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UCC ‘Widening the Welcome’ Again…Another First

By Kelli Parrish Lucas, M.Div., member of Community Congregational Church of Pacific Beach, UCC

UCC:  A denomination of firsts!  Mindful of that singular history, I lift up to you some of the church’s exciting new firsts.

In late September, 2010, approximately 300 people, coming from states from Maine to Hawaii, gathered in St Louis, Missouri for UCC’s first Disability Ministry Conference,  “Widening the Welcome.”  Not just UCC’s but, possibly, the first such conference ever!   As I talked with others in attendance it became apparent this was also the first conference (religious, academic, or professional) in their memory that brought the issues of mental illness/brain disorders and disability together for reflection, communion and dialogue about the future of ministry and inclusion – a BIG DEAL for the disability and mental illness communities!

Coming together beside the breathtaking St Louis Arch, that symbolic gateway to new frontiers, UCC members, clergy, people living with and without disability and/or mental illness reflected on the ministries of inclusion with which they were already involved and learned from one another how the local church might be more inclusive of people with disabilities or mental illness and their families.

Keynote speakers included Dr. Sister Nancy Kehoe, a Clinical Instructor in Psychology, who spoke of her experience integrating spirituality in the realm of mental health services and offered workshops on how this can be a practical and supportive ministry in local settings.  Dr. Debbie Cramer, Assistant Professor at Iliff School of Theology, discussed disability theology;  Rev. Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman stressed the importance of including persons, including clergy, with mental illness in our faith communities and Rev. Bob Molsberry challenged us to consider who the “guest” is and who the “host” might really be when we encounter people with disabilities in our churches.  Rev. Peter Bauer was also a force at the conference, reminding us that both traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder are huge issues for soldiers returning from war and presents a challenge to both clergy, who “4 times out of 10” are the first professionals from whom people with PTSD seek help, and congregations which have members returning from war or are engaged in ministry to military families and personnel.   Many other wonderful discussions and speakers were also enjoyed — those above are but a sampling.

The Widening the Welcome conference was important both in content (learn more at the conference’s website, http://www.moredomainsforless.com/wideningthewelcome/index.htm),

 and in fellowship.  For the first time people involved in offering disability ministry, those involved with the academic writing of disability theology, those with disabilities who have been included in the church, those with disabilities or family with disabilities who seek deeper inclusion in the church, clergy with disabilities, seminarians with disabilities and their allies were all gathered in one place.  It was a time to reflect on where the UCC really is thirty-three years after passing its first Synod resolution about including people with disabilities and where we have still to grow as local churches and as a denomination into our 2005 Synod resolution urging us to be churches “Accessible 2 All.”   Bearing witness to this gathering, our UCC General Conference Minister, Rev. Geoffery Black, addressed the conference, saying that the Disability Ministry and Mental Illness Network of the UCC “are a movement within the movement of the UCC.”  True to that statement, a small group of attendees met, post-conference, to plan what the UCC Disabilities Ministries and UCC Mental Illness Network will bring to the 2011 Synod and to start planning the next “Widening the Welcome” Conference for September 2011.

The ‘movement with’ the UCC to “widen the welcome,” again has begun.  Stay alert for information about the Widening the Welcome 2 Conference planned for September 2011.  And, if you are wishing now that you had had the opportunity to tap into the vast resources the first conference provided, I offer you the following ideas:

 

  • Connect with the UCC Disabilities Ministries (UCCDM) or the UCC Mental Illness Network, both have websites with lots of information; and Widening the Welcome has a Facebook presence you may join.

 

  • Get involved in disability ministry!  The UCCDM resource ‘Anybody, Everybody, Christ’s Body’ is a wonderful resource for people who want to learn more or lead a congregational study on including people with disabilities – and may be downloaded FREE!

Finally, if this is an interest for you, reach out!  I would love to connect (kelli.parrish.lucas@gmail.com) and work with people/congregations interested in disability ministry.  Above all, the Widening the Welcome Conference highlighted that, as a communion of local churches, we are resources for one another in learning to continue to bring all persons on the margins not only into our doors but also into full participation with the gospel, our congregations and our many ministries.

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