This blog is reprinted with permission from Anabaptist Disabilities Network.
Bonnie Miller has worked as an educator for much of her career, including as a public school special education teacher for the past fifteen years. She is also familiar with advocacy for persons with disabilities by raising a now-adult son who has cerebral palsy. She attends Waterford Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana.
I have always perceived my church as a welcoming place. The attitudes are understanding, the building is on one level, there are automatic door openers, and there is even a wheelchair accessible restroom.
The perception of that accessible building changed when my husband and I learned that our firstborn had a physical disability that would cause him to struggle with walking and balancing. While we continued to be grateful for same-level rooms throughout the church for all ages and events, we eventually discovered that the only place in the building that was not physically accessible was the platform at the front of the sanctuary. In order to reach it, one would need to climb the three steps that ran along the front edge of the platform.
As a young child, our son could join his peers on the platform for Christmas programs, etc. because he could be lifted over the steps. As he got older, the congregation was understanding about the extra time and support he needed to get up the steps, but he strongly disliked the attention it drew to him. To us, these steps felt like a literal wall — a tangible part of the building separating the leaders from the flock and certainly preventing our son from ever being able to assume a position of leadership.
It was a great relief to me when our minister to children named this non-accessible part of the church without me having to be the first to identify it. And then another person in the congregation (one who works with folks with disabilities) named it, too! How wonderful to know that our family was not alone in seeing this divide.
The next 20 years or so involved periodic conversations naming the need for a ramp to the platform — yet every possible way we could think of to construct it didn’t work for one reason or another. You see, our platform was built snuggly between two floor-to-ceiling closets that housed things such as AV equipment, banners and other visuals that were used for worship. All these supplies needed to stay in close proximity to the front of the sanctuary. The south closet butted up against a hallway where the pastors’ offices were located, so we couldn’t extend the ramp for enough to meet ADA standards without interrupting access to the outside doors and office doors. The north closet housed worship supplies up against exterior walls, so again a ramp was not feasible there.
It wasn’t until our son was 25 that I began to visualize possible ways to build a ramp on the north side, while watching the annual children’s Christmas program. This time, I envisioned the ramp turning a 90-degree corner, going behind the piano and drums, up to the platform. Once my husband and I shared this idea with an energetic young man in our congregation who works in construction, the dream took root! He encouraged us to consider taking out the closet, in order to provide enough space for the instruments in addition to the ramp.
Selling this idea to church leadership was quite easy, because they knew that many folks of many ages would benefit from the ramp. The biggest concern was where to relocate the items that were in the closet that was to be removed.
Raising funds for this project was also easy. Once the congregation learned that the proposal would work, they were behind it, even if they had not considered the need for a ramp earlier. Members of the congregation were willing to dig deeper into their pockets to provide above-budget financial offerings to make renovations possible.
When the project was completed, part of the dedication service involved members of the congregation walking on the ramp to place their monetary offerings in a basket on the platform. Everyone was now able to access the platform. And what better way to thank God than by using it deliver our offerings!
Weeks after the completion of the ramp, our congregation hosted the ordination for pastoral ministry service for our pastor of family life, Katie Misz. Katie invited several people who had been significant in her life to offer words of blessing during the service — and they used the ramp to reach the platform! Katie’s grandmother, who uses a walker, was one of those people. Katie said, “Whenever I needed prayer in my life, I took the need to Grandma. She is a woman of prayer, an example of faithfulness and my role model for females in ministry before I had seen any examples behind the pulpit. This quiet pastor for years behind the scenes experienced the extent of her gifting that day behind the pulpit.” Hallelujah!
Katie, then, went on to describe the significant meaning and assurance the ramp meant to her on her day of ordination. “I wonder at times if I am qualified for ministry: Am I healthy enough? Strong enough? Able enough? Wise enough? The ramp reminds me that those up front in ministry do not have it all together. God’s list of qualifications does not include a right-working body, a perfect figure, agility or age. I was reminded that day, in this very embodied way, that as a leader, my limits will not disqualify me from going to the pulpit. I will simply use the ramp.” Thanks be to God!
Delegate Assembly will vote on the Mennonite Church USA’s Accessibility Resolution in a Special Session, May 2022. Written by a collaborative team from Anabaptist Disabilities Network and Mennonite Health Services, the resolution asks congregations to evaluate and increase their accessibility to people with disabilities, while offering resources, tools and support through the Anabaptist Disabilities Network. View the Accessibility Resolution here.