Every church in the Missouri Conference has issues with accessibility, whether they realize it or not. There is someone who is willing to help.
Rev. Russell Ewell participates in the Summer Institute on Theology and Disabilities each year. He’s usually a presenter and attends workshops that are theological in nature. This year he wasn’t presenting, so he had time to attend some more practical application workshops. He went straight from there to the Missouri Annual Conference Session in Springfield, where he heard Rev. Tina Harris announce that as the new director of Mission, Service and Justice Ministries, she wanted to encourage people to follow their call.
“When I heard her, I felt the Holy Spirit calling me to implement some of the things I’ve learned in the Missouri Conference,” Ewell said. For years he has been speaking and conducting disability awareness seminars at various locations around the country. “It’s time to do work in my own backyard.”
According to the Book of Discipline, all United Methodist Conferences are required to have a Disability Concerns Committee. Recently this role has just been assigned to the Values Team. Ewell would like to develop a conference-wide group that is specifically focused on disability concerns, with someone from each district participating.
Ewell has conducted Disability Awareness Forums in other Conferences and thinks they would be helpful to have in Missouri as well.
When Ewell was at Annual Conference in 2011, he was approached by several people who were crying. The delegates to attend General Conference had just been elected. Ewell said some people told him they had been attending Annual Conference all of their life and had never seen anyone representing the disability community elected to the delegation. He has heard from pastors who hide their disability because they are afraid if it is known it will effect where they are appointed or that they will be forced to go on disability leave.
“A disability may mean someone needs to do ministry differently but not that they can’t do ministry,” Ewell said.
It’s not just pastors who Ewell is concerned about. Church members are often reluctant to share their needs with their church because if the church isn’t meeting their needs, they feel like they would be telling God that God is failing them.
Ewell has organized disability awareness worship services, in which everyone who is part of conducting the service has a disability. He had a liturgist who had been part of two presidential administrations and worked at a prestigious private university, but he had never been asked to be part of the worship team.
“To the church he was just a guy in a wheelchair,” he said. A blind woman serving communion said she had been part of the church for 30 years, and this was the first time she had been asked to participate.
The church and people with disabilities have a strained history. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was being proposed, churches hired lobbyists to fight against it, fearing that making their facilities accessible would be too expensive.
“We (the church) lost a lot of people then,” Ewell said. “I’m trying to bring them back, and show them that we do care.”
Ewell said when churches are worried about church growth, they should recognize that there is a population of people in their community who want to be in church but can only go a few times a year because of accessibility issues.
“We often call them the sick and shut-ins, but they are really the shut-outs,” he said.
To connect with Ewell as he continues to form plans regarding providing assistance with disability awareness, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.