A Nebraska Conference RECORD focus issue about Disabilities Ministries
This issue of The Nebraska RECORD shares delightful stories about tangible and architectural changes reported recently by United Churches of Christ from Omaha to Chadron and Lincoln to Ogallala. These stories — set in larger, 12-point type â€“ tell of changes which vary in levels of magnitude, yet they all have equal weight. They are concrete evidence of attitudinal change.
In 30 years of ministry in our conference, I have observed a heartening maturation of attitude toward persons who live with disabilities. This movement has progressed from viewing disability as an item of pity/compassion to perceiving the inclusion of everyone as a matter of justice/compassion.
Our attitudes finally are beginning to progress from “doing something for the unfortunate person I am grateful that I am not, yet fear I might become” to increasing recognition in our hearts of the rightness of removing whatever physical or attitudinal barrier still impedes full inclusion in the life of the church.
We have begun to grow together toward a gradual recasting of personal or societal attitudes that shut off rather than welcome, to turn from perceiving persons with disabilities as separate from and different. Although we may notice a visible disability first when we meet a person, we are getting better about viewing that characteristic as only one part of an identity. We also notice and validate other unique gifts and talents.
Those of us with disabilities have begun to feel better about ourselves. I have grown from a sense of being broken and inferior to the rejoicing of wholeness and validity as one of God’s servants. Not like the attitudes of my parents’ generation. My mother as a young, newly married nurse was engaged to “take care of” her blind grandmother who was closeted in an upstairs room. I find the shalom of refusal to be closeted anywhere!
This special focus issue of The Nebraska RECORD fulfills my final responsibility for the Disabilities Ministries in the Nebraska Conference. I will continue as a member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries Executive Board and its website editor. Located at www.uccdm.org, this interactive web site offers resources, education, advocacy, and networking opportunities for churches and persons in the disabilities ministries community.
“After the death of their mother, a family wanted to offer a unique memorial,” said the Rev. Lauran Heidenreich, pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ogallala.
They thought about a church member who has used a wheelchair since an early age. “We know that you are fully accessible once you get inside the church,” they said, “but we want to give you an automatic door so you can come and go on your own.”
The original door was glass for visibility and of adequate width; but, said the pastor, “somebody has to hold the door while another person pushes in the wheelchair. Now she will have the freedom of doing it all herself.”
“All the door needed was the addition of the automatic door opener,” said Guy Bechtel, the church’s buildings and grounds person. “The opener will be programmed to slowly open up. It will stay open long enough for a person to enter, and then close automatically.”
The $1,700 device is wireless with a box installed in the entryway. Persons hit it, triggering the door to swing open. Should the door prove to be too narrow in the future, several inches of wall glass can be removed for a wider door.
“Guy and the family worked together,” the pastor said. “They decided the northeast door would be preferable to the front doors.” Additionally, the doorway is set in about 2-1/2 feet to protect against blasts of Nebraska wind.
Changes for the Family
“One of the biggest changes in our church is the hymns,” said Eleanor Swanson, member of First Central Congregational UCC Omaha. “The person who brings me to church comes early to choir practice. While she practices, I reread the hymns and Psalm with my magnifier. I can then keep up with the congregation.”
Within three weeks after losing her sight, Eleanor moved to the independent living side of the retirement center. Her church family also wasted no time adapting. They made certain that she could participate in worship. They had been offering large print bulletins for persons with visual needs but now also enlarge the Psalter and hymns.
They also assured that her worship attendance was uninterrupted. Anyone needing a ride phones the member in charge of drivers.” One driver also plans church dinners,” Eleanor said, “so I provide a needed vegetable, something I can do. She is widowed. We have become a pair.”
If her daughter is unavailable, Margaret Engstrom also appreciates a driver. “I use a walker now,” she said. “I try to get to church every Sunday.”
As the older building is not easily navigated, during the week her daughter goes to the parking lot ramp. First Central recently added the north entry ramp to meet code for its incoming daycare.
“It has also made the lower level more accessible for office volunteers,” said Sara Sharpe, church office manager. “It has eased my worries about someone falling down the steep stairs to the church office.”
Margaret, Sara’s eldest volunteer at 91, said, “I work at the church on Monday mornings 9-12, answering phones and doing little things for Sara and the Christian Ed. lady.” The next day, she and two others count the offering. “It keeps my mind sharper and I enjoy doing it,” she said.
“When someone needs help, you find a way. I think of our church as family,” Sara said. “It’s just a matter of doing for the congregation what you would do for family.”
Becoming a Fully Accessible Church
“How many have trouble hearing?” was asked at an all-church meeting of Lincoln, Northeast. “All these hands raised and heads nodded,” relates Northeast member Lois Poppe. Ever since the late ’60s construction of their fellowship hall, people had complained about its poor acoustics.
Concerns about those poor acoustics plus the need to make the church school rooms on the lower level accessible to everyone led to the creation of a Refurbishment and Accessibility Committee (RAC), which reviewed needed accessibility changes then presented options to the congregation for a decision on how to solve those problems. At first, the Moderator felt these changes could be accomplished through regular boards. Lois commented that Boards were to busy to assume this additional responsibility.
According to Janet Domeier, RAC chair, it all started three years ago at another annual church meeting. As each board reported, each had a list that included capital improvement. For years, “we ought to” discussion continued about not being truly lower level accessible. Teachers adjusted classrooms so that a youth who uses a wheelchair could have class on the main level.
The Moderator agreed to serve on RAC along with the Chairperson of the Board of
Trustees and several other committed church members. It took about a year for the committee to gather information and cost estimates. With congregational feedback, they stockpiled, studied and discussed possibilities.
“Because we were thorough, the congregation gave its approval,” said Lois, the
committee recorder. The committee contacted a Lincoln architect who presented designs in November. “We were successful in obtaining a loan for just under $250,000 for the addition and an elevator.”
This last year at the church’s annual meeting, the congregation decided to proceed in stages. Phase one focused on smaller items. Informational meetings with the congregation and information in every newsletter resulted in membership consensus. After design approval, the church raised enough funds for phase one.
Following acoustical analysis, the church installed acoustical wall panels in the Fellowship Hall which hosts Sunday coffee. At a recent anniversary gathering, people noticed a significant reduction of reverberation of voices and improvement in hearing. The panels also soften the room. They are also a great way to display posters, Janet said. “You can poke as many holes in them as you want.”
Phase one also included a lighted church sign, replacing the wooden sign that was difficult to read. Last August, the congregation approved completed designs for an addition, phase two.
“As you go along, you celebrate,” Janet said. Now, on to more capital fundraising.
Second phase improvements include an enhanced sanctuary sound system; increased accessible front and side parking; blinds and shades in the fellowship hall; an elevator; and lower level accessible restrooms.
The initial elevator struggle point, Janet said, was the cost. Most continued to perceive that it was only for somebody using a wheelchair. In the committee’s last presentation before the August vote, she detailed how the elevator entry would look.
“Persons have an immediate option. The elevator is right there,” she said. “It is for everyone. Those carrying equipment or someone who is weary that day will use it. We have many aging people in our church. Hopefully we broke through that with them,” she said. “We chose an elevator that is more like the commercial one without the extra doors. Just push a button and it goes.”
Also authorized and to be completed after the addition construction are new entrance doors and exterior lighting as well as bids for additional parking lot lighting. A modest 2006 grant from the Nebraska-Disabilities Ministries Board will apply toward the $1,200 inside signage.
What’s In Your Church’s Closet?
“Our congregation may not realize it has made so many positive, inclusive changes,” said Cheryl Cassiday, a member of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Chadron. Thanks to people like retiree Boyd Roberts, who spearheaded several projects, the church is living up to its designation of being fully accessible to aging persons and persons with disabilities.
Boyd, a former electrical contractor, said that old fixtures were not giving off much light.
New quartz lights save little on cost or energy output, they do produce a sharper, brighter light than regular incandescent bulbs. Each new hanging fixture contains three 100-watt quartz bulbs, replacing the older lamps with two 150-watt bulbs.
A section of pews was removed to allow persons using wheelchairs to sit farther forward without having to sit in the aisle. “With the pew cut-out,” said Kathy Rapp, “I do not sit out in the aisle, preventing anything from occurring.” She said the cut-out is also convenient for persons who use a walker as they can sit in the pew with the walker near by.
All three exterior doors are now wheelchair accessible. While entry into the main floor holds no difficulty for persons with mobility needs, the lower level was once off-limits to some.
The older lift installed in early 1980s was too small for the newer power vehicles. Boyd scoured the church an engineer. They located a closet, a built-in cupboard. In the basement, they would cut a hole through the wall that goes out into the fellowship hall.
Boyd chaired the project. He put together the cost, went to the congregation for agreement, putting together the cost estimates with members doing the work themselves.
In a few months after receiving church agreement and the start of the project, $15,000 came in as donations. The church added the other half from savings. “You have to have a little faith,” he said about undertaking a major project. “It helps to start doing it. People like to see something happen. Then they get excited about it.”
One Youth + One Retiree = A Request Honored
When Christopher Cassiday learned that the funding had collapsed for his proposed Eagle Scout project, a letter came to the church council at First Congregational UCC, Chadron. Getting in the front door for worship was easy for everyone. However, it was impossible for persons with wheelchairs to use either bathroom. How about updating the women’s bathroom?
Chris took on the project. The goal was to provide a usable turning radius within the stall itself as well as to make the bathroom entry accessible to persons using a larger, powered vehicle. “We knew the church would be willing to fund it,” he said, “and we knew people with expertise would help.”
Now a first-year student at Doane College, Chris said, “We widened the doorway to make the stall larger, replaced the doorknob with a lever handle, removed the privacy partition and one stool, and installed the new stall system.”
Both of Chris’ parents were involved in the project. His mom helped with the design and obtained a higher commode from the hospital. His dad did hands-on work. Boyd Roberts, Chris’ mentor, worked by his side. “Boyd’s expertise,” Chris said, “was invaluable. He made the project happen.”
The result is a rectangular-shaped bathroom a little deeper than wide. “The only great change,” Boyd said, “was to relocate the stall position. The newer, attractive sink offers plenty of leg room.” He also covered hot water pipes with protective insulation. The men’s bathroom is still waiting, but Chris knows another young man eligible for an Eagle Scout project. -db
“Any Body, Everybody, Christ’s Body”
This section was written by Pam Cuttlers, member of the Nebraska Disabilities Ministries Committee.
“Any Body, Everybody, Christ’s Body” is the Accessible to All (A2A) workbook put together by Rev. Jo Clare Hartsig that is available to all from the UCC Disabilities Ministries. Jo Clare chairs the UCC DM and lives in Minnesota. This workbook can be downloaded from www.uccdm.org. It is full of excellent ideas to help churches provide hospitality and accessibility to all.
The title “Any Body, Everybody, Christ’s Body” shows the process in the workbook.
Section One, “Any Body,” explores the meaning of the actual flesh and blood body we each inhabit, our differences, our gifts, our laments, our anger, our sacred selves, and the ways we can â€˜be good stewards of Godâ€™s varied grace.â€
“Everybody” includes ways to help congregations â€˜practice hospitality ungrudginglyâ€™ and offers a wide variety of ideas for churches to put this into practice. There are handouts for ushers, ideas for newsletters on how to write or speak about persons with disabilities, information for pastors, and multisensory worship ideas.
“Christ’s Body” focuses on â€œunderstanding the Body of Christ as a symbol of brokenness and healing, of interdependence and community.â€
This workbook is designed as a group process of reflection and action with readings and discussion for each section. It culminates in a church committing to be an A2A church.
The disability rights movement’s slogan is â€œNothing about us without usâ€ so please include people with disabilities in your study sessions. The Nebraska Disability Ministries Committee hopes all UCC congregations will become accessible to ALL!
Reading the Signs is A Can-Do Forum about accessibility for the whole church family
Special Focus Section,The Nebraska RECORD
(Nebraska Conference United Church of Christ, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Feb.-Mar. 2007)
Written and edited by Dee Brauninger