Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All

Report from the 2011 conference

Deep and Wide…Deeper still and Wider still…Still deeper and Still wider…

It was this song and the movements with it led by Ben Guess at our closing luncheon at Widening the Welcome II: Inclusion for All that came to me as I began to reflect on the Conference, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 2011 in Columbus, OH.

Over 100 of us gathered from Maine and Massachusetts to Seattle and San Diego and from Georgia and Texas to South Dakota and Minnesota and states between.  The purpose of the event was to help churches become more welcoming of those living with mental illness. What did we want to accomplish?  To break down the barriers in our language about inclusion/disabilities/mental illnesses, to see ways to overcome the inaccessibility of our buildings, to enrich our theology of disabilities, to confront our attitudes about brain disorders/mental illness, to find ways to move our congregations to become A2A (Accessible to All) and to encourage the development of Mental Health Ministries in our congregations. 

"We need this in the United Church of Christ" - Ben Guess

The conference keynote speakers were J. Bennett Guess, Executive Minister for Local Church Ministries of the UCC; Christine Guth, Program Director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network; Thomas Reynolds, Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College, Toronto; and Carolyn Thompson, retired from the Commission for Persons with Disabilities in Cambridge, MA.  Along with that we worshiped, spent connecting time in small groups, called CORE groups to get to know others and learn from each other.  The 18 workshops provided a wide variety of information and DVD’s and CD’s are available for purchase from Florian Audio Visual.

Karl Shallowhorn wrote, “For me, the conference challenged me to be more accepting of others who are differently-abled.  We also received a clear message that simply blew me away.  The body of Christ presumes a place for everybody. Widening the Welcome was important because I believe that the church, of all places, needs to be a place where all are accepted no matter what their ability.  Yes, we have a ways to go but the time has come for us in the disabilities community to speak up and let our voices be heard.”

Carolyn Thompson said, “A margin at the edge of life can also be a border, a threshold into another place and time, a frontier between the accepted way and a different world. The person on the margin is in a unique position to see what is out of view for the people in the center.  People on the margin have the epistemological privilege of knowing what affirms life and what denies it, what contributes to wellbeing and what threatens it.”

Tom Reynolds said, “A spirituality of attentiveness requires letting go of my agenda and learning to really listen with compassionate respect to the other.  It means risking exposure, reversals and disruption of the status quo. It means witnessing each other's vulnerabilities.  It is our vulnerability that is the base for discovering what we really share with each other. For this to happen it is essential that we each  own, acknowledge our own vulnerability.”

Bob Molsberry, said, “The kingdom of God is ADA compliant.  It does not block access for people with disabilities. People with disabilities do not need to be ‘fixed’ before they are brought into the church, the kingdom of God.  Radical hospitality is Jesus hallmark.”

Here are several of the evaluations:

“I do not see how anything could have been improved.  I’ve attended 100’s of conferences all over the world.  I would say this one ranks at the top in terms of organization, substance, follow through, and general kindness. The welcome was widened indeed.”

“Warm welcome, well planned, and looked like you were expecting me.”  

“A high point for me was that the conference happened at all and that I was able to attend and learn and participate and share.”  

There were suggestions of ways to improve the conference, too, and we will take all of those to heart.  

We continue to discern where God is leading us in this movement in the movement of the UCC.  Please stay in touch with us and even send us your prayerful and thoughtful suggestions.  T
o keep up with the currents of this deepening and widening movement, please subscribe to the Widening the Welcome email list. You can find a link to sign up at the bottom of the resource page or send an email to list@wideningthewelcome.com. You can also keep up on the Widening the Welcome Facebook pageYou can also ask any questions in an email to Alan Johnson at revalan2004@comcast.net.

One final note.  The registration for this year's conference was $115.  That included two dinners, two lunches, the entire program of keynote speakers and workshop leaders, engaging worship and music, organizational skills and the Journal.  The reason that the cost was so low was because the UCC Local Church Ministries (LCM) provided substantial financial support through the UCC Disabilities and the UCC Mental Illness Network.  All of us thanked the UCC LCM for their presence and their support.  May our churches continue to be even more Deep and Wide!