Disability and Diversity-Access Sunday 2013

On Access Sunday this year I was invited to speak to a local congregation about disability and diversity. Below is the talk I prepared, I did not follow it completely in speaking but it is my thoughts on the matter. I am available to speak with congregations about accessibility and disability ministries.

I am Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas and I want to thank you for asking me to speak with you this evening. I was asked to speak with you this evening about the issues of disability and diversity—I am especially happy to have this talk with you this evening as today is what the UCC calendar calls Access Sunday, which is a day to celebrate accessibility in local churches; it is also the beginning of disability awareness week which concludes a week from today with Mental Health Sunday . So by further way of introduction let me introduce myself as a person with disabilities I was born with disabilities so I grew up with all the social stigma of disability but as I grew I was also well trained to pass as a person without disability; I have also acquired disabilities as adult and been a caregiver for persons with disability and mental health issues. So I come to speak with you about the diversity of disability as a person with disabilities. As I believe you were told in preparation for this evening, I also serve on the Board of Directors for the United Church of Christ Disability Ministries, for who I am the Secretary; and I am engaged in the ecumenical work of disability advocacy through EDAN a program of the World Council of Churches.

In many ways I am still musing about how to speak to you about the diversity of disabilities. (Because of our limited time I am going have to be rather general so please write down your questions to ask later.) Disabilities and all that is included as a part of that is a very broad spectrum, but that does not mean it is relative and we can say we are all somehow “disabled”. I say that up front because I think that as we look at what disability is there is the temptation to make it into something that includes all people, and it simply is not. Disability is a social location experienced by living in the world in an individually unique way, and yet that experience of being  uniquely different from everyone else is an experience that is shared by roughly 1 in 5 persons world-wide or 20% of persons. I also want to say a word about mental health. Mental Health issues affect 1 in 4 families, or 25% of American families. While disability does not guarantee that a person has a mental illness, often times the social stigmas, effects of bullying and/social oppression/discrimination that people with disabilities commonly experience lead to the development of mental health issues—btw I have read some statistics that suggest that bullying of youth with disability is more common then the bullying of any other youth, including GLBT youth. Similarly although having mental health issues does not necessarily mean that a person with mental health issues has another form of disability, many mental health issues have physical effects and may lead to temporary physical disability as part of the mental illness. I am going to talk about later about the specific work that UCCDM and the UCCMHN are doing together. But for now, I just want to underscore for you what these statistics mean—it means that for every 100 people in your church, 20 people likely have some type of disability and 25 likely have or are in a family with a person with mental health issues—and there is likely some over lap of these persons.

If we had more time I would ask you at this time to tell me what a disability is and I would write that all out for us to see, we don’t have time for that, so pull what it is you think a disability is up in your mind. Have you got it? Good, but we won’t have time to share that right now, but hold it for your small group discussions. There are two definitions of disability that I find to be very very useful.

1. “[a] firm definition of ‘disability’ underlies the authority of the ADA, which defines ‘individual with a disability’ rather broadly. A person may be considered disabled if he or she has (a) has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more of the major life functions, (b) has a record of such impairment, or (c) is perceived as having such an impairment. Even if the impairment is no longer present, the individual may still be considered disabled. [Arthur Shapiro, Every Body Belongs: Changing Negative Attitudes Towards Classmates with Disabilities, (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 1999) 263.]

 and, people with disabilities have developed the following definition of disability, which is used in the ecumenical movement

2. “Impairment: Lacking all or part of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body.

Disability: The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.” [Arne Fritzon and Samuel Kabue, Interpreting Disability: A Church of All and for All, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2004), ix-x.]

We are still going to talk about what disability is for a moment but I want to start moving into disability  and the UCC. The UCC has been involved in addressing the issue of disability through an active disability ministry for at least the last thirty years. The most recent General Synod resolution about disability, called “The Called to Wholeness in Christ Resolution”, was passed in 2005 and it calls on all expressions of the UCC to become accessible in the spirit of the ADA. This means our Synod has called for local congregations to work for the full inclusion for all persons with disability–

This includes: Physical disabilities, Developmental disabilities, Mental/Emotional disabilities (including mental illness, brain disorders, autism, depression, anxiety, ect.); Mobility disabilities (arthritis, back issues, use of canes/walkers/wheelchairs ect.); Auditory/hearing impairments; Vision impairments; Temporary disabilities; Hidden disabilities (things people don’t/won’t talk about); Disabilities brought on by accidents or age; and anything else missing from this list.

Guiding churches in doing the work of becoming accessible and inclusive of all persons with disability is part of the work done by UCCDM. The UCCDM has a designation we call A2A. Churches who want to be A2A are asked to work through a curriculum/resource packet to help the congregation gain a better understanding the breath of the diversity of disabilities, how to be welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities, and how to be prepared to make appropriate accommodations when necessary. This resource packet is called “Any Body, Every Body, Christ’s Body” it is free and you can download it from the UCCDM website. The UCCDM Board acknowledged that while accessibility for churches often means making physical accommodations, the majority of work involved in becoming accessible is related to what we term becoming “socially accessible” to people with disability and this is a process of learning and integrating disability etiquette.

Many people do not realize or forget that up through the 1970’s people with disabilities were prohibited from public spaces under what were called “ugly laws”,  confined to institutions (sometimes w/o consent), denied the right to marry due to eugenics laws, and that people with disabilities were not guaranteed access to public education until 1973. As you can guess there is still much work to do in society before we reach the full inclusion of people with disabilities and persons with mental health issues—but there is actually more work for us to do in our churches. When the ADA came into existence it was supported by the churches, but most people don’t realize that the clergy supporting the passage of the ADA also worked to exempt churches from the implications of the law; the result is that in addition to churches being among the most racially divided places on Sunday mornings, churches have become the most inaccessible places in our communities.

The UCC and UCCDM have been heavily involved in area of civil rights for people with disabilities; just as all groups of people who go through a civil rights process seem to reclaim. language and even rename themselves as a group, the disability community has done this as well. The UCCDM through the A2A resources have sought to establish the use of what the disability community calls “people first language”, and that handout is on the table for you. People first language is language that names the person, or theologically the humanity, of the person about whom one is talking or writing before defining that person by their disability, as previous terms did. People first language is the standard within the UCC and within the disability community—I will tell you that some disability scholars with disability are using other terms and the language within the disability community is in flux, but people first language will not offend, so its safe as a rule to use in all settings.

So I just want to close with a very brief description of the larger work of the UCCDM. The UCCDM has fostered a renewal of the UCC Mental Health Network, which this summer changed their name to the Mental Health Network. Some of the other projects that the UCCDM is actively engaged in are….[this has been omitted from this post, please see uccdm.org for more information about UCCDM activities]

So that is just a little about the diversity of the disability community, disability history, civil rights, and how disability is part of the life the UCC. I am going to stop and open it up to questions. 

God Loves. God Provides. God’s Kingdom

A Sermon based on Hosea 11:1-1 Luke 12: 13-31; Preached at La Jolla Congregational Church, UCC

The hymn we just sang (God of Grace and God of Glory), aside from being one of my favorites, was written by Harry Emerson Fosdick one of the major theologians of the modernist movement during the twentieth century. For Fosdick, the Bible was a repository of our basic human experiences. (1) Religion for Fosdick was, as one historian wrote “a psychological experience….an experience that makes a difference, for the kind of religion that matters is the kind that saves, that is to say, the kind that integrates, strengthens, and enriches the personal lives of those who engage it.” (2) The role of human experience was important to the theological and biblical understanding of Fosdick and other of the modernist theologians of the twentieth century.

“God of Change…” I wonder what Fosdick would think of the scriptures before us this morning. I wonder how he might take the social, political, and economic realities of our own time and interpret these scriptures today. He of course is long since gone, so I am afraid you will have to allow me this morning to step in for him and look at these scripture with you to see what ‘meaning may yet break forth’ from them for us today. (3) As I have thought about these texts this week I have come to the basic ideas outlined in my sermon title: God Loves. God Provides. God’s Kingdom.

Now there are those persons who might tell me that I am stretching it to find the message that God Loves in the Book of Hosea. I am not, but it is true that this prophetic book is one that recounts the tresspasses that led to the exile of the Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel, and it was not pretty. Much like, Fosdick, Hosea was a prophet trying to make sense of his world. For Hosea, the world he came into was one in which God had made promises to love and care for, to prosper the people, of Israel. But the rules changed. Hosea found himself in a time in which numerous Kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were assassinated; a time in which political and military alliances were being made with Assyria–an oppressor of the Kingdom Israel at the expense of traditional allies. It really did not make a lot of sense… Hosea and his people found themselves in a world of change, a world in which exile would arrive. Theologically speaking, the people of the Northern Kingdom had turned their attention away from their covenant with God and the aspects of their lives that defined their society, and focused their attentions on chasing the political powers and material wealth that kingdoms outside Israel might provide. The Northern Kingdom had shifted their focus from the values of covenant to placing ultimate meaning on material gains and wealth and the prophetic record is clear they paid for their focus on materialism and wealth with exile. Which way are choosing in our own day?

The Book of Hosea is a book of prophecy so it is not all doom and gloom…there is hope. Hosea’s doom and gloom, however, are a warning about the downfalls that await a society that strays from right relationship with God. For right relationship with God that is at the very heart of prophetic messages. For Hosea, the hope for restored right relationship lies in the history of God’s love, care, and historical provisions for the people of God’s covenant. It is this hope in God’s love for God’s people that rings through our passage for this morning.

Our passage from Hosea this morning portrays God’s love for the people by recounting the God’s acts of providing for the people of Israel. Hosea recounts the Exodus quoting God as saying “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11: 1-11).  Then the prophetic narrative goes on to portray God telling the story of God’s presence in the life of the Northern Kingdom “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk…I led them with cords of human kindness with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” (Hosea 11: 3-4) This is not a God far off but a God who is intimately involved in the life of the people. It may even be that the reference to Ephraim is a reassurance to the people of the North Kingdom, as their first King Jeroboam was from the house of Ephraim. (4) The metaphors used to portray God’s acts of love toward the people are ones we would expect to find in reference to a loving parent.

(Feminist scholars would note that it is significant that the metaphors for God in this passage of Hosea refer to the love either a father or mother would give a child. It is significant because the rest of the Book of Hosea is often very harsh towards women. Thus to portray God’s love and protection in gender neutral way here of all places is such a rarity of the prophet it must be paid attention to as carrying another layer of meaning. (5) We shall, however, leave the feminist treatment of Hosea for another day.)

Our passage from Hosea concludes with God providing for the people to return from exile to their own homes, once right relationship with God is reestablished.

Perhaps Harry Emerson Fosdick would ask us, at this juncture, how we maintain our right relationship with God? How do we balance our need to live in society, exist on the material level, and maintain relationship with God in light of our hope for the coming of God’s Kingdom? How indeed do we find the wisdom & courage “for the facing of this hour”?  (6)

As Christians, we look to the gospel for guidance and wisdom in how to maintain right relationship with God. The gospel lesson the lectionary presents us with today, verses 1-11, are those that deal with the distribution of wealth and the accumulation of goods. However, if we read further in the text we learn that it is not enough to just note that Jesus refused to address the just distribution of wealth, when he refused to address the man’s concerns about inherited possessions. It is not enough to note that Jesus warns those who hoard material goods that God will make a mockery of material hoarding, when God comes like a thief in the night to call us from this life (Luke 12: 20). Whereas Hosea was concerned with the national or corporate pitfalls of striving for power and wealth; the Gospel speak to us of our individual drives for power and wealth.

The parable alone is not enough,to understand the Jesus meaning. It is Jesus’ commentary to his disciples after the parable if the rich fool, in verses 12-31, that teach the spiritual values if the Kingdom of God that Jesus trying to impart to those he had chosen to spread his message. In the verses following the parable, Jesus’ teaching to the disciples makes it clear that he does not address the man’s concern about the division of inherited goods not because Jesus is disinterested in the division of material goods, but because it is the wrong concern to focus on. Jesus affirms at the end of this speech that God knows we need the materials necessities of life (Luke 12: 30). Jesus’s point is that all those material things are not only not the point and goal of living but can actually get in the way of our right relationship with God.

Jesus’s teaching to the disciples in verses 12-31 speak directly to the the value of human worth and value of human life. Here Jesus reminds the disciples that the birds do not work; they behave as expected of birds. The parallel for us seems to be that we are to be concerned less with doing work, but in being human. Similarly Jesus teaches the disciples that we are valuable to God just because we are who we are, not because of the things we do. Jesus teaches that the value of the lilies is in the inherent beauty of their nature, which far surpasses what can be accomplished by human hands. Jesus attempts to teach the disciples that we are human beings, and not human doings.

This is not an easy teaching. I often wonder if the disciples grew to understand this teaching. I often wonder if we understand it today.

As a hospice chaplain I often interact with persons facing depression, not so much because they facing the end of their lives, but because they no longer are able to do the things they once did or fulfil their roles as they once did. You see in our contemporary individualistic society we tend to place ultimate value on doing and providing for one’s self, and that is how we judge human worth. So when people can no longer do for themselves they face a crisis of meaning, which I tend to think of a crisis of being. At the root it is a crisis caused by being human and vulnerable. In these situations I often find myself coming to this scripture about the lilies. You see we have worth because we are living, because we are in relationship with God; not because of what we may do or accumulate. It is hard thing, in our society, to comprehend that our worth rests in something we have no control over at all, its all ”God of Grace”.

I was at our recent Synod in Long Beach. And while I am one of the first people to get excited about the theological implications of a God who is still speaking, I heard this so ad nauseum that I started thinking….about the the still speaking God…About myself as a person who started life with profound speech impediment…There are so many ways to communicate, why would God need always to speak? I started thinking about the persons with whom I minister: those who are dying, those who struggle with worth; then I thought of those who never spoke and those whom can no longer speak. How does a still speaking God speak to them? I recalled, in that convention hall so full of speeches, how profound it is to sit in silence, to try to be rather than do, and I knew that simply being is way of living I have yet to understand much less to master. And I then thought..what about the God who can not speak?

The “speaking” of God and human beings is our covenant or relationship. Given that we live with a “God of Change and God of Glory”, how do we interpret the prophetic text from Hosea and Jesus’ parable about the rich fool and Jesus’ lillies in light of our own experiences? Like Hosea and his people, like the farmer with full barns, we too are called by our covenant with God to be God’s people so fully concerned with the importance of human personality that our focus remains right relationship with God. (7) What do we do with that call? What would Harry Emerson Fosdick, have me say?

It occurs to me that what I might say is this: What if God is still loving, and God is still providing, but we are so concerned with wall street and the dow, with NASDAQ and the unemployment rate, with behaving as the superpower and keeping “other” people where they “belong”…What if we are missing our call to live into God’s Kingdom? What if God can no longer speak, because in our experiences we have become so consumed with the idols and of modern life that we are no longer listening?

Endnotes
(1) Macquire, John. Twentieth Century Religious Thought. (Trinity Press: Harrisburg, 2001) 189.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Play on a quote famous in the UCC, from a sermon Robinson wrote to a congregation upon reaching the new world.

(4) From “Ephraim” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephraim, accessed August 3, 2013.

(5) Yee, Gale. “Hosea” in the Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1992) 200.

(6) Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace and God of Glory”, as printed in Hymnal of the United Church of Christ. (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1974).

(7) See commentary by Moore, Rickie in Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005)  1273-1274.

NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!

Note this maybe a part one of more.

Occasionally I am reminded that people don’t understand me…reminded that I don’t fit the neat categorical boxes…and occasionally I am reminded how uncomfortable that can be for me and other people.

I had the unfortunate experience of this happening to me at the recent UCC Synod in Long Beach, California. I was there as a delegate for the Justice and Witness Ministry of the denomination, the board that I served as the disability ministry liaison to until the denominational structure changed at the end of Synod. As a delegate I was on the floor for discussions, and there were a lot of us, so I tried to minimize my speaking so all who needed to speak may be heard. If you know me, or have read a few of these blogs, you may know that means I found myself at the microphone at least two or three times (in five days to be fair to myself). Once upon returning to my seat I had the following conversation with a man who was also in the Justice and Witness delegation with me, thus he knew me from previous board meetings and who I represented. My inner thoughts, no matter how badly I wanted to say them, will be in italics:

Man: You don’t (snidely) really have a disability, but I think its nice you speak up for people who do.

Me: Excuse me, wh-at? What did you just say? I’m not disabled, or not disabled-enough? Act-u-ally I do have a disability. (I spoke slowly and clearly so he could hear me in the convention hall with 2000 other people, and at the table full of our delegation, and clearly he lacked understanding the type for which I lack diagnostic powers.)

Man: (He leaned in close to me, and if he had been any closer I would have felt his beard hairs brush my face.) No you don’t. (Nodding his head closer to me. This man was in my face!) Well, then what is your disability?

Me:  Are you kidding me? I can’t believe I am going to answer that question. But I have to because if I don’t he either thinks I am a fake or a liar, my only choice is to revel my personal medical history. So I gave him the bullet points of my history. I felt like I was unveiling a secret window into my personal and family history–not because I was ashamed but because it was personal and vulnerable and I was surrounded by people in a loud place and practically commanded, not asked, to reveal myself, or else be deemed a fraud. Only in retrospect as I consider the gender, age, and racial power dynamics of this interaction do the connotations of white, male, aged, and able bodied privilege reveal themselves. In retrospect this man becomes more and more a creepy old man.

I quickly looked away and avoided eye contact with him. The business of the evening moved on. I glared.  He moved back to his seat at the other end of the table. I watched him and his presence made me uncomfortable the whole rest of the evening. I knew I was upset, I did not want this unjust and unequal type of exchange to color my experience of Synod. I knew he was only one person. But, still, this was church, ALL SHOULD BE WELCOME, INCLUDED, and AFFIRMED. But I felt uncomfortable and unsafe. I seethed. I had trouble focusing on the worship but somehow pulled myself together. I knew if given the chance I needed to ‘lean-into’ this conflict.

At the end of worship and the evening I felt heavy and weighted, and only partly because I was exhausted from the day. Most people left the convention hall quickly. I soon found that myself and this man were among the last at our table. I glared at him. He stepped forward to give me a hug, having been all pumped up by the preacher.

Me: No. I am sorry. I want to be in fellowship and Communion with you, but I am still thinking about our earlier conversation and I am just really hurt.

Man: I understand. (He dropped his arms and started to drop his head.)

Me: I don’t fall for the dejected liberal do-gooder act very well. UMM. No I don’t think you do. To insinuate that I don’t have a disability, or am not disabled enough, when you know that is obviously how I self-identify is not ok. It is a form of bullying. I have to put up with that type of bullying in the world and in the workplace but I’ll be dammed if I am going to put up with it in church! And you did that while wearing your anti-bully scarf so no I don’t think you understand at all!

He but his hands to together as if in respect and walked away out of the hall, as he left I saw him take the anti-bullying scarf off and place it in his bag, that made me feel slightly better. I was very upset and had to find one of my disability peeps to talk to about this.

The next day, Synod debated the anti-bullying resolution that was before us. I spoke from experience about being bullied as a person with disability, and reminded the church, the Synod, that it happens even “here” within the “bar” that separates delegates from the rest of the church; and I asked they vote not to feel good but to change themselves.(The UCC News quoted me.)

One of the staff members saw me the following day and asked about my comment related to being bullied at Synod. Upon my arrival to Synod I had been talking with this staff member, who happens to be African-American, when another (white) delegate came up and asked her if she had “gotten a tan” on vacation; by the time I was mid-way through my double take processing the comment about a “tan” the staff member was so elegantly agreeing that she had gotten a “tan” that I almost believed it was casual conversation. It wasn’t and the staff member brought it up when she asked about my bullying comment. We alluded to having some of the same feelings related to our separate experiences.

So church, think before you speak or ask… Think about the privilege you carry that others may not have. Consider the other, the Thou, the beloved child of God before you speak. Just think before you open your mouth. Could what you are about to say be offensive? Can your curiosity be framed another way? Because, yes, I do have a disability; and yes, maybe she did get a tan. But then maybe, just maybe. ITS NONE OF YOUR DAMMED BUSINESS!

“Run Free”?–An Ontological Question

Sunday morning in church the choir sang an amazing anthem. One line of that anthem stuck out to me and has left me pondering since the service went like this “…the lame will run free”. The anthem was speaking about the world as if settled in the Kindom* of God. The image of the lame walking is a standard image found in the Biblical narrative. It is not so much a literal image as it is one of the metaphorical images used to depict the the Kindom of God where right relationships are restored and persons are liberated to be who God made them to be. An image used to show that the Kindom is real and here on earth.

The line from the anthem stands out to me because this making the “lame” to “walk” has theological implications of personhood and ontological implications of our identities in the afterlife. Its a question I hear only quietly asked between friends, even within the disability community. It is not so much an opposition to the metaphorical image of making the blind to see or the lame to walk being symbolic of the Kindom of God, for of course there is an expectation that the Kindom of God will bring many things that we can not now imagine and that there with be a wholeness of identity and personhood that is beyond our mortal understanding . But between friends in the disability community, I have yet to met one persons who thinks or wants to arrive in the Kindom of God “cured” and without their impairments. No, my friends are not in need of psychological assistance, on the contrary most are clergy and have passed psychological background testing and others whom I have had this conversation with are PhDs. This issue here is not what the Kindom of God brings or does not bring, it is not an issue of God’s power needing to be made manifest, the issue is ontological individual identity.

“Of course I will have disability in the Kingdom of God!” I have a clear memory of a friend proclaiming this to me. It was not a denial of all things being made new in God , but an assertion that the identity that God created in her was GOOD (see Genesis)! The identity of people with disabilities  is what often gets misunderstood when we toss around ideas of the mute persons talking, the blind man seeing, and the woman with a limp suddenly having none.

As human beings we are embodied beings. Just as Jesus came to know the world by becoming incarnate, we come to know the world, build relationships with others, and come to know and understand God through our experience of being in our bodies. It is hard to deny that our bodies impact our identities. Look at how the theory, theology, and lived experience of the GLBTQI movement over the last twenty years has demonstrated how our experiences of embodiment impact our identities. It would be impossible for me to know how not growing up being ridiculed and bullied for having a speech impediment, physical slowness, and poor balance would have impacted my identity. Do I, personally, think I  will have a speech impediment and poor balance in the Kindom of God? No, actually I think in the Kindom of God I have a voice, power of communication, and poise that actually compels others to listen to me–because that would the topsy-turvy righting of relationship found in God’s Kindom. As a person who has lived with chronic pain, do I believe I will have pain for eternity? No I do not. ButI do think my experience has taught me that human beings have limits; that is not necessary or even desirable to be able to anything one wants at anytime. I have learned humility, and grace, patience and perseverance. Pain is a teacher and gaining  experience in how to learn from subtle experiences is something that offers profound spiritual lessons. They are not lessons about have speech impediments nor are they lessons about pain. They are lessons about getting to know oneself in relation to self, others, and God.

So I am left wondering who is going to “run free”? And why? Is it something within their personality that leads them to want or need to “run free”? Or are we finally going be able to “run” as we are without the judgement of others suggesting that we need to run, even though that may be uncomfortable for us. (Please don’t make me think about school “Field Days”, as I would consider those days to be one of Dante’s many circles of Hell.) For some of us, people with disabilities, the metaphors of the Kindom of God maybe what they are—we can’t change the scriptures, and its beautiful poetry so why would we want to? But why are the people with disabilities the only ones who have to be “transformed” to fit into the Kindom? For myself, and others with disability, it is more of an ontological question. God made me this way, and it is Good. Given the nature of my ontological being as a person with disability; given the fact that my personal identity is defined by experiences of disability, to what degree to I fit the “normalcy” of others in the Kindom of God? Why do I need to run, when I am already free?

* “Kindom” is not a misspelling of Kingdom, but an intentional feminist interpretation of the Kindom of God where equality exist between people living together as God intends

Why Widen the Welcome?

Have you heard? There is a banquet planned before Synod, and I have been asked to bid you come.

I hope that sounds familiar to most of you. Most of all, I really hope that you will accept the invitation. Yes, I know Synod is coming and there is lots for us to do to prepare! But, then there is that biblical mandate that we all live with to be welcoming and to enter into the community of God, while ever widening the welcome to include all whom God has invited to the banquet.

This is a goal of most congregations. Yet despite the advertisements of a radical welcome, there are some people who wonder if that welcome really includes them. I have from time to time found myself wondering if I really were invited. You see as a child, I had a pronounced speech impediment and I learned early that even when I was invited to be somewhere that I had to do some extra work to find out if I were really welcome or if I was there to entertain others as I spoke. And yes I learned to wonder this even at church. Last year, at Widening the Welcome 3 in Columbus Rev. Lynda Bigler asked in her sermon “Have you ever been faced with revealing your disability or keeping silent to keep the status quo?” and waves of remembering being told I was either not qualified or could not be qualified to serve as a chaplain because I am a woman with disability flooded over me. This time, however, those waves did not knock me down. This time I had learned I was indeed welcome not only at the table but welcomed into the community of God.

I have been questioned by people within the disability community about why I would want to be involved in the church. Its not as shocking as it seems. Many persons using wheelchairs find it difficult to get into church buildings and they feel excluded. Many persons with mental health issues find that people in the church are no more compassionate than people outside the church even as the gospel is preached each Sunday. And, yet, this is not the church I have always known or the understanding of the gospel I have learned from church. As Jason Hayes said in his speech at the last Widening the Welcome, “‘Failure to conform to social norms’ sounds like Jesus the Christ to me.”

Why am I telling you all of this? Because, I want you, my brothers and sisters in the church, to understand why I am bidding you to come to Widening the Welcome. God calls all people to God’s community. God sometimes calls people to us we do not yet understand or people whom we are not sure how or if to welcome. God, it seems does not share in all our human stigmas. So I bid you come to the banquet where we can met one another and learn what disability and mental illness are, and what they are not. Come so we can equip the leaders and laity of our congregations to extend with confidence that radical welcome to persons whose body may not be like other bodies and persons whose brains may not be like other brains. Come let us talk to one another about how to move beyond stigma and welcome all people into the full participation of the life of our churches.

Come to the Widening the Welcome, Pre-Synod Event on Thursday, June 27, 2013 at the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel. Keynote speakers will include The Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroder, Founder, Mental Health Ministries, and The Rev. Kathy Reeves, Coordinator of Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network-North America, a program of the World Council of Churches. Workshops will provide information about becoming an “Accessible to ALL” (A2A) church, starting mental health ministries, caring for adolescents and the aged, as well as creating inclusion and transformation. Registration is now open and the registration brochure is available here Widening the Welcome Registration Brochure. Please follow registration instructions in the brochure. Limited scholarships funds are available. For more information about Widening the Welcome or for a scholarship form please email Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas at kelli@womenwhospeakinchurch.com

Widening the Welcome Registration Begins!

UCC Disabilities Ministries and UCC Mental Illness Network
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (March 10, 2013)
Coordinator: Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas, UCCDM Secretary
email: kelli@womenwhospeakinchurch.com

Widening the Welcome Pre-Synod Event Location and Details Announced: Developing Congregations to Include People with Disabilities and Mental Illnesses/Brain Disorders to be held in Long Beach, CA June 27.


The United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries (UCCDM) and the United Church of Christ Mental Illness Network (UCC MIN) is happy to announce that the Fourth Annual Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All Conference will be held at the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, CA. Widening the Welcome 2013 will commence at 7:30 am and conclude at 7:30 pm on Thursday, June 27th, 2013. Registration information, including link to on-line registration is available now , and here:  Widening the Welcome Registration Brochure!!

Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All will celebrate the theme “God’s Vision: The Great Dinner is Open to All” (Luke 14:15 ff) with speakers and workshops designed to assist congregations in welcoming and ministering with people with disabilities and/or mental illness/brain disorders. Keynote speakers include The Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroder, Founder, Mental Health Ministries, and The Rev. Kathy Reeves, Coordinator of Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network-North America, a program of the World Council of Churches.

Workshops will include “Becoming A2A (Accessible to All): From Theory to Practice”, “Mental Illness and Families of Faith: How Congregations Can Respond”, “Mental Illness in Prison: Understanding the Facts”, “Spiritual Care for People with Disabilities & Brain Disorders of Aging”, “Centers of Hope and Transformation: People with Disabilities Creating a Consciousness of Inclusion”, “Cherish the Parents, Care for the Child: Supporting the Emotional Well Being of Families from Birth to Young Adulthood,” and “Developing and Sustaining a Spiritual Support Group for Mental Health and Wellness”.

“Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All” was termed “a movement within the movement” of the UCC by General Minister Geoffrey Black. UCCDM and UCC MIN welcome all UCC churches and conferences as well as our ecumenical partners seeking to do ministry with persons with disabilities including mental illnesses to send representatives to join us on June 27, 2013 for this fourth historic gathering. This Widening the Welcome Conference is offered prior to General Synod so as to make this educative, informative and engaging Conference available to Synod delegates. This is also the first of the three prior national conferences that will be held in the west so as to make it available to people in this region of our country.  ###

Widening the Welcome Press Release

UCC Disabilities Ministries and UCC Mental Illness Network

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Coordinator: Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas, UCCDM Secretary
email: kelli@womenwhospeakinchurch.com

Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All Pre-Synod Event,  To Be Held June 27, 2013

Movement for Inclusion Hopes to Welcome Synod Attendees

The United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries (UCCDM) and the United Church of Christ Mental Illness Network (MIN) will offer a fourth Widening the Welcome (WtW) experience. The Fourth Widening the Welcome Conference will be held as a one-day Pre-Synod Event on Thursday, June 27th, 2013. This event is scheduled to be held in Long Beach, exact location TBD.

The theme for Widening the Welcome 2013 is “God’s Vision: The Great Dinner is Open to All” (Luke 14:15 ff). Two keynote speakers are expected. The Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroder, Founder Mental Health Ministries, will speak on “Mental Health as a Spiritual Journey” and offer a workshop on “Mental Illness and Families of Faith: How Congregations Can Respond.”  The Rev. Kathy Reeves, Coordinator for the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network-North America, a program of the World Council of Churches will also offer a keynote address/workshop. Both keynote speakers have self-identified as persons with disability and/or a persons in recovery.

Workshops focusing on how congregations can become Accessible to All (A2A), how congregations can develop mental health ministries will be available. Workshops such as “Prison Ministry and Mental Health as a Justice Issue,” “Cherish the Parents, Care for the Child: Supporting the Emotional Well Being of Families from Birth to Young Adulthood,” “Pastoral Care with People with Disabilities & Brain Disorders of Aging”, and topics not previously presented at WtW conferences are planned for this conference.

“Widening the Welcome” was termed “a movement within the movement” of the UCC by General Minister Geoffrey Black. WtW continues with its vision/mission:

  • to educate about mental illnesses/brain disorders and disabilities;
  • to teach how to develop Mental Health Ministries and A2A (Accessible to All) Covenants in your congregation;
  • to share best practices by telling stories, learning from each other, and networking;
  • to equip pastoral leaders to understand and provide quality pastoral care to men and women addressing these concerns;  and
  • to offer spiritual support group experiences and worship together.###

Widening the Welcome is Coming!

Widening the Welcome 2013 Postcard

The Fourth Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All Conference sponsored by UCC Disabilities Ministries and the UCC Mental Health Network. A Pre-Synod event will be held Thursday, June 27, 2013 in Long Beach, CA. 8am-8pm. Exact location to be announced.

Speakers will include Rev. Susan Gregg Schroeder, Founder of Mental Health Ministries and Rev. Kathy Reeves, Coordinator of the Ecumenical Disabilities Advocacy Network–North America, a program of the World Council of Churches.

Save the date, more details to come!

I am coordinating this event. I will also be offering the following workshop at the event:

Spiritual Care for Persons with Disabilities and Those Affected by Serious Brain Disorders Associated with Aging

This workshop is a multifaceted look at providing pastoral care to people with disabilities (PWD). This workshop will provide disability culture and awareness information that all professional pastoral care providers should be aware of in providing pastoral care to PWD. This workshop will touch on some historical ecumenical responses to disability, particularly the shift in ethical responses to disability that affect care provided. Finally this workshop will address providing pastoral care to persons affected with dementia, relying on first and second hand accounts as available. (Developed for professional pastoral care providers, and accessible to lay people.)

Stigma 2012

votive candles in the foreground with christ on the cross on the wall in the background; taken at historical basilaca

Today is World AIDS Day. A day the world focuses on the need to address this worldwide health issue. Its not an easy topic to address because so many people would rather not talk about it. Ignoring something does not make it go away; it only makes it dark and secret and that much more scary. HIV/AIDS remains perhaps one the greatest social taboos we have to address. And perhaps this year that is what we must focus on in our fight against HIV/AIDS. Continue the struggle to find a scientific medical cure, yes. Continue to foster the prevention of HIV infections. Continue to pray for peace from the social, financial, emotional, and other impacts that this disease brings to so many–whether they experience the illness themselves or are in relationship with someone who does.

All people are subject to stigma, in a whole variety of ways. What we often forget is that stigma and the negative impact it carries is one of the most damaging experiences an individual can encounter, but it is also the one experience that we as human beings have the most control over. Stigma is our attitude nothing more and nothing less. We can decide to change it and it is done–and it costs no money, only human will.

As a hospice chaplain, I have come to learn where many of the public restrooms in my community are. I sometimes have to stop there as I move through my day. I have even learned which public bathrooms supply soap and where I need to bring my soap in with me. Many of us maybe surprised to find how clean our park restrooms really are.  A month or so ago I stopped at a small park to use the restroom. I noticed on the wall of the stall scratched into the paint the words “Kim has AIDS”. I have no idea who Kim is, if this is true, or a just a kid’s prank. But it made me think. First I thought eww is this bathroom clean enough to use? Then I thought who are the people who come in here to who would need to graffiti this?  In just a few moments I recalled that World AIDS Day was soon approaching and wondered how I would mark it. I wondered about “Kim” if she were ok an getting the help she needed. And I realized anew how strong the power of stigma is.

Stigma can move you from no emotion on a topic to so much emotion on a topic that you want to flee, and this can happen in an instant. Because of the power of stigma, we have a choice: to embrace the HIV+/AIDS community and seek solutions with them or we can jerk away, leaving them to find solutions on their own. Jesus calls us to reach out to persons effected by stigma, he does so countless times in the gospels bringing stigmatized persons back into the fold of society, and that is the radical message of love. Jesus subverted stigma and so can we. Stigma can be not only subverted but reversed by the simple act of human will.

We are all affected by stigma. I am not perfect–on some level wondering if the bathroom was clean enough to use after seeing the graffiti on the bathroom wall was a reaction of my own internalized stigma. So this year I join the world in prayer and reflection on this World AIDS Day. I join in praying for friends who have died from the effects of AIDS, those who have been isolated by the stigma of AIDS and who die alone as a result, systems that marginalize people with HIV/AIDS, as well as friends and colleagues who live with HIV or AIDS. I pray for Kim. But this year I also pray for myself. I pray that God might grant me the grace to see stigma when I see it, to face it, and somehow turn it around. And I pray for the humanity of the world, that we might learn to change the things that we can and that we might turn our attitudes and stigmas about HIV/AIDS around so we might reach out to our brother and sisters and learn to all be one.