The Open Roof Award is presented each year to congregations who have made specific efforts to “ensure that all may worship, serve, be served, learn, and grow in the presence of God, as valued members of the Christian community.”
During the Mission and Ministry Board meeting prior to the 2013 Annual Conference, four congregations were honored for their work: Elizabethtown (Pa.) Church of the Brethren; Nettle Creek Church of the Brethren in Hagerstown, Ind.; Stone Church of the Brethren in Huntingdon, Pa.; and Wolgamuth Church of the Brethren in Dillsburg, Pa.
“For us, hospitality and inclusion are HIGH priority.” This statement from Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren nicely summarizes the congregation’s ministry of including those who are differently abled. The church’s most recent work was a major renovation to the chancel to install a ramp allowing mobility-challenged choir members to more easily participate.
Within two hours of the ramp having received ADA approval, church staff received a phone call from a bride-to-be from a neighboring Church of the Brethren congregation inquiring if she could have her wedding in the sanctuary. She uses a wheelchair and her congregation’s sanctuary is not fully accessible. That wedding took place in June, making this accessible space a blessing to the congregation and beyond.
Nettle Creek Church of the Brethren faced a different kind of challenge when Richard Propes was hired as interim pastor. The congregation admittedly had misgivings, since Propes is in a wheelchair, born with spina bifida and becoming a double amputee as an adult. The congregation came to find out that they were more concerned about it than was Propes, and reported that things the church felt would be impossible worked out just fine. “Richard taught us that it’s okay to look different; he opened our eyes to the ways we as a congregation could open our hearts and minds to be better stewards through every avenue and every person God sends our way.”
Stone Church of the Brethren is committed to “recognizing the uniqueness of every individual as God’s beloved child” and to “welcoming all, regardless of…physical or mental ability.” The church’s overall renovation project included a deep desire to make the building accessible, and the resulting list of changes is a long one: all but one of the outside doors into the building is now accessible; all bathrooms were gutted and made ADA compliant; a lift was installed from the fellowship hall level to the sanctuary level; a new sound system was installed in the sanctuary with hearing enhancement devices available; new lighting in the sanctuary has aided in the ability of persons to see the printed bulletins and hymnals more easily.
“Since the completion of the renovations in 2009, we have seen the value and blessing of what these renovations have done for not only members and friends of Stone Church, but also for anyone who comes to use our building. In many ways, words do not describe the impact this has had on our self-image and awareness of being sensitive to those who are dealing with accessibility issues.”
Wolgamuth Church of the Brethren, a small, rural congregation in south central Pennsylvania, has as leaders reported, “finite resources,” but over time was able to install a fully accessible restroom on the main floor, remove a pew from the sanctuary to accommodate wheelchairs, and as a part of an audiovisual equipment upgrade, offer hearing devices. Even with these improvements, the one significant challenge that remained was accessibility to the lower level, which houses the kitchen, fellowship hall, and classroom. For more than a decade the congregation had been seeking ways to address the concern, but all of the options explored proved to be cost-prohibitive.
With a recent increase in membership and the need to use the lower level more regularly, a proposal was approved to build a cement ramp to one of the basement entrances. While the church’s location and size may limit some types of outreach, it now has the added benefit of allowing the congregation to invite everyone for fellowship, refreshments, and even simply shelter.
These congregations are commended for their work and for increasing awareness of the needs–including the need to serve, not just be served–of sisters and brothers who are differently abled.
— Donna Kline is director of the Church of the Brethren Deacon Ministry and a member of the Congregational Life Ministries staff. She reports, “A version of this article will appear in an upcoming issue of the monthly online newsletter of the Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADNet). We are very happy to be able to celebrate the good work being done in our congregations with the greater Anabaptist community.”