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Disability Advocate Calls for Inclusion

April 3, 2024
Greg Yoder
Greg Yoder

Greg Yoder has been the regional disability advocate for Classis Grand Rapids East for just over a year, and his passion for the role has been evident since he started. Currently half of the churches in Yoder’s classis have a disability advocate, and his goal is for every congregation in the classis to have someone in this role by the end of 2024.

Recently Thrive had the opportunity to talk with Yoder about the personal journey that led him to this role. Woven into his story is a passage from 1 Corinthians that has challenged and encouraged him throughout his career working with people of all abilities and in his current volunteer work. 

“All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it,” states 1 Corinthians 12:27 (NLT). Yoder said he has taken this passage to heart, and throughout his life he has worked to support people of all abilities to flourish and feel valued and connected to the community. In his work as a regional advocate, he says, this passage raises a critical question: Are we as congregations looking at each one of our members and seeing how God is reflected in them and how everyone can contribute to the body of Christ?

Yoder said that much of his career has been devoted to working for All Belong (formerly known as the Christian Learning Center). He spoke with great excitement about the 1980s, when a movement began for inclusion within classrooms – and this meant that kids living with disabilities were no longer segregated in their education. He spoke of the care and compassion that would start to develop among many children in each class as they were given the opportunity to work together to form friendship circles with children living with disabilities. As a result, the kids in school would begin to see the strengths of individuals with disabilities and what made them unique and special, a valued part of their classroom.

And the friendship circle, he explained, is a reciprocal model – with all children benefiting greatly from the developing friendships. Yoder also noted the beauty of working alongside a family for years as their child grew and developed within the community and how everyone was blessed as a result.

Yoder attends Grace CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has a designated church advocate, Tom Hoeksema, who supports the ongoing advocacy work within the church. Members of Grace CRC have worked to ensure that everyone who attends feels they are welcome to explore their spiritual gifts. That’s part of the ethos of Grace, Yoder explained. The church has a food pantry that services the community; volunteers for the pantry include people with physical and cognitive disabilities who are passionate about serving others. And for many years, in their adult Sunday school classes, Grace has included a creative way to expand their curriculum so that people with cognitive disabilities can participate more actively. This includes a focus on visual learning as well as on physical activities integrated into the learning.

In the Sunday school programs for children and youth at Grace, children with disabilities are often linked with a partner, a high school student who not only has the opportunity to become a good friend with the child but can model for others ways in which everyone can participate well in the friendship with the child. Together, the group learns how to form strong relationships with each other, valuing how God has made each one of them. 

During worship services a member from a local group home will occasionally read Scripture, and a couple of members with cognitive disabilities will help to conclude the service by waving streamers in rhythm to the final postlude. Other members of the group home are involved in many of the church functions as well, said Yoder. This is something that many of the residents love, and they appreciate being valued as part of the body of Christ. If you visit Grace CRC for one of their church suppers, you will also witness many people serving and supporting the event, some with a disability and some without, said Yoder. Grace CRC models the concept of everyone being a part of the body of Christ.

Yoder noted that he has often found that churches feel they have done well with accessibility by ensuring that their building is designed to welcome people with physical disabilities. Yet, while a ramp or an elevator is an important addition to a church building, said Yoder, churches also need to examine their knowledge and attitude toward disability as a whole. 

For example, he asked, how are congregations equipped to support people living with invisible disabilities? 

And how are churches with seniors and elderly members acknowledging the disabilities that can be a part of the aging process (hearing loss, limited eyesight, mobility challenges, etc.) and updating their services to support individuals living with these disabilities? 

Further, what structures are in place so that people with visible or invisible disabilities know that they are welcome and that the work of advocating for necessary accommodations will not fall solely on them? 

As Yoder put it, being the body of Christ means thinking creatively to ensure that everyone feels welcome to participate in the community life of the church. 

For more information on disability advocates, contact

Lindsay Wieland Capel (CRC) at [email protected] or Jeremy Simpson (RCA) at [email protected].

And if you are in the Grand Rapids East classis, be sure to contact Yoder ([email protected]) and help him to reach his goal of having all the churches in your classis have a disability advocate by the end of this year!