The UCC has a history of being a denomination of firsts! Thus, I lift up to you some new firsts that have occurred within the UCC. At the end of September approximately 300 people, from Maine to Hawaii, gathered in St Louis, Missouri for the “Widening the Welcome” Conference. It was the first UCC Disability Ministry Conference! It may have been the first disability ministry conference, ever. As I talked with other people in attendance it became apparent that this was also the first conference (religious, academic, or professional) that attendees could remember that brought the issues of mental illness/brain disorders and disability together for reflection, communion, and dialogue about the future of ministry and inclusion. In the disability and mental illness communities this gathering was rather a big deal!
Beside the breath-taking St Louis Arch that symbolizes what was once the gateway to new frontiers, UCC members, clergy, people living with and without disability and/or mental illness came together to reflect on the ministries of inclusion they were already involved with and to learn from one another how the local church might be more inclusive of people with disabilities or mental illness and their families. Keynote speakers included Dr. Sister Nancy Kehoe, a Clinical Instructor in Psychology who spoke about her experience integrating spirituality in the realm of mental health services and offered workshops on how this can be a practical and supportive ministry in local settings, and Dr. Debbie Cramer Assistant Professor at Iliff School of Theology spoke about disability theology. Rev. Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman preached the importance of including persons, including clergy, with mental illness in our faith communities. Rev. Bob Molsberry challenged us to consider who the “guest” is and who the “host” might really be when we encounter people with disabilities in our churches. Rev. Peter Bauer was also a force at the conference reminding us that both traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder are huge issues for soldiers returning from war and that this presents a challenge to clergy who “4 times out of 10” are the first professionals who people with PTSD may seek help from, as well as being a challenge for congregations that have members returning from war or congregations that are engaged in ministry to military families and personnel. There were many more wonderful discussions and speakers at the conference–this is only a sampling.
The Widening the Welcome (WtW) conference was important in content and more about that can be found at the conference’s website (below), but it was also important in fellowship. For the first time people involved in doing disability ministry, those involved with the academic writing of disability theology, persons with disabilities who had been included in the church, those with disabilities or family with disabilities who sought deeper inclusion in the church, clergy with disabilities, seminarians with disabilities, and their allies were all gathered in one place. It was a time to reflect on where the UCC really was thirty-three years after passing its first Synod resolution about including people with disabilities and where we have still to grow as local churches and as a denomination into our 2005 Synod resolution urging us to be churches “Accessible 2 All”. In fact, bearing witness to this gathering, our UCC General Conference Minister, Rev. Geoffery Black addressed the conference, saying that the Disability Ministry and Mental Illness Network of the UCC “are a movement within the movement of the UCC”. True to that statement, a small group of attendees met, post-conference, to plan what the UCC Disabilities Ministries and UCC Mental Illness Network will bring to the 2011 Synod and to start planning the next “Widening the Welcome” Conference for September 2011.
The ‘movement with’ the UCC to “widen the welcome”, again, has begun. Stay alert for information about the Widening the Welcome 2 Conference planned for September 2011. And, if you are wishing now that you had had the opportunity to tap into the vast resources the first conference provided then I offer you the following ideas:
- The keynote addresses and individual workshops at WtW were recorded for distribution and are available on DVD; for more information on how to obtain these resources go to the Widening the Welcome conference website at: http://www.moredomainsforless.com/wideningthewelcome/index.htm.
- Connect with the UCC Disabilities Ministries or the UCC Mental Illness Network, both have websites with lots of information; and Widening the Welcome has a Facebook presence you may join.
- Get involved in disability ministry! The UCCDM resource ‘Anybody, Everybody, Christ’s Body’ is a wonderful resource for people who want to learn more or lead a congregational study on including people with disabilities, and you can download it for FREE!
Finally, if this is an interest to you, reach out! I would love to connect and work with people/congregations who are interested in disability ministry. Above all the UCC Disabilities Ministry conference highlighted that as a communion of local churches we are resources for one another in learning to continue to bring all persons on the margins not only into our doors but also into full participation with the gospel, our congregations, and our many ministries.