A Movement Toward Inclusion

inclusion, group, wheelchair
Photo by geralt on Pixabay

Inclusion of people with disabilities. I have been reflecting on how my own journey with people with disabilities coincides with the movement to include persons with disabilities at the center of Christian congregations. My journey began when I realized I was a father of a child with developmental and intellectual disabilities. It continued as a pastor of congregations which included persons with disabilities and chronic mental illness who didn’t seem to fit elsewhere. It culminated in a career that included involvement in caregiving, community services, denominational programs, and ecumenical and interfaith networks that promote the inclusion of people with disabilities.

But what does that inclusion mean? My own church context is within Anabaptist and more specifically, Mennonite Churches. How are Christians, especially Anabaptist Christians, involved in the larger movement? Here are a number of recent approaches toward the inclusion of people with disabilities.

Advocacy in Society. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s expanded beyond advocacy for racial equality. Disability advocacy was one of the areas of expansion. Christians became involved in this advocacy. Disability rights organizations sprang up in the larger society and among their outreach programs were efforts to engage Christians in recognizing people with disabilities in society. For example, in the late 1990’s, Ginny Thornburgh and the National Organization on Disabilities (NOD) led an effort for 2000 congregations to commit to the journey to become accessible and inclusive by the year 2000.

Inclusive Theology. An intersection between disabilities studies and theology emerged in academic circles more fully around the turn of the century. AAIDD (American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) organized a “Religion and Spirituality Interest Network.” A journal currently known as the Journal of Disability and Religion provided a lively forum for scholars in many academic fields. By the end of the first decade, Bill Gaventa began an Institute on Theology and Disabilities which continues to organize a stimulating conference each year gathering scholars from around the world.

Individual and Family Outreach Ministries. Meanwhile, Christian ministry organizations were reaching out to families that included children with disabilities scattered among hundreds and thousands of churches across North America and the world. Among the most prominent of these ministries were Family Retreats sponsored by Joni and Friends. Similar local and regional efforts emerged in many parts of the country with a variety of programs.

Denominational Advocacy Agencies. The last half of the 20th century saw an uptick in denominational disabilities ministries. Among Mennonites this movement was first institutionalized, and eventually linked to ministries with families affected by chronic mental illness, under MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) and in 1995 transferred to Mennonite Mutual Aid (now Everence). When those programs were orphaned in late 2002, individuals formerly associated with them organized a separate non-profit organization called Anabaptist Disabilities Network (also known as ADNet and now simply ADN). In the process, ADN continued an earlier pattern of Mennonites relating to a larger ecumenical network known as the Committee on Disabilities (COD) which was established under the National Council of Churches (NCC).

Community Building. Alongside the efforts of denominational agencies and parachurch organizations have been alternative community models which mitigate against the efforts of the larger society to segregate and exile persons with disabilities and chronic mental illness. The earliest models in society funneled persons with disabilities into large institutions, separated as much as possible from the larger society. Eventually, smaller homes have become the norm and more efforts have been made to integrate people living in those homes into the larger community. At the same time, Christians and other persons of faith have been drawn to shared living households without the distinctions of “caregiver” and “client.” The L’Arche communities have become well-known as households and communities that include persons with and without identified disabilities. The L’Arche model has been instructive in the efforts of Mennonite-related providers of housing services to promote the shared living context in their communities.

Congregational Ministries. Some of the ministries noted above eventually intersected through their interest in providing resources for congregations to become more accessible and inclusive to people with disabilities in their communities.

  • The efforts of Ginny Thornburgh and NOD have already been noted as a result of general disabilities advocacy.
  • A related development under “Inclusive Theology” has been more specific research in how congregations relate to persons with disabilities and their communities. Particularly notable has been research implemented by Erik Carter, earlier at Vanderbilt University and now at Baylor University.
  • An extension of family-oriented ministries has emerged at Joni and Friends and dozens of other para-church organizations to provide resources to carry out inclusive ministries in local congregations and communities.
  • L’Arche and other housing-related ministries are increasingly building connections with local congregations to promote more integrated community relationships for persons with disabilities.

Meanwhile, denominational ministries have ebbed and flowed, facing many challenges and multiple attempts at restructuring. In the midst of these changes, Mennonites have been among the denominations contributing to an ongoing movement to provide both the impetus and the resources for congregations themselves to continue to promote the inclusion and belonging in vital Christian communities.

In 2011, Anabaptist Disabilities Network went through a major restructuring of its own, operating without an executive director for two years and temporarily scaling back to a more regional outreach. In the process, an effort to provide resources to congregations of all faiths begun around 2007 was spun off into a separate organization in 2011. The original vision was that as the NCC restructured disability advocacy out of its core mission, this new spin-off from ADN, called Congregational Accessibility Network (CAN), would emerge to continue to build a network of support and encouragement among the disability advocacy ministries of all denominations.

Now, a decade later, that vision is bearing fruit. ADN has strengthened its program, staffing, and outreach to include not only various Mennonite groups but also Brethren in Christ and Church of the Brethren as well. At the same time, a seven-year process has resulted in the unanimous passage of the Mennonite Church USA Accessibility Resolution in a special delegate assembly in May 2022. Renewed resources for study and action have been made available to congregations to put into practice the commitment “to [grow] as communities of grace, joy and peace without barriers so that God’s healing and hope flow through all of us to the world regardless of ability.”

In late 2022, a two-year effort to take this momentum toward inclusion of people with disabilities in local congregations to a wider Christian constituency resulted in the restructuring of CAN to form the Disability Ministry Network (DMN). DMN supplements the virtual explosion of work in advocacy, academics, and community-building. Its mission is to move forward the earlier vision “to build the capacity and enhance the impact of denominational and para-church organizations which promote inclusive congregational ministries with people with disabilities, their families, friends, and caregivers.” ADN is one of about forty charter member organizations of DMN.

In 1986, MCC published a little book called Supportive Care in the Congregation, reprinted during the 90s. In 2011, ADN published a revised edition with additional chapters.  The emphasis on care in the community has become well known even beyond Mennonite circles. The movement for the inclusion of people with disabilities belongs at the center of congregational life.

With the world-wide pandemic of 2020 and following years, it has become more obvious that Christian congregations themselves are facing radical changes. The denominations and networks to which these congregations have traditionally belonged are facing an upheaval in their roles and structures as well. It would be easy for the movement to include persons with disabilities to get lost in the shuffle. Yet, if anything, persons with disabilities and others marginalized by traditional church structures may hold the key to new ways of being the church. Welcoming marginalized people into the center of Christian community is one key to re-imagining church structures which go beyond perpetuating the existing institutions. The movement for the inclusion and welcoming of persons with disabilities into the center of Christian community is part of a larger movement of the Holy Spirit to rebuild the people of God into a church that once again looks more like Jesus.

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