We Need Every Part of the Body: Including People with Disabilities

Hope Network (www.hopenetwork.org) has a large number of services to enhance the dignity and independence of persons who have a disability and/or are disadvantaged. Cornelison’s work in the West Michigan office is to connect clients to churches where all God’s people can grow in love for and ministry with each other. Over 2,100 people work in one of Hope Network’s more than 190 different locations throughout Michigan.

While attending a talent contest at Hope Network, I marveled yet again at God’s rich creation. Some of the competitors sang, others recited poems or danced, still others played the piano. Each competitor was a person with a visible disability or mental illness but on this night they were free—free to give their very best and to be recognized for what they could do rather than what they could not do. In the arena of their expertise they shone like stars! The whole evening was a testimony to the fact that all people are created in God’s image.

That night underscored for me the biblical framework for human relationships and the role of the church in ministry to people who live with disabilities. All God’s children are gifted and have worth; the role of the church is to help them discover those gifts and to enable them to use their gifts in the body of Christ and the local community.

Getting Started

Several churches already recognize that all people, no matter what their abilities, have a role to play in the church and are implementing strategies for becoming more inclusive. Others are asking, Where do we start? I believe the answer is simply this: start by learning from those who live with disabilities, because they have a lot to teach the church. The church can affect the attitudes of its members without spending a single penny—and when the spirit of the congregation is ripe, money ceases to be an issue, because creative and compassionate hearts take over.

This past year, the pastoral services team at Hope Network received a worship renewal grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship that enabled us to work with an ecumenical cluster of fourteen churches for eighteen months. We explored just what it might mean for congregations to commit to the radical inclusion of persons with disabilities and/or mental illnesses. Here are two examples.

Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, started by forming a disability awareness committee that included a person with a physical disability. After hosting several Disability Awareness Sundays, they decided to become more intentionally involved in this ministry by adopting a Hope Network home and hosting a work group weekday mornings in their church building. Members of the committee were aware that this learning would take time, commitment, and perseverance. The church continues to learn and grow as it seeks to become more inclusive.

St. Luke AME Zion Church, also in Grand Rapids, is building a new structure. An audit from Disability Advocates challenged them to pay closer attention to the physical structure to ensure that people who use wheelchairs would experience a welcoming atmosphere before they even entered the church building. Paying attention to such architectural concerns as handicap accessible parking, automatic door openers, walkways, restrooms, and more says to the person with a disability, You are welcome here; we have made preparations to receive you.


Accessible Congregations Campaign

The National Organization on Disability (NOD) encourages congregations to commit to the following principles:

  1. In our congregation, people with disabilities are valued as individuals, having been created in the image of God.
  2. Our congregation is endeavoring to remove barriers of architecture, communications, and attitudes that exclude people with disabilities from full and active participation.
  3. People, with and without disabilities, are encouraged in our congregation to practice their faith and use their gifts and talents in worship, service, study, and leadership.

The Religion and Disability Program of NOD asserts that participating congregations need not be perfect, but be willing to set achievable goals and make a commitment to action. There is no cost for materials and for participation. But the pledge to include people with all types of disabilities as full and active participants in the life of the congregation is priceless! For furtherinformation, contact Lorraine Thal at202-293-5960 or religion@nod.org.

Called to Serve

Robyn Saylor, an active member of Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, graduated from Western Theological Seminary twenty years ago. She heard the call to ministry and earned the credentials for ministry, but has struggled in her quest for meaningful service. Recently she and her mentor, Nancy Claus, launched Sunrise Mentorship Ministries. Robyn writes, “We have been developing this venture in response to my own experience with cerebral palsy, dyslexia, and attention deficit disorder. I have struggled all my life with the gap between processing information and acting on that knowledge. . . . The goal of our program is to assist people to fashion their dreams into what is reasonable for them, so that they can serve others.”

The focus of this new ministry is to bring people with disabilities and people from the wider community together in mutually supportive ways. Mentoring relationships are developed with a view to helping persons with disabilities to dream of a preferred future, and to discover their gifts and talents. To learn more, write Robyn c/o Sunrise Mentorship Ministries, 10 College Avenue NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503-3418, or call her at 616-456-9195.

—Jake Heerema, Minister of Pastoral Services, Hope Network


Friendship Ministries

Friendship Ministries is an interdenominational organization that provides consultation to help churches, pastors, and church educators embrace people with cognitive impairments in a variety of areas. Consultation can cover areas such as inclusive liturgy, programming, inclusion into the life of the congregation, and using their gifts.

Suggested Resources from Friendship Ministries

  • Friendship Life Studies: Church Membership for People with Cognitive Impairments. This includes both a book to guide church leaders and a resource kit with a program planner, suggested activities, study guide, and a keepsake certificate. Available from Faith Alive Christian Resources, www.FaithAliveResources.org, 1-800-333-8300.
  • Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Barbara Newman. Available spring 2006 from Faith Alive Christian Resources.

—Nella Uitvlugt, Director, Friendship Ministries

Reformed Worship 79 © March 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.