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Churches Need to Stop Asking Individuals With Disabilities and Their Families to Leave

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Ellen Stumbo, The Mighty’s parenting editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

On Father’s Day, Paul Rimmer visited the chapel at King’s College, in Cambridge, England, with his family. However, an usher soon approached Rimmer and asked him to remove his son, Tristan, who is 9 years old, nonverbal and on the autism spectrum. Apparently, the boy’s excited vocalizations were too “disruptive.”

Rimmer wrote a letter to the chapel’s leadership following the incident and shared it on Facebook, where it garnered thousands of shares. In his letter, Rimmer wrote, “As a Christian, I believe that worship is primarily intended to glorify God, and may have misinterpreted your Eversong as an actual worship service, at which my son’s expressions may surely be pleasing to God.”

Yet perhaps the most powerful statement in Rimmer’s letter is this: “Might I suggest that you place a sign at the front of the chapel, clearly identifying which categories of people are welcome and which are not?”

For any place of worship that claims to be a place where everyone is welcome but put conditions on that welcome, Rimmer’s request seems reasonable.

2ND UPDATE:Thank you for your kind words, and sharing your own stories. Your support is overwhelming. I am…

Posted by Paul Rimmer on Monday, June 17, 2019

Rimmer’s letter resulted in a public apology from Reverend Dr. Stephen Cherry, who the letter was addressed to. In the public apology posted on his blog Cherry said, “Sometimes we fail and I realise that we especially failed you and Tristan on Sunday afternoon. I apologize for that most sincerely.” Cherry also stated his desire to meet with Rimmer and to do better in the future.

While Rimmer’s unfortunate experience may result in positive changes and awareness at King’s College chapel, Rimmer’s letter opened a wider conversation about how open religious communities are to people with disabilities. Countless individuals shared similar stories in response to Rimmer’s letter about their negative experiences at their respective places of worship. This is, unfortunately, a common occurrence.

Here is something to consider: 25 percent of the population has a disability. Yet in most places of worship, disabled people are missing. Like in the wider society, this is often a result of people with disabilities being overlooked or seen as “too needy,” even for the purposes of church. Not to mention, many places of worship are not physically accessible to disabled individuals and their families.

My husband was a Christian pastor for 13 years at two churches. When we arrived at our second church, news quickly spread the new pastor had two children with disabilities. In a matter of two years, we had more children with disabilities than children without disabilities in our kid’s program, and our leadership was comprised of disabled and non-disabled individuals.

We were a church that truly believed everyone belongs and everyone serves. We were also the church that handed out egg shakers and maracas for anyone who wanted to use them when we sang songs. We had nonverbal kids who expressed joy loudly and we loved it! If anyone was visiting and coming to see a “church performance,” our church was not it.

If someone wanted to worship freely in an environment where you were welcomed and accepted for who you are, then we were the place to be. Dance, sing, jump — you do your thing. We didn’t have a structured plan, we didn’t have any special training, but we were willing. Our church was chaos and joy all rolled into one, and I have never been part of a more beautiful faith community.

But our joy was a result of pain. Many of the individuals who came to our church were asked to leave their former churches for reasons similar to Rimmer’s. Their kids were “too disruptive” or the church didn’t have “special training” or was not “qualified.” Many of the disabled adults who came had been overlooked at their churches as well, as if they had nothing to offer their faith communities.

One Friday morning, my husband and I ran into another pastor at a Starbucks. As we chatted, the other pastor mentioned he just referred a family to our church. It was a new family, and their child was autistic. Rather than figuring out how to include the child, which might have required change or to provide supports, they told them to come to our church.

If you know anything about church dynamics, it is not common for a church to “let go” of potential members, but because the child had a disability, the family was seen as a “burden” or “too much work.” I see no other reason why they didn’t work with the family. Their loss, our gain. But it did burn a fire in me and I am now a disability ministry consultant.

There are many churches that do get it right. As a matter of fact, we see more and more churches setting up “disability ministries.” However, it is important to note most of these programs are geared toward elementary-aged children. Once kids with disabilities enter middle school and high school, churches struggle to integrate them in their youth programs. Once they become adults, there is often no place for them at church.

There is a reason a vast majority of disabled adults choose not to attend church. If you asked disabled people if they believe the church cares, your heart might break knowing many in the disability community give a resounding, “no.” They feel marginalized, forgotten, unsafe, pitied and unimportant to the church.

But there is also another reason, and one we need to talk about.

Churches tend to have a wide number of “projects” and ministries throughout the year, like disaster relief or collect food for low-income families. In many instances, faith communities place disabled individuals and their families under the “project” category too, rather than seeing them as full people capable of contributing to their faith communities.

People with disabilities do not want to be the “project” of their faith communities. They want to be active participants. Don’t we all? Isn’t that usually why we seek faith communities? A place where we find community, friendships, support and understanding? More than that, people with disabilities are capable of being active participants the minute they walk through the door — they don’t need “fixing.” But because faith communities often see individuals with disabilities as “too big of a project,” they instead look the other way.

Churches claim they care about individuals with disabilities and their families, but once they are present in our places of worship, do we actually care? Church communities must figure out ways to make it possible for everyone to belong and everyone serve. Accommodations must be provided to allow that to happen. Does it takes extra work? Sure. But we do it because it is the right thing to do, and because if we claim everyone is welcome, then we need to act like we mean it.

We must recognize the value of people with disabilities in our congregations and begin to treat them as equals, as invaluable members of our communities (because they are).

We have to do better as a church. We have to learn what it means to care.

If not, perhaps every church should take Rimmer’s advice to heart and place a sign at the front of the church to remind people your welcome has limits.

Originally published: June 21, 2019
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