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UCC Prepares for Second Widening the Welcome Conference

By Jeff Woodard

     Four months out from its second annual national event, the 2011 Widening the Welcome Conference is poised – on both personal and pastoral levels – to expand engagement on the topics of mental illness and brain disorders.

     “My hopes are that the interaction between people will not only increase our personal engagement on issues around mental illness and brain disorders and disabilities, but also stretch ways that our churches can be understanding of these issues and expand their inclusion,” said the Rev. Alan Johnson, retired UCC pastor and chair of the UCC Mental Illness Network.

     In partnership with the church’s Disabilities Ministries, the Mental Illness Network will present the second national Widening the Welcome II: Inclusion for All conference Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at the Doubletree Inn in Columbus, Ohio.

     The conference – which drew 235 people to its debut event last fall in St. Louis – aims to educate about these disorders and disabilities, as well as help congregations develop Accessible to All (A2A) covenants and mental-health ministries. National statistics indicate that at least one in four families is affected by mental illness, brain disorder or other disability.

     “At the St. Louis conference, the whole committee realized that we could not simply stop at one gathering,” said the Rev. Kirk Moore, Widening the Welcome web administrator who will help lead music at the conference in Columbus. “We sensed that a movement was beginning and wanted to build on our experience to help make a widened welcome a reality across our denomination.

     “This year’s conference builds on the close relationship of the UCC, its Disabilities Ministries and Mental Illness Network.  It seeks to show how Widening the Welcome weaves those ministries, and really, all ministries, of the UCC together.”

     Moore also notes that programming for the 2011 conference has been slightly reduced from last year.  “Folks should have more time for conversation, rest and contemplation at this year’s event,” he said.

     Keynote speakers this year are:  Thomas E. Reynolds, associate professor of theology at Emmanuel College and author of Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality; Carolyn Thompson, a Piscopo Divinity School professor whose concentration is on raising awareness and understanding of disability and access issues in congregations and larger church bodies; the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, UCC director of Publishing, Identity and Communication, who has been nominated to become executive minister of UCC Local Church Ministries, and Christine Guth, program director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADNet), a disability advocacy organization affiliated with Mennonites and related denominations.

     This year’s slate of speakers, preachers and workshop leaders will bring considerable experience to the conference, says an enthusiastic Johnson.  “In a variety of ways, they have been affected by these issues personally and have worked in this field of inclusion. We seek to invite, and even urge, congregations to take up leadership in this vanguard ministry.”

     Kathi Wilson, chaplain at Emmaus Homes in Marthasville, Mo., took part in last year’s event and plans to be in Columbus in September.  “I was particularly thrilled because of my call and background to see a conference such as Widening the Welcome come to fruition,” she said. “I see it as a concrete work in our desire to put the faith of our heart into the living way of Jesus.”   Emmaus Homes’ mission is to enhance the quality of life for all people with cognitive, intellectual and other brain disorders.

     Throughout its 54-year history, the UCC has highlighted, approved and enacted resolutions related to disabilities and mental illnesses/brain disorders.  UCC Local Church Ministries, through Disabilities Ministries and the Mental Illness Network, provide substantial financial support for Widening the Welcome.

     To register for this year’s event or obtain further details about its speakers, workshops and core groups, please visit <wideningthewelcome.com>.

     More information and resources on physical disabilities, mental illnesses and other brain disorders, are available at <min-ucc.org>.

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