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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.

2019 National Gathering Testimony: Ken Evers-Hood

Ken Evers-Hood, pastor of Tualatin Presbyterian Church in Tualatin OR, gives a testimony presentation on ministry with depression at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering.

2018 National Gathering Ignite: Linda Kurtz

Linda Kurtz, student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, gives an Ignite presentation about her experience completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at a behavioral health hospital.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. How might you mark this in your own context? How might you minister to those impacted by mental illness?

Commissioned by Our Mental Illness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Marielle (Marz) Evans

Even after all this time, it is still hard to say it.

It is hard to confess, to admit, to say aloud: I am mentally ill.

Maybe it is hard because it feels somehow dishonest, like a white lie that excuses my little quirks. Because, on my meds, I function and behave most of the time like a perfectly normal, if not high functioning, adult woman.

Or maybe it is hard because it feels too true — because I know how it is to live inside my own head, to worry about whether I’ve missed a dose of my meds, to not being able to tell my husband what is wrong because I don’t know what is wrong— it just is. I know the struggle all too well and it’s hard to say that things aren’t okay. I struggle with that black hole of depression that threatens to swallow me whole and I grapple with the high of mania that promises roads paved in gold but ending in ruin.

And I struggle with opening my mouth and saying words like: bipolar, anxiety, depression, and saying words like: me, in the same sentence.

I had a dear friend tell me once that me being honest about my bipolar disorder changed the way she looked at mental illness and gave her the courage to step into counseling for the first time. And that’s the best result I could ask for. If my story can battle the stigma against the mentally ill in any small way, it was so worth it.

But I’ve also had a dear friend tell me that she couldn’t handle me, handle my illness, my mood swings, my panic attacks. I’ve lost friendships because of my brain chemistry. Because of being an emergency. Because I was too much to deal with. Because their versions of Christianity don’t have room for a person like me — a crazy person.

And so, with the hope of encouraging others but walking with those wounds of rejection and hurt still healing on my heart, I shyly confess that I am stable, I am happy, I am in love and I am mentally ill.

And I may be forever. My brain chemistry may never be correct (and I thank God for my meds every single day).

But here I am, saying it aloud. Because these things are worth talking about, even if it terrifies you. Because we, all of us — whether you are clinically depressed or just having a bad day — need to be reminded that we aren’t alone in this. And we must — MUST — remind each other that our diagnoses, our diseases, our disabilities do not define us.

I am not a bipolar woman.

I am a wife, a pastor, an artist, a darn good cook, a writer, an aunt to two amazing littles, a mediocre iPhone photographer, a terrible but shameless dancer. I am a Princeton Seminary graduate, an honors student (in too many ways), a lover of summer-ripe cherries and old rocking chairs and porch swings and those bottle cap candies that taste kind of like soda. I am a mom to my puppy, Eliot, who is more monster than dog and who believes that he is also the size of a mouse and can sit comfortably on our laps.

And I have a diagnoses. Of bi-polar, for which I take daily meds that help me not let my serotonin and dopamine levels determine how my life goes.

It is not who I am, or what I am. My bipolar is a part of me. Just like that slightly annoying scar in the middle of my chest from when I had chicken pox as a little kid. It is not my fault, or my parent’s fault, or red food dye 40’s fault (in my humble opinion). It is life – just with more extreme ups and downs.

So if you are where I often am, and finding it hard to say aloud that you are hurting, struggling, scared, scarred, sadder more days than you are happy— then take heart. Truly — take heart. There are many of us, and we are not alone.

And please, if you can, if that black hole that threatens to swallow you from within will allow just a little bit — have grace with yourself. And allow yourself the grace of letting someone in. Into the mess and the madness. Into the mood swings and the medication diaries. Into the altogether hard and the sometimes hopeless. Into the mental illness that doesn’t define you but certainly feels definite.

You don’t have to shout it from the roof tops, but I invite you to maybe tell a friend. Tell a pastor or a mentor or a professor who you know won’t laugh you out of the room. And if you don’t feel safe with any of those, find a therapist. Yelp them, Google the good Lord out of them, look up whether they’ll be a fit. You are the only one who knows you inside and out, so don’t feel like they are going to fix you.

Because the truth is: you don’t need fixing, you need a safe place to say aloud the things that are hard to say.

Have grace with yourself, and you’ll get there. Some days will be harder than others— just ask my husband and friends and mentors. Some days will be so good that you’ll completely forget you ever had a diagnosis from the DSM. Those days you’ll forget to take your meds — because: what meds!?— and then you’ll wake up in the morning with a headache and take them right away and everything will be okay. Or maybe it won’t. Because meds don’t make real life go away. And sometimes real life is sorrow and lament and quiet and hard. And a handful of chemicals isn’t going to take away the pain and the sin of this broken world.

I want you to know that you are not alone. That your sadness doesn’t define you. Nor do your meds. Your panic attacks don’t either, nor how long you’ve been sober (although sobriety is certainly something to celebrate). Psychological diagnoses don’t define us anymore than type 1 diabetes or turf toe does. They are all chronic illnesses. They are all not our fault.

I may have a hard time saying aloud what I want to say sometimes. I may struggle to speak up about my experience of living life with chronic anxiety and persistent mood swings.

But I refuse to be silent about this. About the fact that there is hope, and there is healing, and that we have the choice to believe that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet. I refuse to shut up about why cooking a meal for friends is nearly as effective for me as my mood stablizer, or why writing is a version of therapy. I refuse to be silent about being a pastor and being a patient of a psychologist and psychiatrist because those two can happen together and it will be okay. I refuse to be silent in telling the world that stories, your everyday stories, matter. Your stories and your scars and your big scary dreams all matter because they bring something new and needed to the table of grace. We have an opportunity to see our diagnoses, our depression, our daily meds or weekly therapy sessions (or both) as the commissioning they are. We are commissioned by our mental illness to go out into the world and show them, tell them, sing at them, dance for them, preach to them that we are not defined, we are not limited by our diseases.

So, where ever you are in your journey, say this aloud with me: this is living thing is an adventure worth taking. And there is a mission field to serve that needs people like you and me, to bring the Gospel that Jesus didn’t come to the perfect, but to the sick and that God has a place for those of us who come into His kingdom with a bit of a limp.


Marielle Evans

Marielle (Marz) Evans is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary who is serving at a non-profit for youth development in Austin, TX