Sunday, August 30, 2015

Welcoming all God's children - Disability and our Church by Jill Kayser and Antonnia Hannah

Some years ago I took a call from a young mum whose young son had Down Syndrome.  She was looking for a church to attend with him and following some hurtful experiences during her “church shopping” phase, she decided it would be best to phone a church before arriving on the Sunday morning to ask if she and her son would be welcome!  Now you may find this hard to believe, but it’s what happened.

Normally the caller would have been directed to the minister, but as our minister Pauline Stewart was out of town at the time, the receptionist put her through to “Kids Friendly Jill”.  I listened to the mother’s stories of exclusion and intolerance and assured her that she and her son would be very welcome at our church and that I would look out for them and sit with them that Sunday. 

A few years before we had welcomed three year old Max, (who also has Down Syndrome), and his family into our church, St Heliers Presbyterian.  I remember the delight we experienced when Max’s family (including his two year old sister Charlotte) joined us on our church camp.  When parents Antonia and Leigh emerged from their tent on Saturday morning we knew we, their church family, needed to “step up”.  Immediately a second tent was found and erected to create extra sleeping space for the family on Saturday night.  It was wonderful to watch the church family rally around to give attention to and play with Max and his sister Charlotte, giving their parents a little reprieve from their 200% parenting duties!  What a blessing that time was to us, and we hope they were a little blessed too.  It certainly was a great way to welcome them into the faith community,
Antonia Hannah and son Max
church and preschool.

Being “Kids Friendly” means extending a warm welcome to all God’s children of all ages and abilities. To help our churches reflect on how effectively they welcome children (and adults) with disabilities, we asked Antonia to describe her experience of church and to advise us on what we could do to better support families who have a child with a disability.

“New Zealand is more “advanced” than many nations in their approach to and treatment of people with disabilities, but there is still a level of discomfort and fear amongst many when relating to people with disabilities,” says Antonia.  “And this societal attitude is reflected in many churches.  People with disabilities can come to church, but churches are not necessarily aware of the disabilities and sometimes don’t provide adequately for them or consider what it is like for disabled people. ” 

Some of the questions Antonia suggests we ask ourselves as church leaders are:
·        Do we know / are we aware of the congregation members who have disabilities?
·        Do we have ramps that cater for wheelchairs, Zimmer frames, and prams, say access to the altar?
·        Are the visually impaired able to follow a sermon that relies heavily on PowerPoint?
·        Are families of children with disabilities affirmed and acknowledged?
·        Are they welcomed at our playgroups and coffee mornings?
·        Are there opportunities for discussions about disability?
·        Are inclusive values and love for those with disability taught to the children of the church?

“St Heliers Presbyterian Church definitely is a part of my son’s life and a place he feels welcome and safe,” says Antonia.  Antonia has set up a disability network at her church so that people with disabilities or family members with disabilities can connect.  However she is concerned that many churches rely on a good and empathetic minister rather than a systematic awareness of the diversity of needs. “I think it would be really helpful if Churches ensured that the voices of disabled people were heard and that opportunities for consultations with congregational members with disabilities were made available” Antonia says “In that way if disabled people are struggling either physically or emotionally at Church they can share this. As good as it is New Zealand, for many families it can be difficult being ‘different’ and feeling the warmth and kindness of fellow Christians can make all the difference”.

In 2014 Antonia attended a Council for World Mission conference on disability in Kuala Lumpur.  One of the outcomes of this conference was the production of a booklet helping churches to engage with and reflect on disability more deeply.  It also includes some practical steps churches can take to ensure that the rights of people with disabilities are met and that they are included in their churches and the community.  Download the booklet from  You can also view a document on ‘Disability Etiquette’ with information on enabling positive interactions.

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