At Heritage Christian Services we have supported hundreds of people with disabilities to become welcomed and valued members of their local faith communities.
Along the way we have learned some valuable lessons about assisting congregations with creating welcoming and inclusive environments, including:
· Congregations that are successful with creating welcoming environments see each unique person that comes through the door. The value of the person is seen first, not any limitations that may exist because of a disability. An example is a man we support who has difficulty seeing the small print in his church hymnal. A deacon in his church realized that the problem was the small font, not the vision. When the environment was changed, that is, when a large print hymnal was provided, the problem was solved.
· Communication is important in any healthy relationship. In families, businesses, and faith communities people need to be able to share ideas, thoughts, concerns and feelings. The need to communicate can, at first, seem to be a barrier in welcoming people who do not communicate in traditional ways, such as by speaking. The welcoming congregations have figured out how to overcome this perceived barrier. The successful relationships have a lot of question-asking at the base of their success. People with disabilities are not offended by sincere questions about how to best communicate with them.
· The faith communities that see the value in the person, both those with and those without disabilities, create welcoming environments where people can come to know about God and to know God. They see a person, not a problem. They see the possibilities, not the barriers. They see God at work in each person.
Written by Lida Merrill, who is the director of spiritual life at Heritage Christian Services and a part-time assistant pastor at Zion West Walworth United Methodist Church. She studied special education and human services administration before earning her master’s degree in theology from Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College. She and her husband have four daughters, one son and three grandchildren. If you’d like to learn more, follow her on Twitter @LidaMerrill.