Congratulations, 2021 Alumni Award Recipients
Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox, MDiv, 2006
2021 Pioneer in Ministry
Bethany knew that if she was going to be part of a church where all people were really centered, regardless of disabilities, she’d have to start it. The Beloved Everybody Church is not a place where people with disabilities are accepted, it’s a place where they are centered. Since her return to California from Decatur, Bethany received a doctorate in Christian Ethics, has taught at Fuller Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary, has written a best-selling book, Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church, written numerous articles, and founded a new worshipping community, Beloved Everybody Church.
There is nothing we’d recognize as a “traditional sermon,” at Beloved Everybody, because Beloved Everybody is a community where the value of the spoken word is one of many values and priorities. Thus, the proclamation is the co-created, embodied, multi-sensory good news of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is community-centered, and has become a network where, in her words, “we don’t just have gifts, we are gifts, to each other.”
Bill Buchanan, MDiv, 1996
2021 Distinguished Service Award
With his imaginative insight into the changing landscape of mission and a heart for young people, Bill Buchanan is a gift to the church. Bill served as an Associate Pastor for Youth for thirteen years in Bedford Virginia, then in Asheville, North Carolina. Not only did he serve the youth of his own churches, but he was also undoubtedly a blessing to many as he led music and proclaimed the gospel at numerous Montreat Youth Conferences, Presbyterian Youth Triennium gatherings, and presbytery youth retreats.
During this time, Bill and others founded the Presbyterian Youth Workers Association, and built a dynamic ministry, Youth Mission Co., which provides justice-centered, biblically-based mission and education opportunities for middle school, high school and college students. Beginning with Asheville Youth Mission and then expanding into YMCo, with satellites in Raleigh, NC, Memphis, TN and now Charleston, SC, Bill continues to challenge the church to move beyond acts of mercy, toward embracing acts of justice and solidarity with those on the margins.
- Experiment with Multisensory Practices.
Church communities are each so (beautifully! intentionally!) different from one another in their rituals and culture that a set of specific, accessible worship practices would not work universally. For your church facilities, however, definitely find a good accessibility audit online and gauge where you’re at. Ramps! Captions! Bathrooms! All the things.
But one thing that would invite a deeper participation by a larger number of folks in any community is to work to engage as many senses as possible in gatherings, in a way that is authentic to who you are as a community. Many worship services rely heavily on words, so for folks who may connect better to God, themselves, or other people in different ways – they can be left out. In my time running a seminary accessibility office as well as pastoring an ability-inclusive congregation (and also just being a worshiper), I’ve learned that the more options people have to engage, communicate, and reflect, the better.
I realize that this can be an intimidating move for some communities that have been primarily verbal, and in these communities, there can be some unfair stigma and disrespect for more embodied, visual, emotional, relational ways of worshiping – but by opening up space for more of our human senses to commune with the God who gave our senses to us deepens and expands opportunities for spiritual connection, even if it stretches some comfort zones.
So, experiment. Even a little bit. And if you need ideas, reach out to some colleagues, search online for multisensory worship practices – see what fits for you and your community and try some things out.
- Always remember: Increasing accessibility for folks with disabilities actually benefits EVERYBODY.
God is so wise and so lovely. As it turns out, when communities truly make space for all of the beautiful bodies and brains God has created, when we create space for engagement for people who learn, move, connect, and communicate in a variety of wonderfully diverse ways, everybody wins.
Think of this: even though a building includes an elevator, or a new sidewalk has curb cuts for wheelchair access, or a TV program includes captions, all for legal accessibility reasons – they really benefit everyone. Plenty of nondisabled people use elevators, curb cuts, and captions every day for their own accessibility.
We have a number of practices at Beloved Everybody Church (our ability-inclusive church plant in Los Angeles, where people with and without intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities lead and participate together) that we developed sometimes with only one person’s access in mind; but these practices often ended up being something the whole community has found helpful. As just two examples, we have a color-coded name tag system for how much touch people are comfortable with (back when we were meeting in person) and we have a “silent table” where people can go when they need a break from our more interactive, participatory worship experience. These were created with the access of some of our participants with disabilities in mind, but as it turns out, they are simply good ideas that everyone appreciates and benefits from.
Especially in busy and exhausting church work, when someone shares that something is inaccessible for them, it may initially seem like a burden. It can feel like one more problem to solve, instead of what it actually might be: a sparkling invitation from the Holy Spirit.
In our community, it has been through continually discovering and respecting the accessibility needs of our community members with (and without) disabilities, and working together, that truly innovative, meaningful, life-giving practices have emerged.
- Attend to the voices of people with disabilities in your community. Make space for their ideas and leadership.
Given the high percentage of people in general who have a disability, it is almost certain that every church already has members with disabilities. Whether or not these disabilities are readily apparent, or are be less obvious (like some learning disabilities or mental health or psychological disabilities, for example), there are very likely people who have disabilities in your church who already have ideas for how some community practices might be more accessible. Find ways to welcome their input and ideas, since they know the community first-hand, and also know themselves and what works for them.
The real point of this tip is just to reinforce that any number of “quick tips” isn’t going to get a community very far; but valuing the voices, experience, wisdom and leadership of people with disabilities over the long-term, and having conversations of respect and openness with the goal of becoming an ever more welcoming, accessible community to gather as the broad, diverse family of God – that’s what it’s about.
 PHEWA and Presbyterians for Disability Concerns has one you can check out, here: http://www.phewacommunity.org/images/congregration-audit.pdf
Know a Columbia Alum doing fantastic work for the Church and the world?
NOMINATE THEM for either the Distinguished Service Award or the Pioneer in Ministry Award!
Criteria and nomination forms can be found HERE.