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Photo: istockphoto
Photo by istockphoto

For nearly 40 years, the Christian Reformed Church in North America has intentionally sought to minister with people who have disabilities. As the United States gets ready to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, this is a good time to take note of the work the CRCNA has done in this area — in both the United States and Canada — and to challenge ourselves to do even more.

“In 1993, guided by the Americans with Disabilities Act, synod encouraged all Christian Reformed churches and ministries to work toward full accessibility in their facilities, communications, and employment of people with disabilities,” said Mark Stephenson, director of the CRC’s office of Disability Concerns. “We were one of the first denominations to do so.”

In fact, the CRC’s Disability Concerns ministry began even before that legislation passed.

“The ministry of Disability Concerns in the Christian Reformed denomination has no distinct start date, but arose organically out of the churches, beginning with a focus in the late 1970s on creating housing opportunities for people with severe intellectual disabilities,” Stephenson wrote in a paper he coauthored with Terry DeYoung, coordinator for the Disability Concerns office of the Reformed Church in America (RCA).

The paper summarized a few other key moments in the CRCNA’s history of disability ministry:

  • When Pine Rest Christian Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., decided to phase out institutional care for children with intellectual disabilities, a number of Christian Reformed families asked synod to study the need and recommend appropriate action (Acts of Synod 1978, pp. 61-62).
  • In 1979 the synod reappointed that committee to study “how the churches could be effectively involved in meeting the needs of persons with retardation and their families” (Acts of Synod 1986, p. 627).
  • In 1982 the committee hired an administrator to help classes identify housing options for people with intellectual disabilities. They also began publication of a newsletter (Christian Companions) to connect individuals in the CRC who were interested in ministry with and housing for people with intellectual disabilities. Though it shifted in focus, that Disability Concerns newsletter continues today as Breaking Barriers.
  • In 1980 synod authorized “the Education Department to provide both curriculum materials and training services to help local congregations develop and maintain special church education programs for mentally impaired persons” (Acts of Synod 1980, p. 37). Thus began Friendship Ministries, which today is a separate ministry from Disability Concerns (and from the CRC) but remains a close partner. Since its inception, a member of the CRC denominational staff has served on the Friendship Ministries board.
  • In 1985 the CRCNA broadened its circle of concern from people with intellectual disabilities to people with any and all disabilities by adopting a Resolution on Disabilities, which pledges the CRC to be “the caring community according to 1 Corinthians 12, paying special attention to the needs and gifts of people with physical, sensory, mental, and emotional impairments,” to make public these needs and gifts, and to break barriers of attitude, communication, and the built environment (Acts of Synod 1985, p. 702). Since 1986, the ministry has had a full-time director and other staff and has been called Disability Concerns.
  • Historic civil rights legislation became law in the United States in 1990 with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but churches are mostly exempt from compliance. Recognizing the importance of the legislation for the church, Synod 1993 of the CRC heartily recommended “full compliance with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act PL101-336 and its accompanying regulations in all portions of the CRC located in the U.S. and Canada” (Acts of Synod 1993, p. 539).

“Succeeding decisions of synod have encouraged congregations to adopt policies on disability, to appoint people within the congregation to serve as disability advocates, and to conduct an accessibility audit of their facilities, communications, and attitudes,” said Stephenson.

As a result, over the past 40 years the denomination has seen improvements especially in the areas of accessibility for people with disabilities. By 2002, for example, 482 Christian Reformed congregations had accessible worship facilities. This number grew to 914 by 2017. In addition, 553 congregations have barrier-free sound for people with hearing impairments, 33 offer sign-language interpretation, and 40 percent have barrier-free print such as large-print bulletins.

“Our congregations have made significant progress in physical accessibility,” Stephenson agreed. “In fact, ministerial colleagues from other denominations have been pleasantly surprised that we place such a high priority on physical accessibility that people searching for a church can explore congregations based on their building and communications accessibility.”

In other areas, though, Stephenson said, the denomination still has some room for improvement.

“People with disabilities in our congregations and communities will remain at the sidelines unless congregational leaders and all members develop relationships with them and find out from them how the congregations can fully involve them in church life,” he explained.

From his conversations with people who have disabilities as well as with their family members, Stephenson knows that while CRC buildings may be becoming more accessible, persons with disabilities still often feel overlooked or even excluded by their congregations.

“For a few years, CRC Disability Concerns asked congregations how many people with disabilities were either employed as staff or engaged as volunteers in ministry, but the numbers remained low, and we stopped asking,” he cited as an example.

The mission of Disability Concerns is to correct this situation and create churches where “everybody belongs and everybody serves.” It is supported by 437 disability advocates who serve their own local congregations and help to ensure that resources and training from Disability Concerns make it to their church leadership, and that their congregation fosters the full participation of all people with disabilities.

This mission is shared with a similar ministry in the RCA that launched in 2009 with the hiring of Rev. Terry DeYoung. Although the RCA general synod did not create recommendations related to the ADA as did the CRC synod, General Synod 1990 president Syl Scorza addressed the ADA in his General Synod President’s Report, delivered about six weeks before the ADA’s signing.

In this brief video, Scorza reflects on the ADA and its impact. Scorza made nine proposals in his report, calling for a range of marginalized people groups to be included more fully within the RCA, including people with disabilities, people of color, and women.

"Through a memorandum of understanding between the CRC and RCA written in 2008, a core philosophy of mutuality and interdependence has emerged,” Stephenson said. “It has deepened our sense of belonging to one another and to God.”

Both Stephenson and DeYoung agree that when churches live by principles of mutual hospitality and valuing everyone’s participation, they are propelled outward, toward ministries marked by missional impact and community engagement.