Today is “Access Sunday” in the UCC, a day for celebrating the inclusion of people with disabilities in our congregations and denomination. In honor of this day I am posting this bio of Virginia Kreyer which I wrote some years ago for a polity class. Here is to all those who work to widen the welcome of our churches.
Rev. Virginia Kreyer was more than a pioneer of her time; and today she is one of the heroes within the UCC tradition. As Kreyer would likely urge me to point out, she is not a hero because of the circumstances of her life, rather she is a hero because she called upon our denomination to examine its own participation in unjust systems and in so doing, called the UCC itself to change. Kreyer was a social activist, and the UCC would not have the same social commitments that it does today if she had not spoken from her unique perspective for change. To speak about social issues in her own voice required not only great courage from Kreyer but that she also use her own story as a tool for explaining the need for and way to change. For this, Kreyer has been called a pioneer as well as a prophet (“Virginia Kreyer Award” and “Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”).
Virginia Kreyer was born in 1925, and “[d]ifficulties at her birth . . . resulted in cerebral palsy at a time when the condition was little understood” (“Alumni Books: Virginia’s Story”). At that time, cerebral palsy (CP) was not a disability often seen openly in society; yet, rather than hide Virginia and cater to her needs, her family was bold in their approach to raising her. It has been noted that: “Virginia’s mother was pivotal in how Virginia became who she is. She never allowed her daughter to use her disability as an excuse. Believing that a disability is not something you hide, she imbued Virginia with her quality of dogged persistence” (“Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”). While Kreyer had family support, it often requires more for those with CP to thrive in a world that does not understand what it means to live with the challenges CP. Gay McCormick, UCC DM representative to the Office of General Ministry, has pointed out that “[t]o know the importance of [Virginia’s] qualities it is necessary to understand that she required years of physical and occupational therapy as well as extensive speech therapy, and, that as a child, she was perceived as mentally retarded because of her speech” (Ibid). Fortunately, this perception was one that Kreyer would surpass as she grew physically, intellectually, educationally, and professionally.
Kreyer thrived in her life and her education. However, it was not only Kreyer’s family who inspired her to thrive. Kreyer’s “faith in God inspired her as well. She once said, [that] ‘those who have accepted their handicaps and triumphed over them are those who have learned to look beyond themselves for help and learned of the ways of the spiritual world’” (UCC Vitality). It was a spiritual lesson she learned early, yet that would not make her journey any easier. In Kreyer’s “high school and college days she had felt God’s call to work in the church. It was a call to make this world a better place in which to live, but ‘Who would ordain a ‘handicapped” woman?’ the writer of her nominating letter said” (“Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”). It was a good question in the 1940 and 1950’s. It was a question that Kreyer would answer. “A year after Virginia graduated from college she became a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, but not before her first application for admission was rejected. With the assistance of clergy and Union faculty who supported her, she was admitted as a full-time B.D. (now M.Div.) student” (Ibid). As a disabled woman, Kreyer had to fight to even get into seminary.
Kreyer was ordained first, in a denomination other than the UCC (unclear which one), after her graduation from UTS. At that time, she went to work, hoping to be a chaplain, for the Nassau County (NY) Cerebral Palsy Center where she worked until 1984. However, it is said this center had intended for Kreyer to be a role model to others of what was possible for persons with CP; Kreyer was not happy with this and started a Masters of Social Work program, which she completed in 1960. (Ibid.)
In the ten years between 1967 and 1977, Kreyer would begin to step into her call to a ministry that would make the world a better place to live. “In 1967 she began attending Garden City Community Church, a UCC congregation, becoming a UCC member in 1971. Then she began a long process of being ordained in the UCC” (Ibid). It was during the process of transferring her ordination status to the UCC, that she commented to her ordination committee in New York on the need for “beginning of a committee for persons with disabilities called handicapped / physically challenged” (Ibid).
Kreyer may not have been asking for a new job, but she had it. After five frustrating years of trying to get her association to address the needs of people with physical disabilities, it was suggested to Kreyer that a resolution be presented to the New York Conference at their next meeting. Not only did the New York resolution pass in 1976, but it was forwarded for action to the 1977 Synod (Ibid). Both Rev. Virginia Kreyer and Rev. Harold Wilke (born without arms) gave moving speeches urging the 1977 Synod (UCC Vitality) to endorse “ministry to and with persons with disabilities” (“Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”). It was a defining moment for both Kreyer and the UCC. Kreyer accepted the 1/5th time consulting position with the denomination that this resolution created; in this position, she assisted local churches in learning how to become accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities. This work made Kreyer the first leader of what has come to be known as the UCC Disabilities Ministries (UCCDM).
Kreyer’s advocacy for people with disabilities was not limited to the UCC. “In 1991 she attended the Consultation on the Disabled in preparation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and then served as a UCC delegate to the World Council, working on issues of disability rights”(Ibid). Kreyer also served as “a member of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC) Committee of the Disabled, and then a member of the Board of Directors, 1977-1995” (Ibid). Kreyer retired from service to the UCC in 1995. (Ibid).
Kreyer’s work within the UCC will be long remembered. At the Synod in 2001, a new award known as the ‘Kreyer Award’ was announced to recognize persons who “have shown a pioneering spirit in the work of the UCCDM” and “leadership inside and outside the church and furthering the day when persons with disabilities will be full partners and contributors within church and society” (“The Virginia Kreyer Award”). Kreyer was the first person to receive the Kreyer Award. In 2007, Kreyer was given the high honor of the UCC’s Antoinette Brown Award, reserved for distinguished and ordained UCC women (“Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”).
Rev. Virginia Kreyer’s work in advocating for the opening of all the churches to all of God’s children with disabilities has been felt and discussed, literally, around the world. Kreyer not only sent out the call for the UCC to change but she used her own journey-story, to create the change that she needed to see in the denomination and the world. It has been said that Kreyer was “a rare human being whose faith and witness has inspired the UCC to extend an extravagant welcome. Her welcome embraces all people, but especially those with disabilities of any kind” (UCC Vitality). Doors have been opened, that cannot be shut. The UCC will never be the same, thanks to Rev. Virginia Kreyer, the woman who did!