August 31, 2017—Sitting down to dinner with a group of friends with intellectual disabilities, I asked if they’d help me with this blog post on how churches can be more intentional about welcoming and fully involving people with intellectual disabilities. They agreed. They had lots to say, and there isn’t space to include everything – so here’s just a sampling of thoughts from each person (their names have been changed; they chose their own fake names, for fun).
Doug: “I go where I’m cared about.” He talked about how having friends at church, being greeted warmly, sharing about each other’s lives, and hugs are essential for him to feel like part of a church. He appreciates the part of the service where he can come up to the front to have someone pray for his specific needs, and he also loves taking communion, so “God can be inside of me,” as he says.
Cynthia: “I like to hang out with the Big J.* Also, I like getting a chocolate donut.”* She talked about feeling connected to God during times of prayer in the service, and when scripture is read (especially texts about Jesus). And as she talked it was clear that the people she goes to church with, and which friends share that experience with her, are almost as important as what actually happens there.
*The Big J = Jesus
Bob: “I like to listen to the lessons to learn how to be more like Christ.” Learning more about the theology and practices of his church and finding ways to do the right thing in his personal life feels like the key purpose of attending church for him. He talked about the importance of study and of service, and how going to church is a place to do that and help him carry those values into his everyday life.
David: “The pastor was someone who came to our house before, and he says hi to us after the service.” He really likes having a personal connection to the leadership, and feeling like his presence at the church is important to them.
Jacquetta: “I would have church at my house because it’s more intimate. In a big church you don’t know everyone. At one church I like when it meets in the fellowship room, because you can eat during the service, and church services are long.” She mentioned that since she doesn’t drive a car, it would be nice for the gathering to come to her (transportation is often a real barrier to greater involvement in churches for people with intellectual disabilities). And she really likes when the church celebrates significant markers in people’s lives (birthdays, anniversaries, deaths of a loved one, etc.) or they have holiday parties and meals together, because she feels a deeper sense of connection with the community.
Their priorities were anything from relationships, good teaching, approachable leadership, feeling welcomed, sharing food together, and nourishing spiritual practices. And honestly, how different are these answers from how anyone else, with or without a disability, might talk about church? Not too different at all.
So here’s the big takeaway from this brief, anecdotal, non-scientific, casual survey of five of my friends: people with intellectual disabilities have a broad diversity of ways they feel most at home in a church, each person connects best with a different aspect of the gathering, and everyone has a mixture of spiritual, emotional, social, and physical needs and past experiences that inform their answers.
There was pretty strong agreement, however, on the appeal of donuts.
All this is to say, people with intellectual disabilities are not a monolithic group – so there is no magical 5-step plan to making your church fully welcoming to all people with intellectual disabilities any more than there is a magical 5-step plan to making your church welcoming to all people who don’t have a disability label.
At the same time, is there value to doing research on what kinds of general things churches might do to make their spaces and their activities more welcoming to people with all kinds of social, intellectual, and physical abilities? Absolutely. (And as someone finishing a book on the subject, I do recommend it!)
But you don’t have to be an expert on disability or have a PhD in inclusive ministry or have taught special education or worked as a physical therapist in order to enjoy friendship and fun, mutual, authentic connections with people with intellectual disabilities. The idea that you need to be some type of “disability professional” to begin to engage our kin with intellectual disabilities separates us from each other, as if we’re not all humans with unique mixtures of gifts and limitations, created in the image of God.
So sure, read books, get resources, take classes, and get some good ideas for how to make your church more accessible to people with disabilities. But real welcome and hospitality involves slowing down, listening, and taking the time to know each person and how they feel loved and connected, just as over time they will learn the same things about you.
As a general rule though, along with a diversity of other treats to provide options for folks with various food allergies and restrictions, I would recommend keeping the donuts.
Bethany McKinney Fox is Director of Student Success and Adjunct Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. She recently completed the summer apprenticeship with 1001 New Worshiping Communities, and has been involved with L’Arche as a volunteer and assistant for many years. Bethany graduated with an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary in 2006, and a PhD in Christian Ethics from Fuller in 2014. She lives in Los Angeles with her delightful, musical husband Michael. They are working together to start a new church community in Los Angeles that centers the gifts and participation of people with intellectual disabilities, and by extension, everyone else.
Join Bethany McKinney Fox, along with Mark Crenshaw, as they lead Resetting the Table: Including People with Disabilities in Congregational Leadership, our online course, Feb 5 – March 9, 2018. Registration in open now.