Underscore: How do We Continue to Engage Members That Need to Worship at Home
By 2030, because of the aging baby boomers and increased life expectancy, about 72.1 million or more than one in five Americans will be aged 65 or above. As the population ages, many will become homebound and need home-based care,” reports the Administration on Aging.1 How will this impact our members?
Story by Beth Michaels and Juan-Jose Garza
Those numbers undoubtedly translate to an increasing number of members in the Seventh-day Adventist Church who can’t actively attend their local church, or who will need great assistance and support to do so. Are our congregations equipped to assist them and include them in church life? According to Charlotte LV Thoms, EdD, coordinator of the North American Division’s (NAD) Commission for People With Disabilities, some are, but many aren’t. She and others are working to change that.
Involve Every Ministry
Long-term illness or more severe physical limitations are what keep some members from attending church, but it can also include those permanently living in institutional settings or in family members’ homes. It can even include the caretakers of those who have difficulty getting about.
Materials coming from the NAD, like the Disabilities Ministries Handbook, and from Thoms’ office help congregations become better equipped to include and minister to those who can’t make it to church. Among other services, she also makes recommendations to church boards regarding steps they can take to make church facilities more accessible for people who use mobile assistance devices (wheelchairs, crutches, etc.), and to find transportation solutions for those who need help getting to church.
4 Practices of an Inclusive Church
Thoms says one way churches can be more inclusive is to “stop thinking of Disabilities Ministries as a singular ministry,” she says. Instead, it should be part of every ministry in the church. Congregations who strive to include everyone have efforts like telephone volunteers who call those who miss the church services. “They utilize the Internet to connect and reach those unable to attend Sabbath service,” she adds. “Instead of bringing them to the materials, [they] take materials to those at home. … People want to do what they can. Everyone can be involved.”
Pastor Ron Anderson of Ohio Conference’s Chillicothe church says that is the attitude his congregants adopted. “Our congregation is very understanding with members that have medical challenges, realizing that there may be times that they may not be able to fulfill the desire they have to share their gifts,” he says. “It does not take a great deal of effort to be flexible; it is a matter of the heart. When you remember that Jesus died for everyone and they have been given the ‘Great Commission’ as well, who are we to hinder them?”
Getting it Right
Nita Williams is a member at Pastor Anderson’s church who can speak personally on the issue. She notes what a difference fellow members make when she goes through times of illness that keep her home. Williams has had pancreatitis for 14 years, has had multiple seizures and endures a vocal cord dysfunction that sometimes leaves her incapacitated for 40 minutes. She has also survived two heart attacks.
A result of her pancreatitis is that she’s become tolerant to medicine. “I can’t feel anything. I have no veins in me,” she giggles. “I have ports. I love my ports.”
But, Williams’ church, she says, “Does it all. We could give lessons on how to make it work with disabled [and] homebound members. I’ve needed assistance bathing, etc., and my sisters in Christ have been with me, cleaning me, my house, cooking, shopping—all of it. My church is like a large family.”
When Williams does attend, she serves as the church organist, a gift members say they miss when she’s not there.
Angela Lundy also feels blessed to be part of a congregation that helps her feel connected. At Pennsylvania Conference’s Chestnut Hill church in Philadelphia, where she’s an elder, she says, “They have become sensitive to the needs of the disabled and have allowed me to [host] sensitivity training seminars to bring understanding to others.” And, for people with mobility issues, “There is a stair glider, and when someone cannot move from a wheelchair, men carry them in their chair up and down the stairs. That’s real sensitivity and reminds me of the men who worked together to lower the man down to Jesus from the roof.”
However, Lundy, who is a former Baptist minister, believes there is still a lot of work to be done in churches and communities to increase awareness and sensitivity. She organizes special symposiums throughout Philadelphia to advocate for people with physical limitations. “Sometimes … there are needs that are never heard,” she says. “There are so many who need help. Our meetings provide that voice.”
Inside our churches, Lundy also believes inclusion depends on the openness of the pastor and members. “People are hindered by being ignored; requests not [being] granted, like access to areas [and] parking spaces or rides to church when they are remote; being sat in the back of the church because of an obvious disability; no friendship shown to them,” she states. “They feel they are unwanted and remove themselves from the imagined or real rejection.”
Doing Things Differently
More than ministering to those who can’t attend services or who make it to church with a lot of effort and support, churches also need to remember that these same members have talents to contribute to church life.
Former pastor Victoria Harrison, who now attends Potomac Conference’s Washington Spanish church in Silver Spring, Md., is a perfect example. She is a mother of two, was widowed after 32 years of marriage and has over 30 years of ministry behind her, but she suffers physically every day. “I’m unable to walk independently,” she says. “Without an official diagnosis, I am in serious pain. I miss many church services.”
Nonetheless, Harrison opens her home for neighborhood and private Bible studies and Sabbath evening prayer meetings. “From those, it has resulted in seven, no, eight baptisms,” Harrison shares. “Recently, my biggest ministry is caring for my grandchild … [and] introducing a Jesus that she’ll have forever.”
Gary Dunn, another member of the Chillicothe church, uses his numerous ins and outs at the hospital as an opportunity to witness. His legs are regularly numb, and he has to wear braces. He also has Castleman’s disease and a plethora of other ailments.
“They told me in the hospital I’d never walk again,” Dunn chuckles. “Now I’m walking—slowly, but they’re all shocked. They said I’d die. Been here for four years.” He adds, “I have a rare disease. Of three people who had it, I’m the only survivor. They can’t explain why it’s getting better. I know why: God.”
Since his healing, Dunn and his wife, Beverly (once his caretaker), regularly attend nursing homes to hug and pray with the residents.
Thoms says of these examples, “Disabilities Ministries is about taking people just as they are and whatever their personal ministry is. Whatever a person without a disability can do, a person with a disability can do. They just do it differently.”
1The Administration on Aging. A Profile of Older Americans: 2009 Administration on Aging (online) [Accessed April 6, 2010].
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