It’s Time We Made People with Disabilities Feel Truly Welcome in Our Churches
There are various ministries and missions around the Diocese of New York which serve people with disabilities. The diocese has two congregations of people with hearing loss, including the longest operating church for the deaf in the world. Elsewhere, there are ministries to people with intellectual disabilities, and individuals who are blind and deaf have been voted onto vestries. We caption our convention and our video media. Many of our churches are now compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and people who use wheelchairs, walkers, or have other mobility challenges are finding it easier to access our structures.
All of this is good news, but in the end, what matters most is how we greet and treat each person in our churches, as Jesus did, as individuals with agency and as children of God, revealing our values and beliefs.
Recently, I sat down with Ms. Elizabeth Farren, known as Betsy to those at the Church of the Holy Apostles in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, and her adult son, Sanou (or ‘Nou’). I wanted to catch up and see how they were doing, and as a student in a seminary Disabilities Ministry program, I wanted to learn from their experiences. For the years I spent at Holy Apostles as a postulant for Holy Orders, seeing Nou in the congregation on Sundays was always an opportunity for great gladness. Nou was always expressive about his happiness to be in church. He would constantly smile, joyfully and enthusiastically rock to the music and choir, and receive the bread and cup with grace. And Nou stands out because as a person living with cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability, who travels in a wheelchair and expresses his needs with gestures and basic signs, he is different.
When Nou was younger and in Bible Studies classes at another church, he was expelled because of his atypical behaviors. However, Betsy and Nou have always found a home at Holy Apostles. When they first started worshipping at the church, Nou’s vocalizations were a minor problem. But with a little prompting and familiarity with the service, Nou began to follow the cues of everyone there. Betsy feels that when they attend services, Nou makes a difference in others in the congregation. Not everyone is a friend but many in the church have a relationship with her son, and Nou certainly loves the attention he gets from others. God works through each of us in unique ways.
Betsy’s advice to other churches it that they should be welcoming to all people and believes they should think about people with disabilities whenever they are making changes. For example, she asked, “Couldn’t every church building consider removing some of the pews for wheelchairs so that everyone can have a proper place in the nave?”
We certainly have a long way to go before everyone is truly welcomed as part of our congregations, but the example of Holy Apostles is one we can emulate. Betsy recalled the first Sunday when Bishop Andrew St. John stepped in as interim rector several years ago. Without hesitation, he approached Betsy and Nou and asked, How does he receive communion? That small grace-filled act was not just a simple question but a broad and Christian invitation into the Body of Christ.