By Rev. Janine DeLaunay
Growing up in a United Methodist Church in the Midwest, my twin sister and I, blind from birth, were an oddity. While we participated in everything from Sunday School to choir to camp, much of the time we were left to ourselves. Sure, everyone told us how inspiring we were, but being an inspiration is not the same as belonging.
Years later, when I moved to the west coast, got married, and had children, I was warmly welcomed into a Methodist Church. The UMW and others purchased a braille Bible and later the United Methodist hymnal and Faith We Sing. I taught Sunday School, served on and/or chaired several committees, and helped lead the praise team. It was truly an experience of not only inclusion, but belonging.
As my faith deepened, and I responded to God's nudge toward ministry, I wondered if the church would accept a blind pastor. Because my pastor at the time encouraged me to believe it was possible, I started seminary. Now came the real test, the Board of Ordained Ministry and the appointment process. With both fear and hope, I made an appointment with my bishop to ask him whether he would be willing to appoint me if I met all the requirements and gained BOM approval. I am grateful to Bishop Bob for his courage and his blessing.
I still remember that first appointment as a blind pastor in 2008. The congregational concerns were not about my theology, (Jesus centered and liberal) or my background, (divorced with adult sons). No, they wondered how I would bathe as the only tub was in the upstairs bathroom in the parsonage, and how I would be able to serve them rather than being taken care of by them. These weren't cruel people, but because they had no experience with a blind person, they were fairly clueless. I too arrived with assumptions about needing to prove my independence and showing them that I could be just like a "normal" pastor. God was truly in the mix of all these apprehensions and misassumptions as we learned how to minister to one another.
Congregations aren’t the only ones who need to learn more about disability and inclusion. My colleagues also need frequent reminders that handing me printed materials with or without an apology is not sufficient. Reality means that most of the time, I'm the one to make the phone call or send the email to request documents ahead electronically or remind folks that I am likely to need a ride. While this doesn't seem like such a big thing, it constantly sends the message that "you're not like us" and "you don't fit in." It’s not an intentional slight, it's just that people with disabilities are rarely at the table when it comes to ministry, ordained or lay.
What has surprised me, and will perhaps surprise you, is that during my time as clergy that most of my difficulties had little or nothing to do with my disability. Instead, they had everything to do with the usual struggles over authority, leadership, power and the like.
So, what works when welcoming and engaging people with disabilities in ministry? I believe that getting to know one another as vulnerable, amazing human beings gifted by God is the most important thing that can happen. When we truly know and experience another human being fully, their disability or anything else that seems like a barrier simply moves off center stage and becomes far less important. Yet, at the same time, if we truly come to know that person, we naturally think about those things that will make them comfortable and welcome.
The mechanics of dealing with disabilities can be accomplished fairly quickly if we use the tools provided through the annual accessibility audits and the UMW study on the church and people with disabilities. Our church has some real work to do: we must change the way we interact with people with disabilities, and be willing to learn from them. We have to move past inconvenience or inspiration to inclusion… and, at last, belonging.