Tag Archives: accessibility

Essay Contest: Blog #4 Brittany French

Brittany was one of the first people that befriended me many years ago when my daughter and I started attending The Chosen Ministry. In her shy way, she would ask about Samantha and then about me, always remembering details that many would miss if they weren’t really listening. What a gift!

FIN would like to both thank and congratulate Brittany for sharing her story and being the winner of our very first essay contest.  As you read her essay you will realize that the remarkable thing about this story is how simple it really is…a church doing what many others do; reach out to the community and educate children in the faith.  What made a difference in Brittany’s life is how she felt and the continued acceptance as a person with a disability as she grew up in the church.  Even more wonderful, being a member of the congregation eventually led to finding a job nearby.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more adults with disabilities were able to find work through the natural connections we make in our congregations?

So again we thank you, Brittany for not only writing this essay, but presenting it at our Gifts of the Heart Gala on March 11. You did a great job! -K. Jackson

My Faith Journey

Author Brittany French with Karen Fox who leads The Chosen Ministry in Norfolk

by Brittany French

The hospitality of a neighbor inviting me to church and the hospitality of the church folk accepted me even though I have several disabilities and this changed my life forever. I was three years old when a neighbor invited my twin sister and me to attend Sunday School at a church down the street from my house. My twin sister does not have the intellectual and physical disabilities that I live with every day. I began this adventure in the classroom with two wonderful teachers that made me feel loved and wanted.

In Sunday School we did arts and crafts related to Bible stories, we memorized verses and sat on a rug to hear the bible story of the day. My favorite event at church was attending Vacation Bible School in the summer. I loved playing outside and being with the other children. The other children did not treat me differently because of my disability. That made me feel good. I was always accepted for who I was. In fact, my church has five people with disabilities in the congregation because this church accepts and welcomes all people who come in.

Throughout the years, I continued to go to Sunday School each week. My faith grew stronger as I grew older and began to understand what the bible stories were saying. As an adult I joined the church I had been going to for so many years. This was a place I was accepted as God’s child, made in his image. I am what God wanted me to be. The church has helped me accept my disabilities and believe in myself.

I now have also joined “Chosen Ministry” which is a group that works with intellectually disabled adults. I love having other disabled friends. They understand some of the challenges I face. Being a part of “Chosen Ministry” has helped me see my disabilities in a different way. I am grateful to be who I am.

After several years of looking for a job, and many hours of prayer, I got a job in the daycare center which is next door to my church. Knowing that I am helping others is an answer to my prayers. My faith continues to grow as I work with little children and see how they love everyone.

Note: Brittany attends Third Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, VA

Brittany with friend Angela West at the Gifts of the Heart Gala-2018

 

My New Ramp

For the last ten years I have been a public advocate in the disability community, learning about inclusion and sharing that information with faith communities, hopefully raising awareness about the need to be more welcoming to individuals and families affected by disability. During the course of this work, I have made many friends, some of them very close friends now, who use wheelchairs.  For the last few years, I have made sure that I borrowed or rented a ramp in December so that I could invite my friends who use wheelchairs to a Christmas open-house party in my home.

A few weeks ago, faced with preparations for this year’s open house, I made a decision.  I just went ahead and purchased a ramp. It is not a huge one, as you can see in the photo, but it serves its purpose. I was so excited about my new ramp, that I invited one of my best friends to come to dinner to try it out.

I was thrilled that my friend could come over-just a simple supper with my kids and I. We took advantage of the time to catch up and share family stories. It was a wonderful evening.

Before you think, “isn’t that a nice thing to do”, let me confess that I am actually pretty embarrassed and disappointed in myself.  I am embarrassed that as someone who helps advocate for persons affected by disability it took me so long to ensure that my own home was accessible, at least to the degree that someone in a wheelchair could get into my home.

Even though it is hard to admit all this, I am sharing this story because I have made an important realization. Being a person that has full use of my legs, I take for granted that I can go pretty much wherever I want I can get in and out of all buildings, public and private. There are no barriers for me.  These statements are obvious, I know. Yet despite my years getting to know all kinds of people affected by disability, it is still hard to remember that something as simple as a ramp can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

My friends that need to use a wheelchair to get around-they live in a world full of barriers. One of their frustrations is probably not being able to do something as common as visit a friend in their home.  While I cannot make up for the years it took me to wake up and realize I needed to purchase my own ramp, I am rejoicing today. My spirit is soaring, truth be told, for the joy I felt being able to welcome my good friend into my home for dinner.  And the thought that we will share many more dinners in the future.

As I write this story on my porch with my recently purchased ramp in front of me, I wonder…what if every single building, from public building to private homes, where automatically built with wheelchair ramps? What if, having struck up a friendship with someone who uses a wheelchair, you didn’t have to think twice about inviting them over to you house? What if the terminology “accessibility” became obsolete because every place was easily accessed for persons who use wheelchairs or need some other kind of accommodation? Big dreams, I know. But maybe someone reading this, someone like me, will decide they want to get a ramp too. That would be a good start…

Happy Birthday to the Happy Hour Class

Today I had the privilege of attending worship service at Wesley Grace United Methodist Church, http://www.wmumcnor.org/ a small congregation in the Wards Corner area of Norfolk, VA that is known locally for a lot of community outreach, impacting the local area in many positive ways.

I was invited by my friend, Gray Puryear, who is not only a longstanding member of the congregation but also serves as a lay speaker among the many responsibilities he holds at Wesley Grace.

Gray, who I have known for 10 years as he is a founding board member of Faith Inclusion Network, invited me to this service because they were planning to celebrate an exciting milestone, the 50th anniversary of a ministry for adults with intellectual disabilities they call “Happy Hour Class”.

An excerpt from a description in the bulletin about the ministry reads, “In 1967, several parents attending a church t Wards Corner in Norfolk asked the church leadership to start a Sunday School class for their adult children with intellectual disabilities. No one in the church had any training or experience with working with this special population in an educational setting, but a few members of the laity gave it a try…Today, 50 years later, that class is recognized by the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church as the oldest continuous class for adults with intellectual disabilities in Virginia.”

I was unexpectedly emotional during the service and have tried to piece together why that might be.  Part of it, I expect, was the very familiar setting of the UMC. I was raised in a small Methodist church, much like this one and the warm memories of a close-knit community were close to the surface.  But it was more than that.

The congregation had a special air of welcoming as they began this celebratory time of worship.  Quite a few people greeted my daughter Samantha and I warmly, recognizing she has a disability.  I felt like members of the congregation were especially aware, on this day set aside to recognize the Happy Hour Class Ministry, that a person they did not know who has a disability was visiting for the first time. It was very welcoming and even encouraging.

The service was full of evidence that this was an important day; a large banner was dedicated to commemorating the 50th anniversary and every part of the service included members of the Happy Hour Class from the greeters, to acolytes and musicians. The theme of celebration was obvious and happily contagious.

Gray Puryear, Lay Speaker at Wesley Grace UMC and one of leaders of the Happy Hour Class

I was also quite moved by my friend Gray’s sermons both to the children and the adults.  His basket of different kinds of apples, an illustration of how people are all different yet still all apples, was simple yet effective for the children. His message in the sermon was equally clear. Referencing Exodus and the story of Moses telling God that he was “slow of speech” so he couldn’t possibly be God’s spokesperson, Gray pointed out an important point.  Just as God provided an accommodation in appointing Moses’ brother Aaron to help Moses, we too are called to provide accommodations to help each other. As Gray put it, “when we provide an accommodation for a person with a disability, we are acting in the image of God.

The beautiful service, complete not only with some contemporary worship music but also a song I have not sung since childhood, Jesus Loves Me, was thoughtfully organized. Even their special guest from Richmond, Ms. Cheryl Edley-Worford, Director of Inclusivity and Lay Leadership Excellence in the Virginia Conference of the UMC https://vaumc.org/LayLeadership was on hand to offer her congratulations and gifts to the congregation.

As Samantha and I left Wesley Grace UMC today, I was reminded that it is the small, thoughtful efforts that sometimes add up to make a big impact for the congregation and their visitors. Listening devices, a screen with large print of all songs and prayers, friends helping friends with walkers and wheelchairs, a clear message from the leadership preaching inclusion and acceptance and the inclusion of persons affected by disability in all parts of the services, make for a welcoming environment. In my eyes, these accommodations and attitudes of acceptance all added up to Faith Inclusion Network’s vision to Accept, Include, and Celebrate all persons affected by disability in our faith communities.

Congratulations and thank you to members of Wesley Grace UMC, Gray Puryear, and Pastor, Scott Beck on this special anniversary.

God Bless!

A Call to Encouragement

Last Thursday evening over sixty people from our community gathered at Second Presbyterian Church, Norfolk to support FIN and learn more about the current work and vision of our growing organization. Beginning our 10th year, this is an important and exciting time in the development of our small non-profit, working towards our dream of making the congregations of Hampton Roads the most inclusive and welcoming in the country-envisioning a world where all people affected by disability are accepted, included and celebrated in our faith communities.  Many, many thanks to members of Second Pres., volunteers and supporters who made the reception a wonderful first time event.

In the wake of this successful gathering however, I began to feel extremely overwhelmed.  There is so much work to be done; challenges of time, finances and the daunting task of helping our community in general understand what FIN is about seem almost insurmountable.  I needed to take a moment or two to understand what God was doing with all of this…and so I turned to my Bible.

Members of FIN Clergy Council: Catherine Monroe, Jack Howell, Michael Panitz, Craig Wansink, Wendy Wilkinson and Michael Daniels

Members of FIN Clergy Council: Assoc. Pastor Catherine Monroe, Pastor Jack Howell, Rabbi Michael Panitz, Pastors Craig Wansink, Wendy Wilkinson and Michael Daniels

I found myself in the book of Nehemiah.  It had been a long time since I had read about Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, and I was reminded that it didn’t exactly go so smoothly for him.  Workers got tired and discouraged, and were even threatened by those that opposed building the wall.  Although the challenges of building FIN are obviously very different, Nehemiah’s words jumped out of the page for me: “Don’t be afraid of them, Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome…” Oh yes, my heart agreed, God is both great and He is awesome. Just the other evening, FIN board member Pamela Tanner was talking with a guest at the reception and shared, “What I love about FIN is that it is a God thing…we certainly couldn’t have come this far without God.” I couldn’t agree more.

I also related to Nehemiah’s words in Chapter 4:19-20: “The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!”  I immediately related to that idea, and thought that maybe FIN is called to be that trumpet. We go out into our faith communities, many working hard to diligently embrace the work of inclusion of people with disabilities in our congregations, yet we can feel alone in our efforts sometimes.  FIN’s events, whether they be receptions, workshops or conferences, herald the opportunity to come together to learn from, support and encourage one another.  We are stronger together and our God will fight for us and with us!

As FIN moves forward, I ask that you consider three ways to support our efforts and work in the community.  All of them are equally important.

  1. Share. Use our Facebook pages, share emails, tell your acquaintances, friends and co-workers that there is an important effort building in our community; an effort to ensure ALL people are welcomed and accommodated in our faith communities, an effort to ensure that all people have the opportunity to worship and be an active part of our congregations.    https://www.facebook.com/FINhamptonroads/ and https://www.facebook.com/ThatAllMayWorship/
  2. Become a member. Visit the membership page and choose one of our four membership circles. http://www.faithinclusionnetwork.org/memberships/
  3. Pray. As an organization based on faith, we do not underestimate the power of your prayers. Please pray for our efforts to raise awareness, educate and connect our community.

Thank you and hope to see you at our signature event this year, That All May Worship-2017 Pathways to Powerful Inclusion Conference on Friday, March 10 at Church of the Holy Family, VB- https://thatallmayworship-2017.eventbrite.com

 

 

We are ready, how about you?

“What more can I do?
This is the question I dared to pray way back in January 2008. I wanted to know how to respond to the overwhelming compassion I felt for other families going through the same experience we were-families struggling to include their child with a disability into the life of their faith community. Congregations needed to be educated, individuals and families needed to know there was help…and hope.0314162006a
Nine years later and countless conversations, conferences, events and educational opportunities later, my passion for working in the faith and disability field is well developed and I have a new question on my prayer list;

“What more can WE do?

Because this is about community… our community. As members of this community, we need to decide what we believe to be acceptable and in the best interest of all persons, regardless of their perceived abilities or disabilities.

Should people with disabilities be able to access churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship in our community? – Yes!

Should individuals affected by disability and their families be able to enjoy and participate in corporate worship?Of course!

Should persons affected by disability get the chance to use their gifts to serve and get the opportunity to develop friendships with others in the congregation? – Absolutely!

If the amount of phone calls and email inquiries FIN has received recently are any indication, our local faith communities are beginning efforts towards better inclusion at a faster rate than ever. Small and large congregations are beginning to ask the questions and seek resources to better understand how to welcome and accommodate everyone.

But there is still much work to do done. Alarmingly, I also get the phone calls from distressed individuals and  parents with discouraging stories to share. Faith communities that did not understand, that excluded, that are not even accessible never mind welcoming.
So the question remains for FIN and for all of our faith communities…
“What more can we do?”

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Today I put the finishing touches on the very first dedicated office space for Faith Inclusion Network. Second Presbyterian Church, already home to our unique Faith and Disability Resource Center, has expanded their generosity and partnership by giving FIN our first public office. It feels like a turning point. FIN is ready to up our game. We want to make an even bigger impact on our community, both locally and nationally. We want to both help local congregations figure out the answer to the question, “What more can we do?” and make Hampton Roads an example for the rest of the country.
We are ready…how about you?

You can contact FIN at http://faithinclusionnetwork@gmail.com to be added to our email list, “Like” our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/FINhamptonroads and check out our website at http://www.faithinclusionnetwork.org Hope to hear from you soon!

A Place at the Table by Dianna Swenson

To know Dianna is truly to love her.  I am pretty sure anyone else who knows Dianna Swenson would agree.  She is a talented musician, passionate advocate, person of strong faith and mom to two sweet children, one of which has a disability with complex medical issues.  When she expressed an interest in writing down some thoughts on faith inclusion, I asked for her to send me whatever she had to share.  

Thank you for your story Dianna and we hope you keep writing, singing, praying and advocating! -K. Jackson

10648421_10152756689417948_9089216279735895491_oYesterday I was in another church, an enormous church, a gorgeous church. A church that I was told was welcoming to all abilities, and they are, the people are, but the building isn’t.

In America, we have what is called the ADA, Americans with disabilities act and it requires by law for buildings to be accessible, and for a certain amount of accessible parking for the vehicles required for wheelchair users. Churches, do not have to abide by the ADA, they are exempt, so in many ways, we realize that Christ came to free us all from the law, that we are to obey the laws of the government, but at the same time Jesus has set us free from being held to the laws of man.

Ok, well, fast forward to having to try to get your friends and students who need wheelchairs to get around up a platform to sing and give glory to God. This happens at my own beloved church, a church that I love. A church that has not yet found a way to allow ALL on the platform, which could potentially keep some out of ministry, because they can not make it up on the platform to serve.

I am aware that this is not what Jesus would have wanted. He came so that we can all have life and have it to the full. Abundantly. We still live in a fallen world, a world where it takes funds and money to make things happen like making churches accessible and it may need to go up before a board who may not like the way it “looks” in the sanctuary.

I am continually aware of places I can not bring my own child because he is in a chair. I am increasingly aware of the fact that many stay home from church because it is too hard to get out on a Sunday morning.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that no matter how positive a thinker you are, you can’t make a staircase an accessible ramp just by wishing for it. So, I instead and lifting up a prayer, and asking those who feel moved to join me, in praying that more churches will become accessible, to all, for all ministries to be open to those in wheelchairs.

Until it happens, that’s what I have, is faith and prayers. David invited Mephiboseth to his table, he was lame in both feet according to the word. What if the table is on a platform these days? How can we invite all to the table?

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