Bethany McKinney Fox and Rosalba Rios on How Rethinking Worship Can Improve Accessibility for People With Disabilities

Bethany McKinney Fox is organizing pastor of Beloved Everybody Church, an ability-inclusive church startup in Los Angeles, and author of Disability and the Way of Jesus (IVP Academic). Rosalba B. Rios currently works as a bilingual mental health therapist serving underprivileged children and families in the Los Angeles area and is a visual artist.

Over the past few months, faith communities around the world have adapted to gather and worship remotely during the pandemic. While doing church online has had a learning curve, it has also removed barriers for some people with disabilities, allowing access to communities and spaces that were inaccessible before.

Yet, some disabled churchgoers have remarked how frustrating it is that it took a global crisis for many churches to offer more inclusive and accessible options for their full involvement and participation.

As the whole church is now reexamining what church means and how we do it, Christians have an opportunity to create communities of true access and welcome. This moment invites us to be flexible with how we structure our church meetings for the sake of including more members of Christ’s body.

When I (Bethany) worked as the director of a seminary’s accessibility office, I encountered people at all points in their disability journeys. Being a self-advocate and navigating unwelcoming structures are things many people with disabilities have to learn as a basic survival skill, but they can also take time to develop. Some students expressed what tremendous effort it took just to contact the accessibility office in the first place. Some did not have a disability you would notice upon meeting them and didn’t use mobility aids, but the need to walk on uneven terrain or climb stairs made some environments inaccessible to them.

Point being, there may be people in your community for whom meeting in homes (or potential other new spaces or models for gathering that church leaders may choose in the interim) will make it impossible for them to participate—because of literal steps to enter the space or another barrier. And you might not know who these people are, and it might be difficult for them to tell you.

So, for leaders who value worship gatherings that welcome the diverse, God-created bodies and brains of everyone in your congregation, we’d like to ask: As we imagine a way forward, how might we create space for people in our congregations to share with us the barriers they are encountering in ways that feel welcoming and honoring?

Often these conversations get framed in terms of legal requirements, even in churches. For example, though normally exempted from following the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a church planning to build something new or modify an existing building may be required to follow certain measures of architectural accessibility.

Outside of legal code, conversations about accessibility are often framed only logistically, as a way to meet people’s practical needs. This isn’t a bad thing entirely—the logistics and practical aspects of creating an accessible community are vital—but as Christians, we don’t create more accessible structures and practices simply to meet practical needs. We do it because we are followers of Jesus. And this Jesus commended the faith of a man on his mat and those carrying him after they destroyed a perfectly functional roof to make a way for him to get to Jesus (Mark 2:3–5; Luke 5:18–20). Creating access can be a mark of faithfulness. We are called to be a people who look to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4).

Do we believe God has called and equipped people with and without disabilities with gifts for ministry that are essential to our community? If we do, then that’s our motivation to create accessible communities. It’s not for them, it’s for all of us, because we are incomplete as a church without the gifts and presence of our disabled kindred.

Several months before the pandemic began, I (Rosalba) embarked on the exciting and dreadful journey of finding a new church community. As a wheelchair user, I am keenly aware of existing barriers, whether attitudinal or physical. I connected with the worship gathering at a church recommended by a friend, so I began looking for chances to get involved and plug in. The next Sunday, the pastor explained their approach to building community through small gatherings for worship, meals, and prayer. He enthusiastically invited newcomers to join. My heart dropped when I heard him describe the groups as “house churches.”

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Source: Christianity Today