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Inclusive Welcome Warms the Way

by Rachel Chapman

Frigid temperatures and three inches of rain in as many days did not stop people from attending and enjoying the 2018 Widening the Welcome conference on inclusion. The conference, sponsored by the United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries (UCCDM) with assistance from the UCC New York Conference, was held in Niagara Falls, NY on November 1-3. Attendees included people from all parts of the United States and a strong representation from the United Church of Canada. A grant from the Brown Endowment Fund covered registration fees for any authorized minister. The conference experience included worship services, workshops, speakers and much more.

Welcomes from Paul Fogle, chair of UCCDM and Rev. David Gaewski, Conference Minister of the New York Conference kicked off the opening worship service on November 1. The Praise Team from Church of the Nativity UCC in Buffalo provided the music which was followed by a moving message from Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of Justice & Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ.  Rev. Blackmon, who has a background in nursing, talked about learning about the true meaning of inclusion of persons with disabilities in the church setting while on a trip to Australia.

The event’s worship leader was Donna Roll, the NY Conference Moderator. During the conference she led praise teams and impromptu singalongs of attendees. Friday’s activities included singing and  a short worship service. Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund, senior pastor of the First Congregational UCC of Indianapolis, was the morning’s featured speaker. Rev. Lund recently joined the UCC National Staff in a part-time position as the newly created Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice.  Workshops on “Accessible to All,” Communication, Christian Education – “Am I Welcome Here?”, Advocacy and “Bearing Witness,” all as they relate to persons with disabilities, were offered throughout the day.

The Retirement Housing Foundation generously sponsored Saturday’s luncheon and presentation on senior and accessible housing from the Southern California Nevada Conference’s (SCNC)  own Rev. Dr. Laverne Joseph.  Following the afternoon workshops, the guest speaker for the dinner banquet was the UCC’s President and General Minister, the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer.  According to Rev. Blackmon, Disabilities Ministries accomplished an unprecedented coup by having two of the three denomination officers present at the same community event. DM views this as the leaders of the United Church of Christ recognizing the importance of and showing their support for full inclusion of persons living with disabilities into all aspects of the life of the church.

The Rev. Jennifer Garrison Brownell, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Vancouver, Washington and one of the Still Speaking Devotionals writers, was the Saturday morning featured speaker. The aforementioned workshops were then offered, along with one on “Disability Theology and the Disabled God.”  The conference ended with a closing worship and communion service.

The Widening the Welcome conference on inclusion is generally held every two years. In the past it was a joint effort of the UCC Mental Health Network and Disabilities Ministries. You can see more information on the Widening the Welcome Facebook page and at UCCDM.org. The newly formed SCNC Conference Inclusion Team would be happy to talk with you about how your church can widen your welcome to be inclusive and accessible to people living with disabilities.

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