Committed to Full Inclusion

by BC

Our reading this morning was from Michael Daeschlein, titled, “UU Principles and Disability.

You know what I’m talking about, you’ve seen them in the downtown of any major city. Little booths often accompany them, sometimes there’s a milk crate and a megaphone involved, or they just plant themselves right in front of you and force you into a conversation.

I’m referring to street preachers. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, a wide variety of other Christians, even Hare Krishna’s – yes, they’re still around, and every now and then they’ll represent a religious viewpoint you’ve never heard of. I always have my own responses.

I often eagerly want to talk to these missionaries of faiths that aren’t mine. I’ll even day dream of standing on my own milk crate one day near the busiest intersection in Chicago, New York, or Boston with a sign that simply says, well, I’m not quite sure what it would say. But these days I think it would say, “Just breathe.” Many of us have similar experiences.

Monterey Buchanan, a Unitarian Universalist from Denver, has had her own interactions with these street preachers. She describes the encounters as such. She writes:

God seems to have a thing for downtown light rail stations. Whenever I’m going to work, or on the 16th Street Mall, there are always representatives of various faiths eager to ask people if they’ve found Jesus, or whichever deity they follow. There was even a street preacher and two Mormons handing out reading material at the Community College of Denver once. The encounters always make me nervous—not just because being scared of didactic religions is wired into UU DNA, but because it is a prime opportunity to get hit with that conversation.
Most people…I know have had to survive that conversation at least once. One of the more memorable occasions of this for me went like this:

Them: Good morning…
(Awkward pause)
Me: ‘Morning
Them: We were just wondering if we could take you to our healer for your legs. He’ll fix them for you.
Me: Thanks, but I have a relationship with God and I’m late for dinner. God bless.
Then I booked it out of there as fast as my cerebral palsy would allow.

Monterey, you see, is one of the nearly 1 in 5 Americans with a disability. I’ve never had such an interaction with street preachers in that way. I’ve had them want to cure me of my sexuality, my religion, my politics, or really just to save me from hell – just because.

But as a currently able bodied American, I’ve never had to endure what Monterey calls, “that conversation.” In fact, I’ve probably replicated “that conversation” for friends with disabilities in the past. Certainly not in the faith healing sense. But certainly in the “it’s none of my business” sense.

What I mean by this and what Monterey’s story tells us is that there is a world in which many of our impulses, when confronted with disability, are to ask someone, in one way or another, sometimes veiled in religion or bluntly or with misplaced curiosity – to ask them “What’s wrong with you?” And from that uncomfortable question, whatever shape it takes, to follow up with, “Oh! I know what you should do to fix that!”

For those of you here with us this morning with a disability, whatever it is, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. For those of us that are currently able bodied, we need not run away in horror at what we’ve said, but we need to reflect on how language and actions matter.

Just saying that is pushing me to reflect on the variety of experiences people have and how disability and ability is a complex thing to address. For instance, some Americans with disabilities prefer to be called “disabled Americans” – because it puts at the forefront a cultural attitude that takes away further autonomy.

And some prefer “Americans with disabilities,” because why should we identify them first with their disability and not with their humanity? Knowing this complexity, I beg your forgiveness as I bring this to all of us today.

I feel it is important to share stories like Monterey’s with you. This is a story of a Unitarian Universalist and her daily experience. We have people that come to our church every Sunday with similar stories, or, even worse, we have people that have never been able to come because we weren’t accessible to them. These stories are the ones we don’t often hear or make space for.

The stories we often hear, however, are usually from those websites that are designed to pull at the heart strings, of people overcoming something. You’ll see headlines about a bride with a disability overcoming it to dance at her wedding. A young boy overcoming his disability and hearing for the first time.

Or any number of rehabilitation stories or stories of strength and hope. There is value to our stories and these are no exception. But I worry about these examples. Because one of the ways in which people often talk about disabilities and accessibility is in the language of overcoming. This too shall pass, pray for strength, and so on and so forth.

Such language ignores the reality that some things will not pass and a great deal of people with disabilities don’t need to pray for strength, because they are already strong. Such language also forgets that the culture in which we live can only be described as oppressive to Americans with disabilities.

Here’s the data. In the United States, the states where Americans are more likely to have a disability are Maine, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and, last but not least, Kentucky. In many of those states, such as Kentucky, access to disability benefits now require gainful employment for those deemed able-bodied. This ignores what is often termed invisible disabilities.

From this, we dig further into the numbers: Americans with disabilities, on average, earned less than 70% of the median earnings of Americans currently without disabilities. The chances of a black woman with a disability being unemployed rests at a startling 90%. And a person with a disability is killed by a caregiver, often a family member, at an average of once a week. Many of them are children.

This data breaks my heart. And it doesn’t end there. It leaves me wondering, what are we to do? Where does church come in here? Where do our ethics as UUs come into this dialogue? As in our story from Monterey, religion is not exempt from the broader dialogue around disability awareness and accessibility.

For some religious traditions, as you heard, there is a theological impulse to say that if only you believe, you will be healed, or only if you endure, the afterlife will make you whole. Not so with Unitarian Universalism, at least in theory. Theologically, Unitarian Universalism is positioned to see every human being as a whole person, no matter what isms and ologies and additional labels come attached to them. But I did say this was in theory. We can miss the mark, too.

In seminary, we had a student who used a scooter for mobility. Upon arriving in seminary, everyone felt the need to comment on whether or not she had within her the skills to be a minister. I found those comments to be obnoxious and, quite frankly, no one’s business.

If you’re cut out for this work, you learn that on your own, not with the commentary of your peers. She would call them out on it, often. She’d even call me out on the wonderful way I’d dance around discussing her disability. She’d tell me, “Brian, I know I have a scooter. You know I have a scooter. Stop pretending I don’t.”

There was a moment in our collegial friendship, however, that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It was when she visited, along with my entire class, the church I was serving as an intern at that time. Unity Temple – a poured concrete angular Frank Lloyd Wright building in the Chicago suburbs. It is a beautiful building. It was also built with several concrete steps and close corners, sharp turns, and narrow passageways.

I had spoken with the staff of the church before our class visited and told them we would need to use the wheelchair lift – it was the only device we had available to get people into the sanctuary with wheelchairs or scooters. Sunday came and I was told, just as my colleagues were arriving, that no one was there that knew how to operate the lift. Why I didn’t make time to learn how to use it was my first thought. I was also mortified.

My fellow seminarian had to sit in the undercroft, a poorly lit section of the church where the gap in the concrete would, potentially, allow you to see the minister in the pulpit. Except this Sunday, the choir positioned themselves around the edges of the church. My colleagues view of most of the service consisted of the black pants of the choir.

Upon hearing her story, I got defensive. What was the church supposed to do? Tear down a priceless building? It would shock many a historic preservationist if my answer was yes. I would ask the follow-up question today: Is our present humanity more important than preserving the past? I’d be a terrible lawyer, because clearly that’s a leading question.

This story of my colleague, who now serves a UU church as a minister, is yet to end. But for us here today, where we come into this story is in looking at how our space, our rituals, our entire way of being as a congregation is experienced by anyone. I say anyone, because accessibility means everyone.

We have a similarly unique church building. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, hard to change, very difficult to expand, perhaps impossible – and yet, we have a history that many churches do not.

When this building was built, it was built, in part, with a member in mind that used a wheelchair. It’s a great fact to remember about our history. It was a history that sought to include in our midst all people that identify with liberal religious values.

But this building was also built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act, and long before a concept known as 8 to 80 was ever uttered. We are all familiar, at least in name, with the ADA, but 8 to 80 suggests that how we build should be accessible to all people in that age range.

I’ve seen it mostly in urban planning contexts. But what if we used that lens in a church? What would it mean to have this place available to people across the lifespan? What would it mean to look at how we are doing things here on a daily basis? How are we accessible to a variety of mobility needs?

What would it look like to engage neuro diversity intentionally? What would it say about us if no matter who came through our doors on Sunday we did not go out of our way to create a space for them – because as a church we automatically had that space available?

Our own Unitarian Universalist Association has made available to all of us the work of UUs with disabilities in creating a way for our congregation to engage, reflect, and make accessibility a part of our congregational culture. Similar to being a Green Sanctuary or a Welcoming Congregation to LGBTQ persons, this process is a multi-year examination and implementation of accessibility.

It does not solve the problem entirely, but it helps slowly create a culture where accessibility is in every decision a church makes. It’s called AIM – short for Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry.

Now I know, some of us get tired of multi-year programs that the UUA makes available to us. I imagine if there was a catastrophic end to civilization and future civilizations would marvel at all of the various certifications and multi-year workshops they put out there.

But I am reminded of the words of Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird, we need to climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it. For the conversation here today, perhaps that is better said as we need to imagine the daily experiences of oppressed communities.

This advice is, of course, intersectional. It spans across multiple identities. This program that UUs with disabilities ask congregations to participate in is an invitation to imagine the daily experiences of those who join us week after week and find barriers instead of invitations to participate.

It’s an invitation to reflect on what it would be like to not go to Sunday morning meditation in the Allen House because there is no accessible bathroom in there. It’s an invitation to consider what it would be like to not have doors that are easily openable when it’s below freezing and you find yourself hoping someone sees you coming. It’s an invitation to look at any project, even if it is a fresh coat of paint or putting up a shelf, and asking if what we are doing makes our church more accessible to all people.

And above all else, this is a reminder that Americans who have their autonomy and access taken away from them don’t get to take a break from that. It is a part of daily living.
So where do we go from here? Where do we even go from the conversation we had last week about white supremacy and privilege? Where do we go with any justice work that is presented to us? Our Association, or in the case of last week, Black Lives of UU, simply serve as the resource providers.

They offer us opportunities to live into the covenants we say we uphold in a fuller way. But we have to want it. All of the covenants we have as UUs, whether it’s in small groups or as a congregation – as with our covenant of right relationship posted in the foyer, or as a wider association, as with our principles and purposes, they are just words unless we work to embody them.

This church is making a commitment that is worth lifting up. Part of our recent refinance campaign will see important and accessible improvements made to our physical space. But let’s remember that accessibility goes beyond the purely physical. What we are doing is good and right, I mean just look around this place, there is a vibrancy to this church – and that should be celebrated! – but what other good work awaits us? How will we be committed to the full inclusion of our humanity?