Across the UCC: Becoming barrier-free

Across the UCC: Becoming barrier-free

September 30, 2004
Written by Staff Reports
Carol L. Pavlik

Church must address 'invisible' as well as 'visible' disabilities

The UCC Disabilities Ministries (UCCDM) has been helping Conferences and local churches deal with accessibility and inclusion issues since its formation in 1978, following passage of a General Synod resolution a year earlier.

An American Baptist-turned- UCC minister with cerebral palsy, the Rev. Virginia Kreyer of the New York Conference, joined forces with the Rev. Harold Wilke, a UCC pastor who was born without arms served as a church leader in both the national setting and in local churches. Kreyer and Wilke, along with others, began a vital ministry that continues today.

History Lesson: UCC pastor the Rev. Harold Wilke (standing, left) witnesses President George H. Bush signing the American With Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House in 1990. Bush (center) is flanked by Evan Kemp, Chairman, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (left) and Justin Dart, Chairman, President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities (right). Standing at right is Sandra Swift Parrino, Chairperson, National Council on Disability. Learn more@
The Rev. David Denham of Winchester, Va., a consultant for UCCDM, remembers that it was Wilke who stood behind President George H. Bush in 1990 as he signed the much-celebrated Americans with Disabilities Act. Although churches weren't bound by the ADA, the UCC resolved at 1995 General Synod to strive to comply. At the same time, remembers Denham, "Synod and the church had been calling us all to be multiracial and multicultural."

The statement, "accessible to all," was added. "We wanted to reach out to those who had been alienated by the church," Denham says.

In 1992, the Mental Illness Network was added to UCCDM, recognizing that those with mental illness, or brain disorders, also have needs that can be met by the church. One in four people suffers from brain disorders known as mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

The Rev. Norma Mengel from St. Paul, Minn., chairperson of UCCDM, says dealing with access and inclusion issues should start before someone with special needs even enters the church doors.

"Many churches say, ÔWe don't have anyone who has a disability or has any special needs,'" says Mengel. That, she points out, could be a red flag that the church building or the church's attitude isn't accessible.

Mengel points out that people dealing with disabilities is so common that each and every church must assume that someone already sitting in the pews has special needs to some degree.

Mengel refers to the fact that NBC-TV journalist Jane Pauley recently has written a book, "Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue," revealing her private battle with bipolar disorder. "I had no idea," Mengel says of Pauley.

Raising awareness throughout the UCC is one of the main goals of the UCCDM and the Mental Illness Network. Mengel wants churches to know that they are not alone in the quest to provide spiritual nourishment to those coping with the stigma and discrimination of disabilities and brain disorders known as mental illness. Displays, videos and booklets are available from UCCDM, as well as help in setting up seminars and special speakers. There also is support for pastor search committees that may be calling a clergy or staff member with disabilities.

In July 2005, a study packet entitled "Any Body, Everybody, Christ's Body" will be available for congregations wishing to undergo a thorough process of becoming accessible and inclusive.

"We all are gifts," says Mengel. "We need each other's gifts. People who have coped with invisible or visible disabilities, as society would call them, have unique gifts to bring. É For starters, we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God."

Pastor advocates for churches to form Ôinclusion committees'
ÔJesus became divine after Jesus became disabled'

The Rev. Jo Clare Hartsig, a member of Union UCC in St. Louis Park, Minn., makes it her business to see the world through different glasses. An ordained pastor, Hartsig has 20 years of social justice work under her belt. She also has a child with autism.

Hartsig, who is active with the UCC Disabilities Ministries, is drawing on her experiences as a mother, a pastor and an advocate for children with disabilities in school districts to rally for inclusion in churches.

At her local church, Hartsig serves as a kind of "inclusion coach." She focuses specifically on Sunday School and Confirmation, making sure learning environments promote learning and understanding for all children. But Hartsig strives for a day when churches incorporate so many inclusive practices that worshipers or clergy are no longer seen as "disabled," but as a vital, working part of the Body of Christ.

"Maybe we don't have to be whole in the traditional sense," she says. "But together, we are."

Christ's Body, points out Hartsig, offers a stunning image in the context of disability. "Jesus became divine after Jesus became disabled. It was actually Christ's wounds and disability that gave people the opportunity to actually believe that he was the risen Christ."

Hartsig is part of the Minnesota Conference's Justice and Witness Committee, who will soon be adopting a resolution entitled "Called to Wholeness in Christ: Becoming a Church Accessible to All" that calls for an inclusion committee at the conference level to serve as a resource for local churches. Moreover, Hartsig suggests congregation consider forming their own inclusion committees as well. Such a committee could address issues of hospitality, accessibility and programming to promote an attitude of understanding surrounding issues of inclusion.

"Moving into the world of disabilities is like moving into a new culture," Hartsig says. "When you're trying to understand a new culture, you have to learn some new words, you have to learn some new customs, you have to learn some new ways of doing things."

"The biggest minority in our culture is people with disabilities," Hartsig says. "If we'd all ever figure that out, that would be quite a movement."

For more information on disabilities ministries

The Rev. Norma Mengel
Chair, UCC Disabilities Ministries
2680 Oxford St. N #144
St. Paul, MN 55113

The Rev. Margaret (Peg) Slater
Minister for Diversity and Inclusion
UCC's Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115-1100

Learn more @

At a glance

Billings, MT
Dr. Michael Downing, a member of Mayflower Congregational UCC, is one of five Montana residents to receive the 2004 Civic Engagement Award from Gov. Judy Martz. A dentist who is an advocate for the poor, Downing was recognized for his commitment to providing quality dental care for low-income persons and the homeless. A 12-year member of the Billings school board, he has been active with Planned Parenthood—both locally and nationally—and chaired his congregation's open and affirming committee. (Billings Gazette)

St. Louis, MO
Jeanette Mott Oxford, a member of Epiphany UCC, won a three-way Democratic primary on August 3 for the 59th district seat in the Missouri House of Representatives. Facing no Republican opposition in November's general election, Oxford is poised to become the state's first openly lesbian member of the legislature. A graduate of UCC-related Eden Seminary, Oxford is executive director of the Reform Organization of Welfare, a statewide organization of low-income persons and their allies.

Green Bay, WI
Union Congregational UCC—the folks that brought Habitat for Humanity to Green Bay and established crisis housing for the homeless—is now building four "universally accessible" town houses just around the corner from the church. "We all have the dream of owning our own home," says Inky Meng, who is chairing the project committee. "We're trying to fulfill dreams for people who are disabled." The project will be named for Dorothea Waitzmann, an activist who stirred the church's interest in handicap accessibility. (Press-Gazette)

Federal Way, WA
Wayside UCC will host a "Reaffirmation of Ordination" service for the Rev. Cameron Michael Sharp on October 17, at the suggestion of the Pacific Northwest Conference committee on the ministry. Sharp, who is transgendered, was ordained years ago in another denomination as the Rev. Catherine Sharp. Earlier his year, he was granted privilege of call in the UCC. "This is not a re-ordination, but rather the reaffirmation of the ordination as Cameron Michael Sharp," says the Rev. Dennis Hollinger-Lant, pastor of Wayside UCC. "Cameron continues on his journey of female to male with new learnings all along the way."


'I am UCC'

Is it not possible for persons in all walks of life to determine how they can better respond to God's call and to constructively perform these blessed deeds through the individual responsibilities, skills and work committed to their care?

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii)
Member, Kawaiahao UCC, Honolulu

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