Written by Dallas Brauninger
"Not everybody has a minister like Diana," said 13-year-old Scott Pigsley of Lincoln, Neb. "Things like this tell other wheelchair-users we won't banish you from our church."
"This" was Northeast UCC's calling an interim minister with post-polio syndrome. "This" meant rearranging chancel space to accept a replacement ramp that honors the decade-old Americans with Disabilities Act code of no more than one inch of height per foot of run. "This" frees Scott, who has spina bifida, to light candles with friends. And it invites the Rev. Diana Coberly into the chancel.
Since 1977, five General Synod disabilities-ministries resolutions, including "The Calling of Clergy with Disabilities" (GS 22 in 1999), have nudged older churches to erase physical and attitudinal barriers. The annual Access Sunday, set this year for Oct. 8, is an opportunity for all congregations to rethink their own accessibility.
"The issue of opening chancels goes beyond voluntary compliance with public access laws to how churches design for inclusion," says Robert Wandel, moderator of the UCC Fellowship of Architects. "Inclusion is a Christian question for churches to address."
Creative changes at the 140-member First Congregational UCC of Alameda, Calif., tamed 11 levels of the landmark building without disturbing its integrity. Century-old St. Mary's UCC in Westminster, Md., converted a closet to bypass a step, rail, three-step chancel.
"A ramp is an up-front commitment," says Minnesota minister Robert Baggott. "The deeper commitment is accessibility of the soul." He says a ramp strengthens human connections. "A congregation sees your disability, so we make changes to create a space physically possible for you. We look beyond your challenge to celebrate what is possible with you."
God saw beyond Moses' disabilities to call him to lead. Moses' rebuttal, "O my Lord, please send someone else," once couched most churches' response when asked to consider physically- challenged clergy. Now, some hear God's promise, "Go, I will teach you what you shall do....You shall serve" (Exodus 4:1-13).
Ongoing commitment to social justice defines the Gainesville (Fla.) UCC. An informed accessibility committee was key to the architecturally integrated ramp that sheaths its three, broad chancel steps.
"This middle class congregation struggles to balance the budget," says the Rev. Larry Reimer, "yet it meets access needs that members bring."
The 220-member Lazarus UCC, Lineboro, Md., wanted to incorporate five bell and voice choirs into its 1908-built chancel. After six years, the committee overcame many obstacles to generate a unique, three-level area that offers wheelchair-using families abundant space for reading scripture or ringing choir bells. Member gifts plus a grant from the Catoctin Association funded the renovation.
The aim of calling clergy with disabilities, says Coberly, is to reap the benefits of the minister's abilities. Following her Nebraska interim, she accepted a call as pastor of First Congregational UCC in Great Bend, Kan., which then sent for the Nebraska church's chancel ramp specifications.
"The change which allows persons with disabilities to participate fully in the life of a church happens only once it is in people's hearts," she says.
The Rev. Dallas Brauninger is a member of the Nebraska Conference disabilities ministries task force. She is a minister with disabilities who has served UCC churches since 1969.