Joshua Getahun, 18, and his family, including his father Merga have attended Pioneer Memorial Church since he was an infant. When he was younger, Joshua regularly volunteered to pray after the children's story was told. | Photo credit: Gaddiel Martinez
Globally, there are about one billion people living with a disability, of which depression is the most common. So, statistically, it is almost certain that there are several people with disabilities at any church. As Charlotte Thoms, coordinator of the North American Division’s Disabilities Ministries puts it, the Bible says we are all part of God’s body and calls us to pursue every nation. Hence, it is our duty to pursue and not turn our backs on the disabled community.
Assistant to the General Conference president for the Deaf and Possibility Ministries. Larry Evans agrees and explains why it is so important to reach the disabled community.
“There’s no way that Jesus will come when the people he spent so much time ministering to [during] his ministry are neglected,” he says about the lack of ministry for disabled individuals.
Accordingly, Charlotte points out that over three-fourths of Jesus’ miracles on earth involved disabled people. They are absolutely present in today’s church and, even though we may not be able to heal them, they deserve to be treated with the same love and patience that Jesus did.
So what can the church do to encourage participation and leadership from disabled individuals? Below are several useful tips compiled from conversations with Larry Evans, Charlotte Thoms and Fawn Scherencel.
Larry and Charlotte both believe that a genuine desire for change is one of the first key steps in being more inclusive towards disabled individuals. Larry trusts that every single church has compassionate members who can play a role in including disabled brothers and sisters. However, Charlotte believes that many people tend to be reluctant of including those with disabilities because they fear saying or doing something considered offensive to the disabled community. However, Fawn Scherencel, a congenital amputee and principal of Hinsdale Adventist Academy in Hinsdale, Illinois, states that she appreciates those who approach her with genuine intentions.
“I would much rather someone ask me a sincere candid question about my disability than to just be afraid to ask,” she said.
Once those fears are lifted, members can begin to better understand the community and their culture. Larry emphasizes the importance of understanding the culture before making changes. He believes trying to work with someone without understanding them is essentially pointless.
Larry has found that there is a common pattern of identifying disabled individuals solely through their disability. Remember that disabled individuals have their own passions, interests and unique personalities and should be treated as such.
Churches can try to counteract this stigma by establishing a sense of identity and purpose that goes far beyond their disability. He believes giving individuals actual roles in the church leadership to promote fellowship can help establish their sense of purpose in the local church.
Another tendency people have when participating in disability ministries is the idea that they are working for the disabled person. Larry explains this can be condescending as it implies someone has to do work for them. Instead, members should look forward to working with the disabled community.
Learn to see the possibility in people before the disability. This will help you build the community while also building your understanding.
Taking action is one of the steps of Larry’s “3 A Strategy” — Awareness, Acceptance, Action — to reach the disabled. First, members need to become aware of the characteristics and needs of the disabled community while simultaneously accepting them for how God made them. Once members do this and have a clearer perception of the community, they can begin to create a plan of action. An action plan helps identify those with disabilities, addresses their specific needs and proposes accommodation plans to ultimately create opportunities for them.
Whether it be a blind person who needs a Braille Bible or a handicapped person who needs a ramp to access the audio-visual stage, the members should now be prepared to address the need. Consider creating a committee or nominating a leader to take charge of disability ministries.
Don’t be scared if you feel like not many people are interested or as if your actions are not impactful enough. Larry describes Possibility Ministries as a grassroots movement that grows from the ground up. According to Charlotte, before the General Conference even had any type of disabilities ministry, the local church was the grassroots of this movement since before 1995.
She encourages members to remember that God promises to be there even if there are only two or three. No group is too small and no action is too small so get comfortable taking baby steps.
Larry acknowledges that even though Disability Ministries is a grassroots movement, divisions and unions play roles as well in supporting conferences and local churches. Your division may help you by providing resources not available at the local level. Interpreter training, workshops, informational handbooks and recently published virtual learning material in response to the ongoing pandemic are all resources that are sure to help your grassroots movement get going.
Useful resources for the disabled community or those interested in disability ministries:
Joel Guerra is a PR and Business Administration major at Southern Adventist University. The young adult from Chicago enjoys social media and local journalism.