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Issuing the Challenge to Widen the Welcome

By  Eric Anderson

“Copyright 2015 the Missionary Society of Connecticut; used by permission.” All photos by Eric Andersen

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Valerie Tutson leads the group in loving greeting.

They came to Windsor from across the country — though forty-six enjoyed shorter journeys from Connecticut itself — managing the obstacles of a world and of technologies frequently not designed for them. Gathered at the Marriott hotel in Windsor September 24-26, they came to engage and support one another in the effort to make the Christian Church one which does not only welcome, but fully includes, all people in its embrace, its care, and its mission. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Your gates shall always be open, day and night. They shall not be shut.”

“We are seeking to be the Church,” declared the Rev. Tamara Moreland in opening worship. “We are seeking to widen the welcome and invite all of God’s children to God’s table. Now — not later — but now: without delay.”

The Rev. Tamara Moreland

The Rev. Tamara Moreland

For nearly all the presenters, the issue was personal. Many experience disabilities themselves — hearing loss, visual limitations, mental illness, brain injury, developmental challenges, mobility disabilities, and more. During a Roundtable session on opening night, one woman shared that she had a number of disabilities, some visible and some invisible. “I’ve got a plethora,” she joked. “If anyone needs some, I’ve got extra.”

The conference embodied its maxim: “Nothing about us with us.”

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The Rev. Dr. Christina Jones Davis

In the United States, about 54 million individuals live with some level of disability, said keynote speaker the Rev. Dr. Christina Jones Davis: nearly one fifth of the population. “Disabilities are around us, among us; they are a part of us indeed.” Dr. Jones, who is Clinic Director of the counseling center and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, observed: “The body of Christ is a body with disabilities.”

The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell offered a view of the evolution toward greater — but by no means perfect — access for persons with disabilities. We no longer sell tickets to view people suffering from severe mental health problems, as they did at St. Mary Bethlehem Hospital in London during the 19th century. We no longer force people with mobility challenges to endure one-size-fits-all wheelchairs to get around.

Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell

The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell

Dr. Webb-Mitchell recalled working as a music therapist at a hospital for children with multiple disabilities in the 1970s. “We had no physical therapist on team who was there to build those wheelchair lumps and bumps in order to fit that child really in the best position. It was just a bunch of carpenters who took their time and took some vinyl and without knowing what else to do just kind of tried to put them into that wheelchair and make them sit there for hours on end.”

Full inclusion, however, and full justice still lies in the future, he noted. What awaits a person needing better mobility in most local churches? A quickly folding, one-size-fits-all (or one-size-fits-none) wheelchair, tucked into a closet or an alcove. There is a long way to go.

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gallagher

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gallagher

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gallagher, senior pastor of the United Congregational Church UCC in Tolland, shared some of his family’s experiences in a gently moving luncheon presentation. He and his wife Kristen’s second son, Jacob, required an urgent heart surgery simply to survive to his second week of life, and further operations to reconstruct it. Sitting in waiting rooms and in the chairs of his son’s hospital rooms, Dr. Gallagher began writing. When it came time to process the experience, it became the book Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and Faith.

“When we were at our lowest, I believe that’s when God was at the closest,” he shared. “When we couldn’t pick ourselves up, God was there offering a hand. And those moments that were so hard for us to go through have become the blessings in our lives today that have shaped us into the people that we are. We wouldn’t change a single thing about our journey and we couldn’t imagine it having gone any other way.”

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Leaders and participants exchange greetings at the opening of the Widening the Welcome conference in Windsor on September 24th.

Rhode Island-based storyteller Valerie Tutson, a Connecticut native and long-time dean at Silver Lake, led the assembly in both story and song. Using the traditional Zulu greeting and response: “Sawubona” (I see you) and “Yebo” (Yes), she helped weave disperate experiences and abilities into common humanity.

Participants gathered into reflection groups on two occasions during the conference, permitting them to unpack their own feelings with each other and to deepen their understandings. The agenda also included significant break times and a deliberate “Sabbath Break” so attendees could recharge themselves.

Planners joyfully announced that the conference, co-sponsored by UCC Disability Ministries and the UCC Mental Health Network, had attained a new high point in attendance with its first visit to Connecticut. They also gave profound thanks for the support of Our Church’s Wider Mission gifts from local congregations which made the event possible.

“While many of us are solo voices in our community,” they wrote, “we have found that our voices have become stronger as we find more colleagues to be with on this journey of inclusion.

“We pray that, through your willingness to learn from the presentations, to listen deeply to others in the workshops, and to be adventurous in your sharing, you will be empowered to continue your own work for inclusion and bring what you have learned here back to your local congregation, opening gates of opportunity for all people in your church and community.”

May it be so. Amen.

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Connecticut Leaders at Widening the Welcome

In addition to being well represented among the participants, Connecticut leaders were featured among the presenters and workshop leaders.

Thomas Burr, Communications Manager at NAMI Connecticut
The Rev. Matthew Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church UCC
Candace Lowe, Executive Director of Independence Unlimited in Hartford, a member of Asylum Hill Congregational Church UCC, Hartford
The Rev. Donna K. Manocchio, associate pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church UCC, Hartford
Kim R. Newgrass, Director of Outreach and Special SErvices with Autism Services and Resources in Connecticut
The Rev. Jim Silver, retired minister in the Connecticut Conference and annuitant visitor
Valerie Tutson, long-time Sing Praise dean at Silver Lake

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