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A New Century of Vitality: Insisting on Accessibility as Vitality

by Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas

Side Office Entrance - Mission Hills

Side Office Entrance – Mission Hills UCC

When San Diego’s Mission Hills United Church of Christ rededicated its church building to the service of God and community on June 15, 2014 the ceremony celebrated far more than just the building.  It rejoiced also in the church’s journey to accessibility, a journey I have been blessed to share.

I first became acquainted with the Mission Hills congregation in 2006 when I came to them as a pastoral intern.  Choir practice was held in the sanctuary as many choir members could not safely navigate the stairs to the large upstairs choir room.  The Sunday school classrooms and the Southern Association office are also located on the second floor.

Mission Hills was and is, however, a congregation inclusive of people with a variety of physical and developmental disabilities, among them autism spectrum disorders and mental health concerns. Inclusion is simply a part of the DNA of the congregation.  Large print and American Sign Language (ASL) had long been a part of the worship service.  Service animals have been in worship. A system to support the inclusion of people with hearing impairment was added to the sanctuary.

After my internship ended I returned to Mission Hills, at their request, to provide a forum on the UCC’s Accessible to All (A2A) designation for congregations who are intentional about accessibility and social inclusion of people with disabilities and persons with mental health conditions.

While the Mission Hills congregation has not become an A2A congregation, they have journeyed from inclusion to accessibility. As the time for their 100th anniversary neared, I started to hear some of the things the congregation envisioned for their future. Imagine my thrill when I heard that Mission Hills UCC was thinking about something as radical as installing an elevator!  That, I was to learn, would only be the beginning.

Mission Hills UCC Lift

Mission Hills UCC Lift

I sat down with Mission Hill’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Scott Landis, a few weeks before the dedication to find out more about the congregation’s journey to accessibility. He shared that, while the staff had been aware of the accessibility needs, the issue really became pronounced for the congregation when some adults and youth became temporarily disabled. It became clear that sending another adult to retrieve a young child from a Sunday school classroom inaccessible to parents was simply not acceptable to the congregation. In addition, youth needed access to the youth room. Rev. Landis said that prior to these experiences accessibility was “always thought of as an issue of aging but had now become an issue of mobility for younger members.”

It was also a matter of remaining vital into the future. An urban and growing church, Mission Hills needed more space.  Its second floor was underused for ministry.  Addressing accessibility was an issue of vitality and growth.

How did they do this?  I wondered.  Rev. Landis explained that the insistence on accessibility renovations came from the congregation’s ONA committee which, reflecting on the church’s ONA statement, decided they were doing a good job on GLBT inclusion but needed to work on issues of ability, issues which were included in the ONA statement.. It was they who insisted on the installation of an elevator.

Planning for accessibility began as the church looked at making a series of renovations to update the building for their “Second Century” of ministry. Renovations recently dedicated by the congregation include:

•        a lift to the second floor
•        additional accessible bathrooms
•        fire alarms that flash light and sound
•        new carpeting
•        new paint
•        a renovated fellowship hall
•        a conversion of a room into a prayer chapel
•        relocation of the church library to a larger room on the second floor
•        environmentally friendly lighting in the sanctuary

Mission Hills UCC  Audio-Visual Alarms

Mission Hills UCC Audio-Visual Alarms

A capital campaign was completed to cover renovation expenses.  ONA funds bequeathed to Mission Hills by the former New Creation UCC were also used for accessibility needs.

Both Worship and ONA funds are used to pay for ASL interpretation during weekly services. Rev. Landis noted that the aesthetics of the ASL interpretation has become a valued part of the community’s worship life.  Many hearing people watch the interpreter during the service, a measure of accessibility the congregation can no longer imagine being without.

The building has been dedicated.  Very few renovations remain to be completed. Not only is the church building more accessible, but for the FIRST time the Association office is accessible to clergy and lay persons with mobility impairments. All this came about because members dared to dream about the future ministry of their congregation and began to insist that for their church to be vital in the urban future it must be accessible as well as welcoming and inclusive.

PRAISE BE TO GOD!

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Questions about disability and accessibility matters may be addressed to Rev. Lucas at rev@kelliparrishlucas.com.  The website for the UCC Disability Ministries is www.uccdm.org.

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