Often in our wider society, persons with disabilities are relegated to separate groups or communities where their participation and voices are muted. At First Mennonite Church, ability or disability seem irrelevant, as persons with disabilities contribute through leadership and other gifts.
While visiting several times and hosting a group discussion on disability within this church, Ryan saw many other examples of inclusion throughout their church life.
Two themes mark First Mennonite Church as a welcoming community to persons with disabilities: awareness and empowerment. Pastor David Orr has raised awareness by discussing disability and mental illness in sermons. Sunday school series have fostered awareness of mental illness through documentary films and testimonies of church members. Awareness shows up in congregational practices, such as a regular carpool route that provides transportation to members who do not drive. Awareness of the need for accessibility shaped the plans and construction of a new sanctuary and fellowship hall.
“When we first came here, someone with a disability was playing the piano,” recounted a woman. “Afterwards she came to us and invited us
to her house for dinner. People with disabilities here have been empowered. It’s not that we take care of them. She had dinner cooking for us, she served us. People with disabilities are engaged in this church.”
“What we don’t want is to pat ourselves on our back with how many people we have with disabilities,” commented a member. “What we want to look at is how are they doing? And how we are working together in community to be the best we can be?”
One member’s disability affects the use of his hands. Yet he installed all of the countertops in the church’s kitchen and bathroom, he constructed the elaborate puppet stand used in children’s stories during worship, and his detailed drawings are on display in many members’ homes. He is also the first to greet people with a warm smile each Sunday.
When Debbie Miller moved from Cincinnati to Lincoln in the summer of 2007 to pursue a master’s degree, she had no family or friends in town. Battling mental health issues most of her life; she had recently stopped taking a dependable medication at her doctor’s recommendation She quickly found herself depressed and suicidal in her new surroundings.
One of the places Debbie met people in Lincoln was at First Mennonite. Although the worship and prayer were very different from the Mennonite church in her previous city, she found support in the new church. “One time the pastor came at the spur of the moment to see me at home. Another time a group of women helped me clean my porch, even though I hadn’t really connected with them yet.” Despite their helpfulness, Debbie didn’t feel ready to open up and let others get to know her .
Then a member of the church found out Debbie had been featured in Shadow Voices, a documentary about mental illness, that she wanted to use to teach a Sunday school series. (Borrow or purchase Shadow Voices)
“That was my foot in the door,” Debbie remembers. “The man leading the series gave me freedom and choice about how it would work. People asked me questions I could respond to. They thanked me for sharing and some said how they had felt suicidal too. People are accepting of me regardless of who I am. They accept my needs and how they are different.”
The inclusive community within congregations like First Mennonite of Lincoln invites all of us to redefine what it means to live with a disability. Many times in our society, people see only the disability and do not get to know the person. This can create unequal relationships and separation. The dominant paradigm for life with a disability in America is a presumed loss of function paired with resignation to be dependent on others. Under this paradigm, disability defines persons and separates them from their communities.
The pattern is turned upside down when those with disabilities participate and lead in community life. True inclusion challenges us to turn our awareness of others’ needs into empowerment, not charity. Rather than remaining content to simply do things for persons with disabilities, we must look for ways all persons can contribute to the community.
By cultivating awareness of what people with disabilities experience, faith communities can build authentic relationships and empower one another in the process. In communities of love and support, members of all abilities come to know one another as people, not as a disability. An aware and accepting community opens the door for each one of us to express our talents in service to God and others.
When this article was contributed, Ryan Brennan was a graduate student and Jeanette Harder an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work, University of Nebraska, Omaha. ADNet Program Associate Christine Guth adapted their article for Connections.