Posted in The Wider Church

2022 Institute of Theology and Disability

In 2019, with the support of the Dennis Lin Fund, I attended the Institute of Theology and Disability for the first time. I went with high hopes that learning from world-class scholars in the theology of disability and meeting my fellow practitioners of inclusive ministry would transform my thinking and my ministry. My expectations were more than met and I have spent the past three years integrating the knowledge, relationships, resources into my work. All of this is to say that the bar was set pretty high when I had the opportunity to attend the 2022 Institute in early June.

My experience this time was quite different but equally transformative. There were fewer people attending on-site but the speakers and worship leaders were more diverse this year. One of my favorite lectures was “Not Your Ritual Object: A Disabled Perspective in Inclusive Liturgy, Ritual and Spiritual Arts”, a talk by Rabbi Ruti Regan on the challenges of creating successful inclusive rituals. By describing common pitfalls like modifying received religious rituals so much that they lose their emotional impact for the community and become something to merely tolerate, Rabbi Ruti showed how some attempts at inclusive ritual can actually subvert the goal of integration and inclusion of people with disabilities. She underscored the importance creating liturgy that does not define people with disabilities solely by their needs or use disability as a spiritual metaphor but recognizes the experiences of people with disabilities as meaningful in and of themselves. Rabbi Ruti encouraged us to look carefully at the stories and practices that already exist within our religious traditions to find the places that lend themselves to inclusion such as the Jewish practice of repeated prayer bows and readings or the emphasis on divine embodiment during Advent in the Christian tradition. I could go on about the many insightful points made by Rabbi Ruti but I won’t for now.

Another thought-provoking lecture was “COVID-19 is Not Like the Measles: The Hidden Impacts of the Pandemic on the Lives of People with Disabilities” by John Swinton. His described the scarcity mindset many people and governments fell victim to during the pandemic, including those of us whose worldview is supposedly shaped by faith in a God who breaks down barriers and encourages love of neighbor. He pointed to hoarding behavior, the unequal distribution of vaccinations and the inflammation of xenophobic prejudice. At the same time, he also pointed to a heightened awareness of the human need for companionship and community and the increased access online platforms have provided for people with disabilities. He charged communities of faith to lead the way in prophetically reimagining the world helping communities to develop practices that encourage greater relational consciousness and remembering the marginalized.

That’s probably enough detail for now! If you’re interested other incredibly meaningful lectures and talks I attended were:

Beyond Saints and Superheroes: A Phenomenological Study of Spiritual Care Needs of Parents Raising Children with Disabilities by Laura MacGregor, Allen Jorgenson, Kayko Dreidger Hesslein and Roz Vincent Haven

Disability Ethics and Theology: A Symposium by Rosemaries Garland-Thompson, Brian Brock, Devan Stahl and Bill Gaventa

Grief, Loss and End of Life Issues with People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities by Bill Gaventa

LGBTQ Inclusion in Disability Work: A Conversation for Community and Allies by Allison Connelly Vetter and Rebekah Dyer

Rejoicing Through a Communion of Vulnerabilities by Adanna James

The Intersections of Black Liberation Theology and Disability Justice by Rev. Harold “Russell” Ewell II

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Continued Faith Engagement of People with I/DD After COVID-19 by Jasmine Duckworth and Chantal Hardwick

All Ages and Abilities Celebrate “Disability Saints” Through Art

  • October 9, 2019

Meet Jennifer Keelan, the second grader from Phoenix who, along 60 other activists with disabilities, left behind her wheelchair and crawled 83 steps in 90 degree weather to reach the door of the Capitol building. This demonstration, now known as the “Capitol Crawl,” is credited with finally convincing Congress to pass the ADA (American with Disabilities Act). It was the brainchild of Rev. Wade Blank, founder ADAPT, the political arm of the Atlantis community, a community where young people with disabilities could live independently without having to forgo all support. It was Wade Blank who encouraged Jennifer to crawl that day.

While many Americans are aware of the ADA, comparatively few have ever heard of the Capitol Crawl or the 504 Sit-in led by Judith Heumann, despite the fact that it continues holds the record for the longest running occupation of a federal building in history (The 1977 Disability Rights Protest that Broke Records and Changed Laws). The video below gives an introductory glance to the movement in less than 2 minutes.

If we wouldn’t want our children to grow up ignorant of women’s suffrage, civil rights or any other historic fight for justice, then disability rights should be no different. People of all ages and abilities at West Concord Union Church are now learning about the heroes of disability rights. We call them “disability saints” and we’re making art in the style of religious icons to honor them. Take a look below. You just might see a disability saint you recognize.

From Longing to Belonging Part 2: Parables in Wayzata, MN

  • June 5, 2019

This is the second of two blog posts about my recent professional development trip.

The photos below are from my visit with “Parables”, a ministry for people of all abilities at Wayzata Community Church in Wayzata, MN. Rev. Leslie Neugent created Parables six years ago after a child with a disability started singing “Jesus Loves Me” during the sermon and was taken out of worship. As the parent of a child with a disability, Leslie wanted there to be a place where people of all abilities felt free to be themselves during worship. Today, Parables is fondly known as a “no-shushing zone” and “a place for the little red fish in all of us.”

The Most Inclusive Table in the World
Getting ready for communion.

As you can see, there are similarities and differences between Parables and Sunday Fellowship. Both are known for holy moments as well as moments of holy chaos! Both provide leadership opportunities for adults with disabilities. But there are some important differences. Parables primarily serves school-aged children and their families whereas Sunday Fellowship has always focused on adults. Sunday Fellowship has never incorporated therapy dogs into worship the way Parables does. Another difference between Parables and Sunday Fellowship is the role communion plays. Parables celebrates communion at every worship service whereas Sunday Fellowship does not.

What’s clear is that the deep faith, the joy and the strong sense of community people experience at Parables and Sunday Fellowship is very much the same. Communities like Parables and Sunday Fellowship are supremely gifted at embodying God’s unconditional love and they are on the rise. See below for links to multiple churches that are now using the Parables model as well as communities that have developed their own way of doing things. Be sure to check out Benjamin’s Hope which houses a church, a farm, a therapeutic riding program, day/employment programs and intentional communities.

Whatever our ages or abilities at this moment in time, let our prayer be that the little red fish in each of us can always find a place where it feels free to swim in the direction God is leading it.

From Longing to Belonging

  • May 30, 2019

(This is the first of two posts I’ll be sharing about my recent professional development trip.)

2019 Summer Institute of Theology and Disability in Holland, MI

Last week, thanks to the support of the Dennis Lin Fund, I had the privilege of attending the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability, an initiative by the Collaborative on Faith and Disability. Now in its tenth year, the Summer Institute is considered one of the premier conferences in the field of disability and faith, drawing religious leaders and scholars from all over the world. I was one of over 150 professionals who spent four days discussing the best ways of ensuring people with disabilities experience a true sense of Belonging whenever we participate in religious practice and community, not just access.

The highlight of the conference for me was the amazing people I met. At the Institute, people with disabilities are not just a topic of discussion, we are also the planners, the presenters, and the attendees. That’s not to say ableism was absent. I saw plenty of instances when ableism reared its head. No doubt there were others I missed due to my unconscious bias. But the level of awareness and the number of accommodations put in place to serve a wide variety of abilities made it clear that the desire for full inclusion was also present.

I could go on and on about the myriad of resources I have returned with but I won’t do that here. Suffice it to say that my suitcase was five pounds heavier than when I left (see photo evidence). I look forward to sharing them with you in the days and months ahead and God-willing some of my new friends will visit us at WCUC.

Our Wider Church: The MACUCC Annual Meeting

  • September 7, 2016

David Swain attended the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ Annual Meeting at UMass Amherst on June 17-18, 2016 on behalf of our congregation. Here is his report!

13445827_10153198699762824_5900954347625028854_nOverview Although the 2016 Annual Meeting lacked the electric atmosphere of the 2015 Meeting (due to the sensation created in 2015 by Israel-Palestine Resolution and Nadia Bolz-Weber’s preaching), this year’s meeting was important in two ways that are significant for the future of the Mass Conference.  First, MACUCC is doing some belt-tightening by reducing both the OCWM retention rate and the United Church Mission sharing ratio, closing the Waltham office (merged into Framingham), and increasing Fellowship dues ($18.55 to 19.00). Second, MACUCC is discerning whether to merge with the Connecticut and Rhode Island Conferences.  A highlight for WCUC was hearing Cindy Maybeck, our incoming interim minister, bring down the house with the story of her commitment ceremony.

Preaching and Music This year’s worship component was eclectic, 13417657_10153198707277824_7897421387790968532_nwith brilliant and provocative preaching by Rev. Otis Moss III and musical meditation and improvisation by Ken Medema.  Moss spoke to the emerging problem of aging congregations that are failing to keep or attract young believers (using the story of Paul preaching all night and having revive the young man who fell from a window, asleep).  The challenge, Moss argued, is not that culture is failing to support religious life, but that churches are failing themselves by clinging to an outmoded culture.

Resolutions Annual Meeting took up one significant Resolution, “Calling on the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ and 13450895_10153198705552824_8462657443871611765_nits Members, Congregations, Associations, and Conferences to Covenant as Immigrant-Welcoming Congregations.”  The purpose of this resolution is to support the creation of a new designation for churches wishing to identify themselves as immigrant-welcoming churches. Recognizing that congregations are at very different places on immigrant issues, this Resolution carefully distinguishes between immigrant and refugee status, between “illegal” and “undocumented” labels.  There was a consensus vote to begin a two-year process to decide if MACUCC will be an Immigrant-Welcoming Conference, and to propose the Resolution to Synod in 2017.

Supporting materials: “Becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation: The Journey is Made by Walking” and the MACUCC page on Immigration and Refugee Concerns.

MACUCC Discernment on a Merger  Based on a history of mutual cooperation and recognized interdependence, the MA, CT, and RI Conferences of the UCC have endorsed a Resolution, “Awakening: A Season of Discernment for a Future of Shared 13445490_10153198703772824_8264926839092979054_nMinistry.”  Much of the first afternoon of the the meeting was dedicated to discussing what a merger, or federation, of the conferences might mean for each, and for a new united conferences.  It became clear in presentations made by the three conferences that Rhode Island, in particular, had much to gain financially, and that MA and CT had much to gain through shared organizational structures.  General questions raised: what is the current state of the covenant between us? what would this mean on the local level? how would this benefit all of us?

Supporting materials and a survey on the proposed merger here.

Future Directions  MACUCC will no longer meet at UMass in Amherst, as the facilities are too small and the location is inconvenient for many attendees.  The 2017 meeting will be held in Hartford, CT.

You can read the MACUCC’s summary of the event, complete with videos of the speakers, here.

WCUC Was Here 2015: Marriage Equality edition

  • June 30, 2015

WCUC_supreme_courtOur very first photo submission of the summer is a special one: Sharon, Ellen and Mark visited the Supreme Court just one week before Sharon and Ellen’s marriage was fully recognized by our nation. It is so ordered! Hallelujah!

You can read more from leaders of the United Church of Christ about the marriage equality decision here (national leaders) and here (regional leaders). The UCC has played an important role in the struggle for marriage equality and equal rights, including our affirmation of equal marriage in 2005, organizing efforts in several states, and a particularly visible role in the North Carolina supreme court case. Here at WCUC we embraced an Open and Affirming covenant in 1999.

Congratulations to Sharon and Ellen — and to all of us! Please share your own summer adventures, near and far, by sending photos to our office.

Shout! Revere our Climate

  • June 30, 2015

shout imageThanks to the efforts of WCUC leaders and many others, more than 350 people gathered on April 19th to walk, ride, process and rally to “sound the alarm” on the urgent need to address climate change. You can view the event website here and a video summary of the event here.

Shaped by Hope – In a Climate Crisis World

  • March 19, 2015

Jim AntalExcerpts from the sermon  “Shaped by Hope – In a Climate Crisis World” preached by the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal on March 15, 2015

We need to take to heart Jesus’ most common instruction: “Fear not!” When it comes to the climate crisis – following Jesus’ admonition – we need to fearlessly move forward:

  • Unafraid to face the facts.
  • Unafraid to speak with candor.
  • Unafraid to name and go after what may seem to be impossible accomplishments because
    that is what is required to preserve God’s creation.

To address the climate crisis, we need:

  • a hope that goes beyond the personal concerns we each have;
  • a hope big enough to embrace the world around us;
  • a hope not limited to people but a hope that embraces all life;
  • and not only all things alive today, but a hope so large that all generations to come are included. That’s the hope that God gave Noah after the flood when God declared an everlasting covenant. God is not only concerned about us! In addition to us, God covenants with all future generations and with every living creature. (Genesis 9:12)

Some of you know that on July 1, 2013 the UCC became the first denomination to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies. This began when your Mass Conference Board voted to bring the resolution I had written to Synod. In doing so, we were on the front line of what is becoming a larger movement that now includes close to 1,000 universities, cities, philanthropic foundations and faith communities whose investments together represent more than fifty billion dollars.

Why divest from fossil fuel companies? Well – because the carbon they own – or have the right to tap – is five times what it will take to alter life as we know it. If fossil fuel companies simply continue to carry out their mission, they will wreck the earth.

And as people of faith, not only do we believe that wrecking God’s creation is morally wrong, we believe it’s morally wrong to profit from wrecking creation.

Climate change is already testing our coastal cities, our farms, our national parks, our rivers. It’s also already testing the poor, the marginalized, the elderly, the hungry and homeless. Now it’s time for us to test our politicians. Now it’s time to test any who would profit by wrecking God’s creation.

And most importantly – now it’s time to test our faith. I urge you to allow a great hope to enter your heart as you receive Jesus’ most frequent admonition – “Fear Not!” Face this challenge, follow where God is calling you, and recognize that however impossible, however unlikely, however unreachable, nothing is too hard for God. Amen.

Click here to read the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal’s entire sermon.

MACUCC Annual Meeting

  • June 20, 2014

June 13 & 14, 2014

Recently Pastor Hannah, Ruth and Maureen attended the 215th Annual Meeting of the Mass. Conference of the UCC, which was held in Sturbridge, Mass. Over 500 attendees at the meeting were inspired by worship presented by Conference Minister Rev. Dr. Jim Antal and keynote speaker Rev. Yvette Flunder from California.

Rev. Antal spoke of “envisioning possibilities as if they were inevitable.” Rev. Flunder spoke about the church as a village where everyone belongs to each other. She predicted that, “we will see unity coming from the people we least expect it from.” Hannah, Ruth and Maureen all returned from the Annual Meeting motivated by these nationally recognized speakers.

Meeting voters unanimously passed the motion to replace Conference Fellowship Dues and Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) Basic Support with a new mechanism for giving by the local churches called United Church Mission. Attendees celebrated the life of Andy Gustafson, a much loved member of the Mass Conference staff who passed away in May. Attendees also celebrated the anniversary of Open and Affirming (ONA) being sponsored by the United Church of Christ.  It all started in Massachusetts thirty years ago at a meeting like this!


See the keynote address below: