Many of us have heard the phrase “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the United States,” or at least some variation of the same. Often when we hear that phrase, our mindset leads us to reflect on how the church is segregated by racial, socio-economic and cultural designations. We have the “Black” church, the “White” church, the Korean, Hispanic, German, etc. church. We also see the reality of the “poor” church separated from the “rich” church, or the rural/urban church dichotomy. Indeed, in many of these ways the church is segregated and times of worship, as well as other times in the life of the faith community, highlight the degrees of separation we experience.
One way to understand this phenomenon of segregation is that within our communities (and by extension broader society) we separate ourselves according to our differences. We become groups labeled in some way so as to understand who are “us” and those who are different from us. In the process what also becomes manifest, regardless of intentionality, is a sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit system by which we know who is included and who is excluded — who is in and who is outside of our group.
A categorization of difference by which we tend to divide is around ability. As in culture, so also within the church, we have disconnected according to who is able and who is less able. Within the category of disabled, we often place persons with physical, intellectual, psychological, neurological and emotional challenges.
Unfortunately, even though we are all created in the image of God, and God has extended an extravagant welcome for us to have life more abundantly, there is a sad and stark reality that we as humans have not always been abundant in extending our hospitality to persons who are different from us. The church is not called to mirror society; rather, we are called to model community.
“But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’… but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor 12.18-26 NRSV)
The lesson Jesus left with us is that we need to invite those who are not in our social circle, those with mental, physical and developmental disabilities into our midst. The Reign of God is like a banquet where the host — that’s us — invites the poor, the marginalized, the disabled and the mentally ill, people just like us because they too are created in the image of God to share in the abundance. And the Realm is seen when we all share in fellowship, friendship, mutual acceptance, support and a spiritual journey together.
The world may not change all too soon. The powers of marginalization which deflate and diminish people are strong. But this is not God’s answer. The reign of God is at hand and we are called to work toward that reign. After all, accessibility is attitudinal, not just architectural. So let us, like Jesus, begin to “widen the welcome,” and identify ways in which we can widen our welcome by affirming and including persons with disabilities as equals in the life of our churches. So take a look around and ask “who is missing from our church?”
Rev. Gunnar Cerda lives in Delaware with his family. His ministry includes serving on the national Board of Directors for United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries. He is also chaplain with OhioHealth in outpatient services.