October 20, 2016
By Paul Black
The Rev. H. Russell Ewell gave a challenge to the churches of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference to become more aware of people with disabilities – get started!
"If bars are more accessible than altars, if theaters are more welcoming than churches, if the producers of PBS are more sophisticated about communication access than our liturgists, if the managers of department stores know better how to appeal to those with disabilities than our church leadership, if the publishers of popular magazines are more knowledgeable about alternative formats than those who produce religious materials, then we have failed to meet Christ’s challenge to us all." Mary Jane Owens
Beginning his presentation, he shared the above selection by Mary Jane Owens and noted the competition is steep.
“When you consider that about 20 percent of the U.S. population is persons with disabilities, that is a large audience that many are writing off,” Ewell said. “A larger share of persons with disabilities do not participate in weekly worship because the message is they are not invited.”
Ewell is a full-time deacon with the Village Church and Christ Community Church in St. Louis and made a presentation regarding disability accessibility and church at the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
Recalling a disability meeting at a church, Ewell said the elevator was broken, and there was no other entry without climbing stairs. “Some offered to carry us up those stairs, but they were old and steep, so we had to meet outside the church.”
Barriers for participation come in a variety of ways:
- Attitudinal – Many churches have bad theology surrounding persons with disabilities; they become pitied or inspirational; stigmas and assumption prevail; and ministry “to” rather than “with” is the predominant ministry model.
Ewell advised churches to start with prayer. “Respond to the Spirit,” he said. “Form an accessibility committee, study the theology of inclusion, complete an accessibility audit and a member survey with questions like, ‘More people would come if…’ If one looks at the whole task, it can be daunting.
“Don’t try to do everything at once,” Ewell said. “Start with those that are already a part of your congregation and then move on to other issues. Just remember: If we aren’t all at the table, then we aren’t living out our call as the Body of Christ.”