Inclusion Through Access: Discipleship in Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Brett Foote

Ever since I was welcomed into the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a 5th grader I have encountered the words “inclusion” and “inclusive”… a lot. As someone who has a brother affected by a cognitive disability and a mom who struggles with addiction and mental illness, these words meant good news and hope for my family. However, as I committed myself to studying the disciplines of disability studies, disability theology, and ministry with people with disabilities, I discovered these words were actually lacking depth. A colleague and friend, JJ Flag, who happens to have been born with cerebral palsy and requires a wheelchair to get around, shared this story with me recently and I believe it is illuminating.

JJ shared that growing up in his local church, there was no way for him to access the sanctuary for services because all of the ways into the sanctuary required stairs. Therefore, every Sunday he would get carried into the sanctuary by family or church members. This went on for a long time until one Sunday he noticed that they finally installed an elevator in the church. JJ was quite relieved to see the elevator, as in his mind, a barrier had been removed from in front of him to access the church. The worship space became accessible and therefore inclusive of him and his body. However, the pastor shared that JJ was more than welcome to use the elevator to get around but the reason they purchased the elevator wasn’t to include JJ. The congregation was an aging one so instead, the elevators purpose was to help alleviate the burden on their older members from the moving of coffins before and after funeral services.

An accessibility barrier was removed for JJ and because of that the church was for the most part, fully accessible for a person in a wheelchair. For JJ, the church and specifically worship, became inclusive of his body. Still, even with the accessibility and worship inclusion issues removed something was missing for him. JJ shares that even though there were no physical barriers in his way anymore, there was no love shown to him in the decision to install elevators.1 Likewise, there was no relationship to anyone in the church with him that brought that elevator into being. Love and relationship is where inclusion stops and discipleship begins. Through JJ’s story it is easy to understand how even though access provided inclusion there was still a sustained ostracism of the differently-abled through a lack of love.

The central mission of the church as stated in the PC(USA)’s Book of Order is: “in Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ.” (emphasis added) It is also lifted up to the church in the Great Commission: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’”(Matthew 28:18-19 NRSV)

The mission imparted to Christians by Jesus is this act of discipleship of others, not just shared space for inclusivity and accessibility. In fact, Dr. John Swinton, writes that “Christian communities are not called simply to include people with disabilities; they may be obligated by law to do so, but this is not the nature or texture of their” mission.2 Therefore, it can be concluded that a Christian community is not built on including people for the sake of including them. Instead, the mission of the Christian community “is to learn to love God, and in coming to love God, learn what it means to love and to receive love from all of its members.”3 Love is the primary mark of a disciple and characterizes how disciples act towards others. Jesus is attributed to having said “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love.” (John 13:35 NRSV) Loving “is what disciples do, and that is what disciples expect other disciples to do.”4

Inclusivity has to do with access for all people…Discipleship has to do with love for all people rooted in access for all people which makes our spaces inclusive of all people.

1 Flag, JJ. Personal interview. 03/05/2018. Story shared with permission.
2 Swinton, John. Becoming Friends Of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. 93
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.

Brett Foote is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and freshly ordained as Minister of Word & Sacrament in the PC(USA). Brett and his wife Laura have accepted a call to pastor United Presbyterian Church in Superior Wisconsin. They are avid coffee roasters and have a heart for inclusion and holistic ministry—especially toward those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

A Reflection of Our God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In February, Laura Cheifetz curated a series on leadership development. We have one more to add to the series! These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Omayra Gonzalez Mendez

I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, and I have an accent. Does that describe who I am? Of course, the truth is I’m much more, but I must admit that representing those categories has opened many doors. Yes, there were times when I felt I checked all the boxes when different people were needed: woman, young, and Hispanic; I was a perfect package. Sometimes, I questioned if I really had the skills or was just invited to meet the quota. It may seem odd or illogical, but with the desire of the church to have different faces in leadership spaces, it was a blessing.

However, when I was about 18 years old, I met great women of color leaders while serving in Racial Ethnic Young Women Together (REYWT). One of these women, Marnie del Carmen, reminded me that wherever I went I had to make a difference. She preached to me, “Do not erase your accent, do not erase who you are. Share with others about your childhood. Your voice will make a difference. Other people will somehow identify with you and your story.”

Photo from Montreat flickr page

I remember the first time I led an energizer at a Montreat youth conference, perhaps in 2006, and a young Dominican girl approached me. She was excited because my accent reminded her of her mother’s family. I felt that even in the middle of North Carolina with all these people, it was wonderful that there was someone like her, someone to identify with, someone who understood what it is like to have an accent.

I’m more than my ethnicity. I realized that I am also the sister of a woman with disabilities. So, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, I have an accent, and I grew up in a family with a kid with disability.

Having a relative with a disability gives you another perspective on life. You learn not to complain about everything. You learn the power to believe in yourself. And you especially learn that the world is not made for people who are different or have special needs. Sometimes, not even the church.

For years I have worked in several capacities within the church, but my most prominent roles are in recreation. And as I wrote a few years ago for another publication: “Recreation is more than ‘time to play.’ It is about creating community. I try to lead games that invite people to work together, help people understand the need to be part of the greater body of Christ. Everyone has a purpose. Sometimes people don’t stop to think of the theological part of what they are doing — and that’s okay — but I know that God works in every single moment of the day. Energizers may not be the traditional way of doing worship or teaching the Bible, but is a way and sometimes that’s all that we need — a way to start doing things.”

This summer, while directing recreation in Montreat, my co-leader (Betsy Apple Eldridge) and I set out to plan the events with people who have mobility problems or motor skill challenges in mind.

At the end of the first week, we received a letter from the mother of a young man in a wheelchair thanking us for thinking about him, and finding ways to make him part of the body of Christ through recreation. We do not do things to be recognized, but that letter filled our hearts.

It was a confirmation that in everything we do, small or great act, is a reflection of our God.

The church has much to offer. The church can be that space that creates leaders who are aware of who they are, how they have grown up, and the blessings they can be for other people. We are the face of the church, in all our difference, and it is a gift!

Omayra L. Gonzalez Mendez is a news producer, movie lover, and super passionate about the church. From media reports, pictures and videos, she takes every free minute to work in different organizations of the Presbyterian Church, both locally and internationally. As an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Hato Rey, she works with the youth society and finance ministries. She understand that all parts of the church are equally important, so she can take a summer to sit and follow the committees of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, and fly the next day to lead recreation in a youth event. All matters of the church, processes and creation, fascinate her.