January Series Speaker: How Churches can be Portraits of Belonging for People with Disabilities

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

calvin1“If you think about it as a journey, I don’t think we’ve yet arrived at our destination.” Progress to integrate people with intellectual and physical disabilities has incrementally been reached through the years. But the same can't be said for the 335,000 churches in the United States, according to Erik W. Cater, a Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of special education at Vanderbilt University.

While society has largely moved forward from outright exclusion to mainstream integration, congregations that profess Christ's love for all can use a few pointers on what inclusion looks like in the light of the gospel, Carter said Jan. 17 during Calvin College's annual January Series.

Not there yet

"If you think about it as a journey, I don't think we've yet arrived at our destination," he said. "There's an important difference between inclusion and belonging, being present and having a real presence. It's the difference between making room for someone when they arrive and missing them when they fail to arrive. It's the difference between welcoming someone's presence and actually aching for their absence."

Carter agrees that's a tall order to fill but congregations need not possess a degree in special education to come alongside people with disabilities and empower them blossom.

calvin2Carter’s talk included a PowerPoint slide that confirmed people with disabilities are too members of our schools and churches. How faith communities get there is what Carter called the 10 different dimensions of belonging: when we're present; when we're invited; when we're welcomed; when we're known; when we're accepted; when we're supported; when we're cared for; when we're befriended, when we're needed; and when we're loved.

Carter cited a multi-year research project he participated in of 500 people with disabilities and their families for insights into helping churches along the way foster an answer to the question: who is my neighbor? With 60 million Americans with disabilities in the United States, the potential

Too many asterisks?

"One of the things standing in the way with people in our faith communities is barriers of awareness or attitude," said Carter.

A genuine "welcome" and not just an announcement that "all are welcome" are essential.

"An invitation says I'm actually thinking about you specifically; an announcement always leaves open that possibility with an asterisk, that footnote, that unspoken qualifier to make someone wonder: 'Do you really mean me when you say your place is a place of welcome and hospitality?'" said Carter. "There have been far too many asterisks in our proclamations of welcoming."

The power of being welcomed greets people with disabilities and their families when they arrive to church, introduces them to others, draws them in to conversations and invites them to other church events, said Carter.

Strengths over struggles

Knowing them for their strengths, gifts and passions, rather than their labels and struggles is another step in the right direction. This includes learning to be supportive.


Sign up here to receive WMC News in your inbox every Tuesday morning!

  * indicates required

We promise no spam or special offers!

"We've found that half of parents with sons and daughters with intellectual and development disabilities have never been asked for their input," said Carter. "So ask the questions: How can we make Sunday the best day of the week for your child? How can we support your family?"

Churches should also move beyond church walls to provide spiritual, emotional and practical help for families on the other days of the week.

Church leaders and their congregations need to also befriend people with disabilities and their families specifically, companionship through relationships.

"To befriend someone takes belonging to new levels,' said Carter. "It's about life lived beyond the walls of the congregation. It's simple things you can do like invite someone out for a meal, participate in a favorite hobby together, going to the mall, going for a walk, catching a movie, enjoying the small things. The great thing about this dimension is you don't need any training to be someone's friend."

People with disabilities need to transition from being the focus of ministry to the ones doing ministry.

"Many churches struggle with ministries by people with disabilities," said Carter. "They're still seen as designated recipients of support, the focus of ministry, rather than the ones doing ministry. The roles of giver and receiver of ministry are far too often predetermined."

Finally, authentic love communicates the fact that all people are valuable.

"The Scriptures remind us over and over that all that we do, all we are, must be marked by love," said Carter. "The church was designed by love and that's the portrait of belonging."


  Did you know?

Manna Media is dedicated to telling stories of how God is working right in our own area. The story you just read is just one of the many amazing stories that we want to tell.

In addition to these stories, we also create high quality short films, Relevant Docs and Godmercials , that reach people around the world. We strive to engage people with the Gospel with our What If God Is website. But it takes a lot of hard work, time, and money to do what we do.

Would you consider partnering with us by supporting our ministry with a donation?  Donate safely here!

Thank You.

Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

Related Articles

No Related Articles Found

home app07 envelope
Submit News
RSS Feed
home app09 playVideos
faith-buttonPlease consider helping us by contributing to our publication. 

Donate directly or advertize your business on this site or in our newsletter.  It reaches thousands across West Michigan.