by Kevin Timpe
In my experience as a parent, author, and advocate for people with disabilities, I have unfortunately found that the Church is sometimes less welcoming toward people with disabilities than is our culture at large. I think, for example, of how churches successfully lobbied to be exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act leading up to its passage in 1990. Or I think of how people with disabilities are significantly less likely to attend church than are members of the nondisabled public. According to a recent survey, adults with disabilities in the US are approximately 40% more likely to never attend a place of worship. Sometimes it’s too easy for the bad stories to dominate my imagination.
But last week, while I was in Oklahoma recording a few short videos on disability and the Church, I heard the encouraging story of 8th Street Church of the Nazarene. This church began as an inner-city church plant from Bethany First Church of the Nazarene. When the time came for them to find their own meeting space, they came across an old church building on 8th Street in downtown Oklahoma City. Back in 2011, as St. Anthony Hospital was expanding, it had purchased this church building, but the hospital had never found a use for it. When St. Anthony learned of the church plant looking for a new building, the church and the hospital began talking. A year later, the hospital sold the building to the new congregation for what they had paid for it nearly a decade before.
Moving into this new location was a sacramental endeavor for the congregation. They wanted to think theologically not only about their congregation, but also about their building, and the ways that both could be inviting to the neighbors surrounding it. When the old church on a hill had been built in 1907, no consideration had been given to wheelchair accessibility. Although wheelchairs could make it in through the front door, the church leadership realized that people with mobility challenges wouldn’t be able to access the sanctuary on the second floor. Even though adding an elevator was neither cheap nor easy, the church knew that it was important for them to have a worship space that all could access. They weren’t required to do this by the ADA. But they knew it was important. So before they moved in to the building, they made sure the sanctuary was accessible.
While physical access to a church isn’t all that matters, it’s hard to feel like you belong if you can’t even get in to worship. 8th Street’s commitment to having their sanctuary accessible says something about their theology. As I wrote in Disability and Inclusive Communities:
The Church ought to be a beacon of inclusion. It ought to be a place where we can come together as a whole body, united in spirit and love for the good of all. It is together, collectively, that we are made holy. It is together that we are conformed into the image of Christ. And this is something that all of us—indeed all of creation—contributes to.
8th Street Church of the Nazarene gets this. Their actions set an example, both of good theology and also the needed practical steps to enact that theology. I hope more local congregations will follow suit.
Kevin Timpe currently holds the William H. Jellema Chair in Christian Philosophy at Calvin College. He’s also the founder and president of 22 Advocacy, which engages in educational advocacy for students with disabilities in public schools. Kevin Timpe has spoken on disability to both academic and lay audiences in the United States and around the world. His latest book, Disability and Inclusive Communities, intends to help readers learn how to build communities that fully include people with disabilities.