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Cindy Dennis

Executive Director

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN - PART 2 “Unpacking the Suitcase: Luggage not Baggage” By: Paula Golladay

Every seeker searching for a place to call their home carries a “suitcase.”As they sift through each item in their suitcase the question of ,will this be my new church home, is once again the battle cry.

Other thoughts running through my elephants head is can I truly become brother or sister in the family of God?

So how does this relate to those on the “Outside Looking In” – to those Individuals with Disabilities who cannot seem to find a place to unpack their suitcase at any church home that would welcome all?

Now, on to part two of addressing the “elephant” in the room, under the carpet, and perhaps the one sitting next to you in the church pew.

Let me begin with a few unnerving but very true incidents regarding the church and Individuals with Disabilities (IWD).

Several years ago, I regularly attended a church in the Washington D.C. Metro area. To say that the church was uplifting, filled with energetic worship, and full of Christian sister’s and brother’s is factual.

Prior to me joining this church there were discussions as how to best meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. A new building had been constructed for the church, and oh how all shouted with joy at how large and comfortable the sanctuary was, with a new spacious lobby, including all the bells, whistles, and hoopla. “Look, see how the aisles are wide enough for a wheelchair,” they said. “Look, see how there are not one but two accessible areas in the restrooms.”

There was an eager and honorable heart behind their intent to reach the IWD community – and I give them credit for their willingness to serve.

We members of the church always want to have warm greeting for newcomers.

Remember...we welcome all.... until...the IWD elephant subject began to pop up again-and- again.

When I first began attending this church, I was still professionally serving as a Qualified Sign Language Interpreter, having passed all state requirements.

Which meant I was held to the strict code of ethics regardless of whether I was interpreting professionally or voluntarily.

These laws, mind you, are put in place to ensure that every person is treated with care and dignity in any given environment, determined by the government as inalienable rights.

This should not have been a problem for any Christ-following church who understands that everyone is made in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and worthy of His love.

While attending a meeting to discuss how to go forward with accommodating IWD’s, things went from bad to worse. During the conversation, the announcement came that an interpreter would be provided to sign the sermon [yay for integration].

However, it quickly came to my attention that the interpreter being reared to take this role was still learning sign language from a book with major room for improvement.

Then it was also mentioned that the interpreter would not be standing next to the pastor-speaker. I brought my candid concerns and expertise to the table, believing that I might gain an ear.

I noted that as eager as this individual was to sign the all of the service, their lack of training would not adequately suffice.

You can’t just learn from a book in a few months to officially sign a sermon, let alone be able to voice what a Deaf individuals is saying, to the pastor and others. Plus – guidelines state that the interpreter must

stand next to the speaker, allowing for full vision of both parties.

All my comments seemed a very reasonable request in my mind, having been in the workforce for years. I urged them to reconsider their actions.

Even though they were genuine in nature they were not up to the ethical standards of practice.

In short, their response was that they would make their own guidelines up “in-house” instead of adhering to national guidelines.

The interpreter would not stand next to the pastor because it was too distracting for him to preach. And there was no need for someone with a disability to come talk to the pastor after the message, so it was not necessary to be able to reverse-interpret.

In fact, the final slamming of the suitcase was when this hospitality team was told if someone attended the service that required an interpreter, the greeters were informed to sit them in the back of the church!!!

They even commented how considerations had been made by laying out a bright orange circle on the floor designating where the interpreter should stand.

Please note that there was no assigned seating for anyone else attending this church, but the notion seemed well received by this team as an acceptable action.

An action that echoes another historical event during the Civil Rights Movement where someone was told to sit in the back seat because they were different.

To state the obvious, this was a clear act of segregation – one that didn’t even make reasonable sense, and it was happening within the church’s hospitality team.

Why would you place those who needed an interpreter (one where a visual line of sight of hands is required) to be ushered to the back row with the furthest visibility?

But wait.... there’s more, instructions were also given in the same meeting that hospitality greeters that should sit someone with a definitive mobility device, such as a wheelchair or scooter, the team should kindly guided to the BACK of the church as well.

“Why?” I asked. Their response, “So, their wheelchairs do not block the aisles or take up space for others attending.” OH, then why have a spacious sanctuary and wide aisles to begin with? These were only two of the many statements made during this meeting that made my heart heavy – heavier than any item my IWD suitcase was already carrying.

As a side note, it is my belief that the primary reason the IWD elephant suitcase is viewed as “unwanted baggage” instead of “welcomed luggage” by the church is that it holds too many uncomfortable and inconvenient items.

Accommodations that no one truly wants to see fit in with their own “home decorum.” They are distractions, obstacles, and expenses that keep ‘others’ from freely moving within the house of God.

So, we leave the individuals with disabilities living out of the suitcase wandering from church to church until the road becomes too rocky. Their journey becomes one replete with broken dreams and promises, lost hopes and craters, discouragements in valleys, and scars deeply etched into their soul. All of which continue to resonate the words, “abandonment from God.” Though this is furthest from the truth.

After much debate, this “IWD elephant” took her suitcase, packed up the hope of being fully integrated into this church, and once again, sadly walked away.

At least there will be more room for other people without a disability to fill the space that is now open by my absence.

My hope in sharing this is not to rant or rave, but to provide a glimpse of what needs to be unpacked from the suitcase and then repacked with true hospitality which will bring forth full IWD integration into the body of Christ.

The first change being a transformed heart posture and perspective toward the IWD suitcase. Like everyone’s suitcase, they have luggage to unpack not baggage to throw out. Only then can we start to help people settle into the church as a home. So,

where do we go from here?

Stayed tuned for part three where I will open the IWD suitcase’s inner pockets to discuss “faith over fear,” and the most inside pocket of “awareness training.”


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