Friday, January 25, 2013

Churches Are Called to Lead the Way in Accessibility

By Dr. Dennis Herman

The Epistle of James leaves little wiggle room: “…If a person comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, ‘you sit over here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor person, ‘You stand over there or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?”

As a missionary, I have lived in three different countries of the world and have visited numerous others. In some situations, I have felt treated as a visiting dignitary, with honored seats in special places. In other situations, I have felt like the poor person crashing the party, the uninvited guest or, at best, the reluctantly tolerated guest. I did not feel comfortable in either role, but admittedly I was less comfortable when I felt like a party crasher. How do people feel when entering our church building? How does it feel to be poor and off the street, trying to find a message of home in our assemblies? How about those with special needs? Do the physically handicapped find it difficult to get in and around, to find a seat where they can blend in and not stick out on the front row or feel hidden on the back? How about those of other races and nationalities—are they met with warmth and welcome? What about nursing mothers who want to their baby with them for an hour of worship? What about anyone whose worship culture is different from the one we have known?

In the first church I pastored after returning to the States from South America, I challenged the congregation to shorten some of its unused pews to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs so that there would be seating options other than the front pew or the back of the sanctuary. It was a struggle for the church, but some of those who opposed it later were glad they could park their wheelchairs and not “stick out” in the aisle. In the last church I pastored, we designed and constructed an accessible sanctuary where not only wheelchairs and walkers could fit in at various places, but the back “row” consisted of glider rockers where nursing moms could bring their babies into the worship service. (I guess it helps when the pastor’s wife is a professional lactation consultant!)

There are many ways we can say “welcome” to our worship and church building. Likewise, there are many ways we can say “stay away,” or worse yet, “don’t come back.” I realize we cannot be everything to everyone, but as the Church who tries to follow seriously the exhortation of James 2:2-4 and the inclusive love of Jesus, let’s ask what ways we can open our hearts, our ministries, and our building to all who seek God’s love.

Dennis Herman is the interim pastor of Oxford Baptist Church in Oxford, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Forecaster.

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