of the sanctuary where they assemble in a semicircle to receive the bread and the wine as the rest of the congregation sings softly. Harold was part of a group seated near the back, and the other members of his group had all moved to the front before Harold had made it even halfway down the aisle. His greeting, "How ya doin' buddy," could be heard easily as Harold stopped to pat the shoulders of friends he passed. An elder, noticing that Harold's group was nearly through being served, walked fifteen feet down the aisle and put his arm around Harold. Harold did the same, and together they walked to the front. At that very moment the congregation was singing a verse from "We Are One in the Spirit." "We will work with each other, we will work side by side, and we'll guard each man's dignity and save each man's pride," we sang. It was as if it had been scripted ...

Worshiping with Harold and others like him has taught members of our church much about the meaning of the childlike faith that Christ commends and about the nature of Christian fellowship. Yet many people with disabilities like Harold's remain on the fringes, never a true part of the worshiping family of God.

It's time for change.

Persons with Disabilities Make the Church More Complete

By neglecting to include persons with disabilities, the church impoverishes itself. Rev. Harold Wilke, a United Church of Christ pastor who, incidentally, happens to have no arms, says it this way: "A church is handicapped unless it has persons with handicapping conditions within it. Only when all of God's children are present are we truly the body of Christ" (Wilke, "Keynote address to Presbyterians for Diabilities Concerns Conference," 1989). Did you catch that remarkable idea? Without disabled people, the church itself is disabled!

The Christian church often has responded with compassion to the needs of those with disabilities; however, it is time to move beyond that. Christians today must learn that weak and strong together are needed in the church—that those who are imprisoned or hungry or impaired possess precious gifts for us.

What are these gifts? People with disabilities have many of the same gifts that people without labeled disabilities possess. Just because a person is unable to see print does not mean she cannot read from the Bible. The need to use a wheelchair does not silence a solo-quality voice. Retardation does not diminish the genuineness of one's public profession of faith. People with disabilities can and do use their gifts in worship in the same ways as others do.

They also have their own unique gifts. Jean Vanier, a French-Canadian philosopher and theologian who has lived for years in community with persons who have disabilities, reminds us that

. . .the life-giving Jesus is hidden in them. He is truly there. If you become a friend of the poor, you become a friend of Jesus; you enter into an intimate relationship with Jesus and you will be led into the heart of the beatitudes.
—Jean Vanier, The Broken Body—
Journey to Wholeness, 1988, p. 73).

Scripture tells us this too:

Whosoever welcomes one of these, my brothers or sisters, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me.
—Matthew 25:40 (my paraphrase)

Does it seem possible that Jesus could be revealed in persons with disabilities? In contrast to Western culture, which glorifies health and athleticism and which canonizes achievement and productivity, the gospels depict life—Christ's and ours —as a mixture of strength and weakness.

Christ invites us to lives of disci-pleship in a world that is not, and among people who are not, intrinsically healthy. The presence of disability in members of the church is a reminder that although we all must live with brokenness, brokenness is not the last word. When the church welcomes individual differences, including those which are called "disabilities," we make it easier for each one of us to disclose our wound-edness and to begin moving toward wholeness.

People With Disabilities Help Us to Understand Worship as Dialogue

In worship we meet God. But it is not a meeting and a conversation between equals. We do not earn the right to enter into dialogue because of our excellence in singing, our eloquence in prayer, or our expressiveness in reading Scripture. When persons with disabilities participate in visible roles in worship, we are reminded that our great Lord condescends to meet with each of us in spite of our flaws. In worship we meet the God of grace.

Worship with Persons Who Have Disabilities Calls Us to New Understandings of Communion

The celebration of the Lord's Supper is an act of remembrance; we remember who Christ is and who we are—the community of believers. In his speech to the "Merging Two Worlds Conference" in 1987, Parker Palmer taught me that the opposite of "to remember" is not "to forget," but "to dismember"—to cut off from humanity. We live in a dismembering world that puts people into categories (retarded, mentally ill, alcoholic, gay). In society and in the church, such labeling does violence to community, creating distance between people. How sad it is that often we know better how to divide than to unite.

Part of what happens at communion is that we re-member who we are—one body made up of many parts. Harold Wylie taught me and other members of my church a great deal about re-membering that we are one in the Spirit—all of us, whatever our disabilities. He also taught us some important things about the Lord's Supper.

A deep truth about communion is that in it we experience oneness with Christ and oneness with each other. It is communion for the saints as well as communion of the saints. The sacramental ritual unites us to Jesus Christ and unites people with and without disabilities to each other.

Persons with Disabilities Are Called to Ministry

Just as God called Moses to lead in spite of his speech problems and the apostle Paul to witness in spite of his "thorn," persons with disabilities are today being called to minister to those who are TABs (Temporarily Able Bodied). No doubt some of you can think of ordained pastors who are blind, who have cerebral palsy, or who are in wheelchairs.

The fact that God calls all kinds of people to ordained ministry has implications for seminaries and for the architectural design of churches, particularly the pulpit area, but that goes beyond the scope of this article. The point is that God does call less than perfect people to ministry— surprise, surprise!

God calls laypersons with disabilities to minister to and with us as well. Let me share an example taken from a wonderful book of free verse by a Dutch poet, Lize Stilma (Portraits, 1985, pp. 75-6):

A Little While

It's Easter.
Together, all flowers celebrate.
And the congregation with them.
Grace is there too.
Together with the members of the youth group she offers
flowers to the young people at their Confirmation.
Undaunted she steps to the front and says, "Here. Last year I did it. I loved it."
She repeats it twenty-tivo times.
Then her arms are empty.
It's Easter.
A celebration.
She knows it very well. Jesus died, but He lives.
That's why everybody is so happy.
Am I happy?
My positive answer clearly doesn't convince her entirely.
Do I really know what Easter means?
Shall she explain it to me?
Some things in life can only be said in a soft voice.
Close to the one for whom the words are intended.
Obviously this explanation is one of those.
She stands on her toes, puts her arms around my neck and says,
"When you die you go into a coffin.
Then people bury you in the ground.
But that's not so bad. It's only for a little while.
God takes you out again.
Do you know that?"
Yes, I do know that.
Only now I'm more certain.
That evening I walk in a cemetery.
Someone was buried there a week ago.
Someone very dear to me.
In a coffin.
In the loose sand.
To that grave and myself I said,
"It's only for a little while.
God will take you out again."
Those words were placed in my mouth by a little
Down syndrome girl.
Very softly.
She is called Grace.
That means "prophetess"!

Some Good Policies and Practices for Involving Persons with Disabilities

Today as never before the doors of churches are opening to persons who have a variety of disabilities. Some of the following changes and decisons often come along with the open doors, making it possible for persons with disabilites to become full and active members of the worshiping community.

■ Inclusive churches make their sanctuary accessible.

People must first of all be able to get into the sanctuary. Churches who wait to make changes until someone with disabilities joins their congregation will likely never attract such a person. Modifications to parking spaces, curb cuts, ramps, and elevators may all be necessary.

Inside the church still other changes may be needed—changes that remove barriers to sight, sound, and understanding. Interior modifications may include making available such resources as braille and large-print bulletins, amplification equipment, sign language interpreters, and spaces in the pews for wheelchairs.

A congregation that believes involving persons who have disabilities is important will do an assessment of barriers and seek to eliminate them. Many helpful resources exist. For example, the Christian Reformed Church's Committee on Disability Concerns has accessibility checklists for churches and offers consultation on architectural design.

■ Inclusive churches are careful about language.

Self-advocacy organizations such as People First International ask that noun and adjectival constructions such as "the blind" or "mentally retarded persons" be avoided. Instead, the person should be put first as in "persons who have hearing impairments" or "persons with mental retardation." Also, diminutive forms of first names such as "Tommy" or "Kenny" should be avoided when addressing adults; and, on formal occasions at least, Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. should be used.

Handicapist language and imagery appears in some of our church music, as well. Consider the metaphor in the lyrics of "Just as I Am, without One Plea":

Just as I am poor, wretched, blind.
Sight, riches, healing of the mind.
Yes, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

This familiar juxtaposition of physical and spiritual poverty also appears in the hymn "Amazing Grace"; and, of course, it is found in Scripture. But, as Govig (1989, p. 83) so passionately points out:

Is it necessary to associate poverty and wretchedness with blindness? Many of us are acquainted with someone who is blind and is scarcely poor or wretched! How about using the words "selfishness" or "stubbornness" in place of blindness? "Healing the mind" may be desirable, but we need the forgiveness of our sins even more.

We must be sensitive to language. It is not only a matter of balance in perspective but a matter of justice. With our words we distance or bridge distances; we include or we exclude.

It's true that sometimes people with disabilities need to be protected, but where is justice when we fail to use language that speaks of their gifts? The way we talk about people reflects how we view them and shapes our interaction with them.

■ Inclusive churches use special environments only as a last resort.

Most people with disabilities can participate in regular worship activities in the same environment as everyone else. When people with disabilities are grouped together in a separate environment for worship, everyone loses. If a person who is disabled cannot do all parts of a worship activity, it is better to provide an assistant than to provide a different setting.


The goal of worshiping in ways that reflect the diversity of God's people is not merely wishful thinking. It is affirmed by reality in congregations from many denominations. If you are interested in resources for a disability-awareness Sunday or in further information about how to open the doors of your congregation to persons with disabilities, consider contacting one of the following:

Rev. Ted Verseput
Committee on Disability Concerns
Christian Reformed Church
2850 Kalamazoo SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49560

Ms. Alonna Gautsche, Director
Mennonite Developmental Disability
21 S. 12th Street
Akron, PA 17501

Dr. Dennis Busse, Director
Ministries with Persons with Disabilities
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
8765 West Higgens Road
Chicago, IL 60631

Mr. Lewis Merrick
Associate for Public Educ, Social
Educ, & Disabilities
Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
100 Witherspoon Street
Louisville, KY 40202-1396

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the third Calvin College Symposium on Worship and Church Music, January 12 and 13,1990.



I Corinthians 12:12-27, a paraphrase

For just as the body is one and has many kinds of members and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-healthy, wise, disabled, slow-learners—and all were made to drink of one Spirit

For the church does not consist of one kind of member, but of many. If the person in a wheelchair said, "Because I am not able to walk, I canot belong to the church with no ramps," that would not make him any less part of the body. And if a person with Down syndrome felt that, because she could not fit into the church's education program, she did not belong to the church, that would not make her any less part of the body

If the whole church were teachers, where would the learners be? If the whole church were well off, where would the needy be? As it is, God arranged the kinds of people in a church, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single kind, where would the church be?

As it is, many kinds of people are needed, yet there is one church. People who are able to read the creeds canot say to nonreaders, "We really don't need you." Nor can folks who are emotionally stable say that they don't need those who are emotionally ill. On the contrary, the people of the church who seem weaker are indispensable. And those people who are handicapped in some way we invest with greater honor. Those who are disfigured are treated with modesty which those who are handsome do not require. But God has so composed the church giving greater honor to those who have disabilities, that there may be no discord in the membership and that members may have the same care for one another.

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it!

Thomas B. Hoeksema is a professor of education at Calvin College and a member of the worship planning team at Grace Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 18 © December 1990, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.