The fourth annual "Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All" conference will look a little different in 2013. Most notably, this year's conference will be a one-day event instead of three, and it will also take place as a precursor to General Synod 2013 in Long Beach, Calif. But despite the changes, Alan Johnson, member of the event planning team and chair of the United Church of Christ Mental Illness Network, is confident that the event's workshops and speakers will better equip congregations with the tools to welcome and accommodate those with disabilities and mental illness.
"We've figured out how to do it well," said Johnson. "The event addresses how congregations can be inclusive and acknowledge that one in four people in their congregations is dealing with a disability or mental illness. How can they provide education, support and advocacy?"
"Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All" will take place June 27, the day before General Synod begins. Hosted by UCC Disabilities Ministries and the UCC Mental Illness Network, the conference will include speakers, workshops, small-group sharing and networking for congregations and individuals who want to become more educated on the topic of mental illness, brain disorders and disabilities. Keynote speakers include the Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder, founder of UCC Mental Health Ministries, and the Rev. Kathy Reeves, coordinator of the Ecumenical Disabilities Advocacy Network – North America, a program of the World Council of Churches.
During the conference, congregations can also learn how to become Accessible to All (A2A), which is a process through which a congregation removes all barriers that make it difficult for people with disabilities to participate in the worship and life of the church. These barriers can include lack of wheelchair ramps, materials unavailable in large print, or even members of the congregation not knowing how to interact with people with disabilities. Similar to becoming Open and Affirming (ONA), congregations can vote to become A2A, create an A2A task force, and then follow the steps outlined by UCC Disabilities Ministries. So far, a handful of UCC congregations, as well as the Northern California Nevada and Rocky Mountain conferences, have taken steps toward receiving the A2A designation.
"It encourages congregations to look for ways people have been excluded, normally not by intention but by oversight," said Johnson. "Things like automatic door openers for wheelchairs, or audio devices for people with hearing loss."
"Widening the Welcome" typically draws 100-200 attendees, and Johnson hopes the conference's new structure does not deter people from attending. While a relatively new event in its fourth year, Johnson believes this work is "profoundly important" for congregations that truly want to welcome all. With mental illness, particularly as it pertains to gun violence, a prevalent social issue, Johnson feels there has never been a better time for education and awareness, as well as compassion and respect.
"This is the perfect time to have the conversations about mental health," Johnson said. "There is so much fear, stigma and anxiety around the issue, and yet 25 percent of the population is dealing with it. Why shouldn't that be part of what our Christian faith is all about? Inclusion for all."
For more information about "Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All," visit its website. More details will be available soon.
Throughout its 54-year history, the UCC has highlighted, approved and enacted resolutions related to disabilities, mental illnesses and brain disorders. More information and resources on physical disabilities, mental illnesses and other brain disorders are available through the UCC Mental Illness Network.