At our church’s annual meeting last November, the members of First Christian Church adopted the following language into the church by-laws:
“First Christian Church of St. Joseph is open to and affirming of all people whatever their gender, race, age, culture, ethnic background, sexual orientation, economic circumstance, family configuration, or difference in ability. All who seek to follow Christ are welcome into our community to share fully in its life and ministry.”
For short, we called this becoming “Open and Affirming,” which is a title used by churches in our denomination, Disciples of Christ, and our sister denomination United Church of Christ, who have taken deliberate steps to be both “open to” and “affirming of” all people.
As is the case with most churches who take this bold step, most of the light and heat in our process of becoming Open and Affirming centered on questions of sexuality. This is understandable given the debates in our culture over the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people (LGBT) and given the many misconceptions about issues such as sexual orientation and what the Bible says and doesn’t say about homosexuality. Although being open to and affirming of all people no matter their sexual orientation involved a of our attention, we should not forget the rest of our commitment to welcoming other groups of people.
I recall vividly the first board meeting when we discussed the Open and Affirming process. Of course, the discussion began with our church’s welcome of LGBT people, but very quickly some on the board recognized the commitment we were making to other groups of people as well. Members of the Property Committee made known that if we took this step as a congregation, then we would have to rethink our facilities to make them more accessible to people with physical disabilities. All were in support of that kind of accessibility, but following through on good ideas takes hard work.
I’m proud to say that the 2011 Board and the property committee in particular have followed through with a major step of being “open to” and “affirming of” people with physical disabilities by renovating our downstairs restrooms. The previous condition of the restrooms made them barely fit for people without disabilities, because few wanted to enter rooms so dark, uninviting and antiquated. Now thanks to the hard work of Rick Ezzell and his fellow laborers, the restrooms are now well-lit and inviting with new fixtures. The most exciting part of the renovation is that a store room was remodeled into an ADA-compliant restroom! Furthermore, although we are still waiting on the wall-mounted changing table to arrive, this restroom will also serve as an unisex family restroom.
Obviously, everyone involved would have preferred an accessible restroom on the main level which gets the most use, but structural issues in our 93 year-old building made such an improvement cost prohibitive, assuming such changes would even have been possible at all. Even though a person must use the elevator to go downstairs to use it, this accessible restroom does allow for someone with physical disabilities complete access to a restroom, something our church has not had in its 166 years of existence. The logistics and costs in this renovation/remodeling were significant and if our church leadership had desired to make excuses for not going through with this project, plenty were available, but I’m proud to say they remained true to our church’s commitment to be “open to” and “affirming of” all people.
Prior to our November vote, a number of church members with adult children who are LGBT expressed a desire for our church to be intentionally welcoming of people who are LGBT in hopes that if their children and grandchildren ever desired to belong to a church we could be that church for them. Shortly after our vote, FCC was rewarded for its decision with a same-sex couple with children joining the church. Their proud parents/grandparents who were already members beamed proudly that Sunday.
Similarly, FCC members who are parents of an adult son who was paralyzed in a car accident have long expressed their feelings that if their son ever came to FCC he would not even be able to use the restroom here. Now, should he attend, our building and our community will be more hospitable than we were previously. There are other families with members who are disabled, and although our old building remains inaccessible in many ways, at least we have taken this important step forward to welcome them.
I’ve mentioned sexual orientation and physical disabilities. Why not take another look at the above statement and consider the other groups of people we committed to being “open to” and “affirming of?” Each of them represents children of families in our church and community, so what more must we do to demonstrate our openness and affirmation of them?
Grace and Peace,