Access Sunday is October 11Each year, the second Sunday of October is designated on the UCC church calendar as Access Sunday. It is an occasion when all the UCC will join in celebrating the gifts of persons with disabilities and the strides the church has made in being more whole through being more accessible.
It is also the day for reflection and acknowledgement of the journey yet to be taken with those in the disability community.
UCC Disabilities Ministries (UCCDM) envisions a world in which all people are included in the fullness of life because they are created in the image of God. There are many ways of fulfilling this vision. One is to embrace the UCCDM program Accessible to All (A2A). As a member of the Southern New England UCC Disabilities Ministries team, I encourage every church to review the A2A check list and take inventory of the accessibility of your congregation to the disability community.
Accessibility is hospitality. UCC displays the slogan "All Are Welcome Here". What does that mean?
To me, welcome is the affirmation, a belief that each of us, with and without disabilities, has gifts and talents to share with our congregations just like everyone else. It also means to acknowledge that disability is a culture to be celebrated and woven into the fabric of the congregation. It means to create a faith community of belonging that transcends Sunday morning worship and includes people with all abilities. Only when all are accepted as equals, equally valued, and cherished in he eyes of a living God, is it possible to enter a give and take community of belonging.
Before this current pandemic, approximately 20 percent of the population self- identified as having a disability. I believe this number will increase as we analyze the impact of this past few months. Is your church ready? Please note that I am talking about communities of belonging. This is not completely about the accessibility of your church building. One thing the recent shift from in-person worship and church life has taught us is that the church is not the building. The church is the community. A community of belonging is a community that “sees” every individual encountered. This is a powerful thing!
Historically churches have not done a very good job in embracing people with disabilities for a variety of reasons but mainly attitudes and perceptions that have been learned, engrained and passed down through the ages based on ableism…the idea that people with disabilities are somehow less than their able-bodied counter parts. These perceptions have impacted the role that people in the disability community can have in society and faith communities.
Unfortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not cover most of the activities done by faith communities, but we should not have to legislate caring for one another. Disability access is a justice issue and justice is what love looks like in public. We all should have a right to worship and be a part of a community. I want to share something personal that might make more sense than an accessibility checklist.
One day when I was 16 years old, a moment became frozen in time as the car I was driving hit a concrete bridge abutment. That frozen moment changed my life forever. I acquired a traumatic brain injury that left me with multiple disabilities including deafness, short term memory loss, aphasia, balance, and other mobility issues. The effects of those injuries also caused depression and anxiety and threw me into a world beyond my understanding. A world where having a disability reduced me to a second-class citizen. And no one saw me…
There was not much in the way of rehabilitation or understanding of brain injury at that time, and so after a lengthy stay in the hospital and months in a coma I was placed in a nursing facility. I could not remember how to do many things including read or tie my shoes. I marked my progress by little things all the while moaning “why me”?
I had attended church all my life up until that point. I discovered I could no longer go. I needed to be able to get into the building because I was using a wheelchair, and still do at times. I needed communication access because I could no longer hear. Most of all I needed to be considered a part of a community, be seen as a child of God made in His image, but I no longer was.
For me, the isolation and rejection were total. I felt that the God I suddenly knew was not a loving God, I could not love myself and I did not feel loveable. There was no justice for me. I was not enough. I had gifts to share with the world, but no one could see me, REALLY SEE ME.
I became involved in social justice issues, especially for persons with disabilities. I think secretly I was searching for the justice that was not for me, full inclusion for persons with disabilities and other marginalized populations. I had a purpose…I did things for God but not necessarily with God…a huge difference I learned later. I was missing something deep within myself. Someone to see me, to love me as I was, to accept me, a home where I was valued, a sanctuary, a place of peace and love to still the longing inside of me.
This is not a story of poor, pitiful me…this is a story about transformation…the beginning of an incredible personal journey that has been made possible because I found an accessible church. It has been the most life changing event ever.
It seems that my entire adult life I have been asking the question…do you see me, really see me? Do you see that I have purpose? I came to my beautiful church because it was accessible, but I have stayed for many reasons. The access to not only worship but other events have allowed me to be connected and learn that love and acceptance is freely given and does not have to be earned. I have learned about God’s Grace that is given to each of us just because we are, and I have learned that I am truly made in God’s image because I was wonderfully made by God. I have stayed because I have the tools I need to learn about God and grace, to learn that Jesus came for me, to bloom, to receive the many blessings that comes with being connected to a congregation.
God gave each of us a gift, no one has the same gift as another. To complete the picture God has made, each of us is needed, none of us can completely fill our own purpose unless all of us can bring our gifts to the table. The most transformative thing ever was when someone saw me, really saw me. I was asked to serve on a committee in my church and an interpreter was made available for me. This was, and still is, an extraordinary experience for me. I know - you are thinking a committee! Yes, a committee, where I was asked to provide input, was valued, and could share my gifts with my faith community. A committee where there were no attitudinal barriers, judgements. A committee and a church where I could lead, serve, love and where I have permission to make mistakes and when I do, they are seen as happening because I am human not because I have disabilities.
A community of belonging is a place where I can start from where I am, experience the things we all long for …love, a sense of belonging, a home, and Grace. It is a sanctuary for my soul, for love, compassion and kindness, a refuge from a very often too cruel world. It is a place denied to most of us with disabilities. Attitudinal barriers, yes in church, architectural barriers, communication barriers and the barriers we as people with disabilities put on ourselves - that we are not enough - prevent us from learning, connecting, and participating in church life.
2 Corinthians 13:14 says, “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you ALL.” It does not say be to ALL except those who cannot get into the building or cannot hear me or see me on Zoom. UCC is an open and affirming church to ALL…including people who are marginalized.
We as persons with disabilities hope to be heard, to be seen, not as a disability, but as individuals who have and will continue to bloom, not as handicapped but as a well intact human beings with gifts to give… for without all of us, the universe is not complete. It takes an open-minded person and faith community to look beyond a disability and see that each of us has so much more to offer than the limitations society places on us.
I am still on a journey that has been life transforming, all because I found an accessible church and people that can see me, really see me…inside my heart. I am a single mom, a boss, an advocate, an artist, a writer, an educator, a proud graduate of Hartford Seminary, and a human who happens to have multiple disabilities. Do you see me yet?
What do we see when you look at our neighbor or the person sitting next to us or the person on the screen or a person with a physical or mental disability? Do we look in the hearts and understand the challenges each of us face? Can we treat each other more gently with more love, tolerance, and care? Can we widen the welcome, even though the change will make us uncomfortable?
Access Sunday is about celebration and reflection. Access Sunday is about who and how you see. Access Sunday can and should be everyday in the life of the church. Access Sunday is about connections and hearts. Access Sunday is about justice and the right to worship and Access Sunday is about the right to be loved as a child of God, wonderfully made.
Pastors and lay leaders, please invite your congregations to join your UCC friends around the country in celebrating Access Sunday on October 11, 2020, or on a Sunday more fitting to our church calendar. I also challenge you to widen the welcome in your congregation and expand or create a true community of belonging for all.
Related: Inclusive Voices: Welcoming People with Disabilities, an interfaith discussion on embracing the inclusion of people with mental health challenges, takes place Oct. 6. Learn more here.
Candace Low is a member of the SNEUCC Disability Ministries Team, a member of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, and the principal of Candace Low Consulting Services, helping faith communities develop communities of belonging that include...