In assembling its teams, the UCC's Ohio, Southwest, Northern California Nevada, Rocky Mountain and Florida Conferences are selecting members who are affected by an apparent or an unapparent disability (mental illness or brain disorder), either as a person living with such a condition or having a family member or other loved one who has one.
"Our national identity statement is that we are multicultural, multiracial, Open and Affirming [ONA], Just Peace and A2A," said Peggy Dunn, who co-chairs Disabilities Ministries along with Jeanne Tyler. "It's the A2A piece that the Mental Illness Board and Disabilities Ministries is trying to bring to the attention of congregations in the way that almost everybody in the UCC knows what ONA means. Not all churches are ONA, but most churches at least know what that is. And that's not true of the inclusion work, which is the A2A."
For the first time, said Dunn, the Mental Illness Network and Disabilities Ministries are in "full collaboration, working together and working toward full inclusion of people with all kinds of disabling conditions." She advised those concerned about the cost of the grants to look deeper.
"People think that becoming accessible means we need to spend big bucks to retrofit our buildings to be able to accommodate people in wheelchair," Dunn said. "Yes, that is a piece of becoming more inclusive of people with physical mobility issues, but the topic is a whole lot bigger than that."
"The topic is really more attitudinal than it is architectural," said Dunn. "People with disabilities will tell you that grants are important, but the attitude of inclusion is the more important shift."
In addition to congregational inclusion, Dunn said church leaders are also a consideration. "Do we have pulpits that are (physically) accessible to people with various kinds of disabilities who feel called to ministry?"
Grants were issued in the order that applications were received, said Dunn. "The application process was very simple. It was not particularly competitive, and it was stated that way."
At the heart of the grants is an intended ripple effect throughout all Conferences, said the Rev. Alan Johnson, Mental Illness Network chairperson and member of the Disabilities Ministries Board of Directors.
"One expectation is that each of the Conference inclusion teams would send at least one person or more, or the whole team, to participate in the third annual national 'Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All Conference,' in September in Columbus, Ohio," said Johnson.
The Rev. Bob Molsberry, Ohio Conference Minister, says the A2A process might begin with a checklist, encouraging congregations to consider ramps, accessible bathrooms, pew cutouts and large-print bulletins.
"But it seeks go beyond simple checklists to build a culture of awareness that seeks to dismantle any barriers," said Molsberry. "It encourages congregational members to think about all the things that limit a person's access to the congregations, including attitudes, stigmas, physical barriers and countless other impediments to full community."
The grants embrace a commitment to mental-health ministry that impacts every UCC congregation in each of the five Conferences, said the Rev. Kent Siladi, Florida Conference minister.
"The church has often remained silent about finding ways to reach out to those who have mental health challenges –– due to the stigma of such challenges in the wider culture," said Siladi. "This is one of those 'building the airplane while flying it' emerging ministries in the UCC, so we anticipate an open sharing of ideas, resources and commitments."
Learn more about UCC's Disabilities Ministries and Mental Health Network.