By Rev. Chris Brouillard-Coyle
It is a typical Sunday morning. Worship has started.
Loud utterances are heard outside signaling that our friend has arrived. Immediately one parishioner jumps up and goes out to help navigate the large wheelchair through the doors to the building and the sanctuary. The choir director pushes in the piano bench and sits in a pew to allow for easier navigation into the space.
Once our friend have found her spot, another parishioner offers her a tambourine and makes sure others have shakers to support inclusion during the music. The recently baptized three-year-old waves, they have become special friends in the short time they have known each other as they share the joy of playing along with the music. As tends to happen, our friend settles down once she finds herself surrounded by her Church family, people who gracefully accept her for who she is and continually make space for her to feel part of the community.
This congregation has had some 10 years experience with parishioners who have intellectual disabilities. It started with John, who had Down Syndrome. With him, the folks learned the wonder and joy of a powerful smile that would light up the sanctuary during the passing of peace and when singing his favourite songs. They have a soft spot for Shine Jesus, Shine! because it was John’s favourite. He would light up when it was sung inspiring even some of the most traditional in the community to dance and clap along.
Loving John meant making space for him and his friends at pasta dinners. For a time, all it took was ensuring there was a blender on hand. The Church family also represented his family at Christmas dinners as his siblings no longer lived in the area. These are treasured times for those who participated. Photos serve as reminders of these joyful moments.
John’s workers also found a home among the community. One became a parishioner on her own and included the community when she was married. Sadly, John died in 2020. Still his memory lives in the hearts of the community. His house continues to send baked goods for bake sales and the welcoming he received made it easier for Community Living to continue to bring friends to worship and events. John, our more recent friend, the Community Living workers, and their friends have become integral parts of the community and the ways the congregation embodies the Body of Christ.
Bishop Todd’s vision includes the goal of having a diverse Church. This ideal challenges us to consider the extent to which we are inclusive as communities of faith.
How easy is it for those with mobility issues to access the spaces and places in our churches? Could a priest who uses a wheelchair preside at the altar? Could a blind person read scripture? How many would learn a bit of sign language to communicate with someone who is deaf and/or mute? What would happen if someone who is neurodivergent came to Church and was particularly expressive? Would they be perceived as an unwelcome disruption? What does our relationship with those who experience various challenges say about our understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ today? What can we learn from those who struggle with disabilities?
In the first letter to the Corinthians, we are told that we are the body of Christ and individually members of it, each with our own gifts to bring. Living into this ideal challenges us to make space for the diversity of God’s Beloved children whoever they are and however they come into our communities. The metaphor reminds us to value all parts of the body because “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) Thus we are challenged to “strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” (1 Cor 12:31)
Who among us can name some of the greater gifts that the diversity of peoples with disabilities bring to our congregations? How many can say we have been blessed by the presence of siblings with physical and/or intellectual disabilities? What do we need to do to expand the spaces and places that embrace these individuals and the gifts they bring so that we come closer to that ideal of a diverse Church?
Rev. Chris Brouillard-Coyle is a tri-chair of SEJH and a tri-chair of Justice League of Huron.