How does your church connect with people with disabilities? What ministries do you offer to those who face intellectual and physical challenges? Those are some of the topics to be covered in a new study course offered by the Office of the General Assembly. Sunday, September 13 is Disability Inclusion Sunday and OGA leaders have called on a church pastor who has made it a life calling to offer a new study course.
The focus of the study will be the book, "Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church," by the Rev. Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox, a California pastor with a passion for working with people living with intellectual disabilities. She’s been involved in this work since high school, where she had the opportunity to work in a special education class and that, she says, changed her life.
“I got to know someone in the class with intellectual disabilities named David. He was happy and free and emotionally integrated in a way that I wasn’t,” she said. “It was a helpful friendship. It introduced me to a way to recognize those gifts and important things that the church needs, and what we all need in our lives.”
A self-described “Jesus person,” Fox says she turned to the Bible for context when writing the book.
“The Gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus offering physical healing,” she said. “But even as churches today seek to follow the way of Jesus, people with disabilities all too often experience the very opposite of healing and life-giving community: exclusion, judgment, barriers.”
For the book, Fox also collaborated with medical doctors, disability scholars, and pastors to fully understand what Jesus does as he heals. Personal reflections from Christians with disabilities are featured throughout the book, including suggestions for concrete practices adaptable to a variety of church settings.
Fox writes from experience. She is the organizing pastor of a church start-up in Los Angeles called Beloved Everybody Church, where people with and without disabilities lead and participate together.
“Some churches have separate ministry just for people with intellectual disabilities and we are more integrated. Everything we do as community is accessible to people of all abilities,” said Fox. “We are still really small. Our church culture is different; adults with disabilities, in particular, are very protected. Most come through word of mouth.”
Study participants can now access the accompanying course through equip.pcusa.org, the church’s online training resource. The book is available through most outlets.
“It’s really a conversation-based course. It’s divided into sections and chapters,” said Fox. “For each section, there is a video where I set the stage and we discuss why do these chapters matter, why I include them in the book, and what role do they play? There are also some reading questions from which people can benefit.”
Fox says the course includes discussion forums for each section of reading for people to explore more and connect with the material.
“That’s where people have a chance to share what they’re thinking and what their experiences have been and how they connect with the church context,” she said. “That discussion piece will be very helpful. There is also a resource where everyone who takes the course can add a book or a podcast that has been helpful to them. It’s good conversation for people who care about the topic of being faithful to the work of Jesus.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has kept many churches from gathering in person over the last several months, forcing congregations and staff to find new, innovative ways to be community, including worshiping via digital communication. Fox says that should not stop churches from being inclusive and proactive in how they connect with people facing various physical or intellectual challenges.
“One thing churches should be attentive to is the fact that more people with particular challenges may be able to participate online than in person,” she said. “Churches have been forced to adapt their practices radically, so this may be the perfect time to really think about how we create new practices when we come back together and orient our lives in such a way that it does include everyone from our community, including those with disabilities. Moving forward, think about ways to involve all people in planning.”
The course is available beginning Tuesday and will stay up for as long as it is useful. Per capita monies made the course possible and so it is offered free to anyone with an Equip account to self-enroll. Fox will participate in discussion forums for the rest of the year.
Special content for 1001 New Worshiping Community pastors and leaders will be available soon. Fox and invited guests will be featured on the young adult focused Just Talk Live program at 6 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday.
“I reached out to Bethany because her book is a rare combination of theology, biblical interpretation, and congregational practices for disability inclusion,” said Molly Casteel, manager of equity and representation with the Office of the General Assembly. “She centers persons with disabilities and features them speaking for themselves and in conversation with dominant narratives from medicine and church. If we are to fully live into the call to be one, we must appreciate and celebrate our differences.”
This is content tied to the equity and inclusion work and supporting the representation structures in the PC(USA).