An Inclusive Embrace

“It’s Sunday!”  Darryl jubilantly exclaimed proudly wearing his favorite suit and tie.  “I’m on my way to church to be an usher!”  Mary-Ann, his housemate, was also excited, but for a different reason: “time to go to church so I can pray for everyone” she beamed.  I lived with Darryl and Mary-Ann in an intentional community called L’Arche when I was 22.  They were my first experience of adults with developmental disabilities and truly taught me the need for the church to become more accessible for all people.

I grew up in the church, yet sadly, had limited opportunities to interact with those who have a disability.  I only remember one young man with autism in his early twenties who attended my Sunday school class although I was 12 at the time.  He did not say much, so he was relatively left alone by the other classmates.   Years later, I now find myself surveying all the churches I visit and asking myself “are there people here who have a disability and if not, why not?”  It seems that few churches have structures in place to provide a meaningful worship context for those who do not fit the image of an average church goer.  Yet, it is not difficult at all to create spaces of active involvement in congregational life for everyone including people with disabilities.

Experts often say that communication includes both spoken language and non-verbal cues.  The same is true when we consider how to react and relate to those who are different than us.  Oftentimes, people who are unfamiliar with the disability world, may be unsure how to include this person.  The worst possible thing you can do is ignore the person; a close second is to speak directly only to their parent or caregiver. 

Everyone has the same human needs and longings.  Everyone wants to be interacted with and noticed.  Even a simple smile and greeting can go a long way.  There are also many ways to include someone with a disability in more prominent roles depending on their abilities and interests: ushering, greeting, singing in the choir, and even reading Scripture are just a few examples. deb1

It is of utmost importance for churches to no treat adults with disabilities as if they are children.  This means finding a suitable Bible class rather than squishing them into a children’s Sunday school.  Hopefully this sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised at how often this fails to occur.  Every adult has the right to be treated with dignity and respect, not patronized.  Plus, you may be surprised at just how much you can glean from someone with a disability who may offer profound spiritual insights you never considered before.

The church represents the Body of Christ and has the important responsibility of including all people.  When we make this happen, we will not be disappointed because we will see how the Kingdom of God is being built up right in our very midst.








Deborah-Ruth Ferber holds a master’s of divinity and Bachelor’s of Religious Education from Tyndale University College and Seminary as well as a graduate diploma in Peace & Theological studies from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  Deborah has spent the past three years serving with the L’Arche movement in both Canada and Scotland and is a field associate with the Anabaptist Disability Network.  Her work includes an eclectic mix of passion, deep love, and laughter as she forms friendships with many who have various forms of developmental disabilities.  When Deborah is not musing about peace or acting nerdy, she is usually off shamelessly drinking copious amounts of tea at one of Edinburgh’s many great cafes!

Disability and Peacemaking



On a recent trip to Washington DC I had the opportunity to attend an event at a foreign embassy. It was an exciting opportunity, but it also posed a question: beyond being a cultural tourist, why would I be interested in learning about a foreign country? I found the answer in my identity as a Mennonite.

You can see where this is going. Part of being a peace-loving people means understanding conflict locally as well as globally. In other words, being a Mennonite informs my identity as an American.

It’s in the same way that I recently thought about what it means to have a physical disability (I’ve used a wheelchair for the last 13 years because of neurological issues). If I consider my identity to be “in Jesus Christ,” then surely being a Mennonite will not only inform my national identity, but also my physical identity. What does it mean then, for a person with a disability to be a peacemaker?

I think answering this question begins by broadening our definition of “violence,” “conflict,” and “brokenness.” What if we were to expand these terms beyond the way we traditionally think of them as things such as  gun violence, war or poverty? Brokenness in the world has a unique meaning to those with disabilities: it may mean that it’s hard to get into a friend’s house; that people find you to be scary before you get to know them; that physical impairment makes you a great friend, but puts you off limits as a romantic partner; or that having a disability can make you an inspiration when you’d really rather not be one. This is not to say that every person should solve each of these issues, but rather to say that each of these things (and surely others) are experienced as areas of brokenness in the lives of those with disabilities.

As a person with a disability, understanding these difficult things as brokenness puts a new perspective on what it means to be a peacemaker and a Mennonite. For a long time I resisted my role as an advocate for accessibility. I think taking that role meant that I had make the difficult step of admitting that I had a disability. Fortunately in the last several years I have been able to accept my physical shortcomings and encounter the empowerment that comes from being an advocate. This for me has been peace-making.

What can this understanding of brokenness mean to you? I’ve suggested some of the implications for those with disabilities.

What about you who are able-bodied?

I’d invite you to ponder this question, but I’ll also offer some suggestions:

  • get to know a person with a disability
  • invite them to participate in activities that you might otherwise think them not able to join in by asking them, “how can I help make this accessible for you?”
  • join with the disabled in a small part by considering in which ways you might be disabled yourself – whether by spending a month with a broken bone, having a food allergy, or missing out on the activity that your friends were participating in.

In expanding our understanding of the brokenness in our world we have the opportunity to be better peacemakers.

May Christ’s kingdom come!


Ross Ringerberg is a freelance web developer and student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. In his free time he enjoys getting outside, a wide variety of cultural events, and being a foodie.


tGP Podcast: An Interview with Anabaptist Disabilities Network

In this podcast, Rachel interviews Kathy Nofziger Yeakey, Executive Director, and Christine Guth, Program Director, of ADN (Anabaptist Disabilities Network) about resources available to the Church regarding special needs. Here are some direct liks if you or your congregation would like to explore:

So Much To Contribute

“But they have nothing to contribute!”  Those words, spoken years ago, still haunt me.  They weren’t meant for me, but were directed toward the four special needs adults who frequented a small Mennonite Church I formerly attended.  “They have nothing to contribute.”

This professed Christian could not have been more wrong.


Ulli Klemm with a friend with special needs at a special event hosted by Slate Hill Mennonite for persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities.


I confess that I knew little about interacting with those with developmental and intellectual disabilities.   When I saw these four individuals with special needs sitting together in a church pew, I wondered if they were mentally ill.  I also was curious what led them to our church.  Seeing them hold hymnbooks upside down, and turned to the wrong page, yet happy as all get out, I knew I needed to dare to get to know them better.

There was no one to model for me what it looked like for me to welcome into my circle these friends who looked and acted differently than those of us in the “mainstream.”  Patrick often spoke to himself as if carrying on a two-person conversation.  With no capacity to learn chords, Patrick enjoyed strumming six strings on his guitar with a smile that went from ear to ear. Allowing him to play his guitar in church and to don a robe for a joint church choir, regardless of his musical ability, made him feel like a million bucks.  Marianne, who rocked back and forth in her pew, oblivious to long sermons, loved to carry empty coffee mugs, used during fellowship time after worship, to the kitchen.  “I helped, Rudy” she loved to say, mispronouncing my name every time.   Trish, who towered at six feet tall, always wore an endless array of mismatched bracelets on her wrists. Perhaps it was her way of feeling beautiful before her Lord.  She was content to be herself, and by so doing, she freed me to be myself as well.  And then there was the balding Nelson.  Perhaps trying to steer him away from eating too many sweets, a former group home staff person told Nelson that eating chocolate made his skin dark.   When asked to sign his name, Nelson scribbled a series of fishhooks, one after the other, that stretched several inches.  “Did I do good?” he would often ask.

Like most of us, those with special needs long for others to accept them for who they are, with no strings attached.  Unlike those of us who try to think and act our age, those with developmental or intellectual disabilities simply loves us for who we are.  It doesn’t matter if I have major love handles, or wrinkly skin or tell corny jokes. It’s all good to them.


Slate Hill member Dale Weaver helps a friend with special needs at a special event hosted by Slate Hill Mennonite for persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Slate Hill member Dale Weaver helps a friend with special needs at a special event hosted by Slate Hill Mennonite for persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

To create a welcoming and inviting space in our congregations for those with special needs, we simply need to open our hearts to and allow those with special needs to teach us.  Sara, 31, an adult with special needs who attends the church I am part of, does not come to church alone.  Two or three bags containing dolls, doll clothes, coloring books and crayons always accompany her.  Her Sunday ritual includes placing two dolls and one stuffed animal next to her on a pew and opening a Children’s Bible in front of them.  Sometimes, she motions for me to help her dolls stand when the congregation stands to sing.   When church members greet Sara and her dolls during a greeting time, Sara feels welcomed and valued.   And when the offering plate is passed down each pew, the young ushers know to be patient.  For one by one, Sara will place a dollar for each of her make-believe-friends and then one dollar for herself, into the offering plate.  It takes time.  It’s not always smooth.  Sometimes her dollar bills miss the offering plate.  But no one is in a rush.  No one is in a hurry.  Those with special needs take their time, just as God take’s God’s time to patiently interact with each of us.   A beautiful contribution indeed.

Ulli’s special friend, Sara (far right) enjoying lunch at a special event hosted by Slate Hill Mennonite for persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Concrete ways to be inclusive of those with Special Needs:

  • Go out of your way to greet those with special needs with a handshake and make eye contact whenever you see them.  Learn to know their names.
  • Compliment those with special needs about how they look or what they are wearing; if they bring a doll to church, greet the doll as well.
  • Allow persons with special needs to accompany the ushers in collecting the offering.  While some will need gentle assistance in doing so, they will feel so important and helpful.  And don’t forget to let those with special needs bring the collected offering up to the front of the church to hand the offering plates to the worship leader.
  • Invite those with special needs who can play piano or sing a song to offer an offertory
  • Allow those with special needs who like to play music (even if to musically tuned ears it may sound like noise) to occasionally join a church band, musical group or choir;
  • Have some shakers or tambourines available if those with special needs want to use them during contemporary songs during worship.
  • If someone with special needs is able to read, invite them to read one or two scripture verses during worship.  Practice with them and be available to accompany them to the lectern to prompt them as needed.
  • Organize a skit based on the worship theme in which those with special needs can participate.  ALWAYS use props.  Don’t expect those with special needs to memorize lines, but find ways to have them participate meaningfully in the skit.
  • Sit next to those with special needs in worship.  Become their buddy who shares a hymnbook and Bible (even if they can’t read) and who accompanies them to any snack time after or before worship.
  • Offer to lead a Sunday School class for those with special needs.  Keep it simple:  several songs, a prayer time, and act out a Bible story.
  • Find a group home for those with special needs in your community and ask them if there is way your church/youth could partner with them for something special.  This could be to make cookies or homemade ice cream with them, to roast marshmallows over a fire, to decorate pumpkins, or watch a movie with popcorn.  Always take your lead from the staff at the group home.  They generally know what works best for the ability level of their clients.



Ulli Klemm attends Slate Hill Mennonite Church in Camp Hill, PA.  By day, he oversees the chaplaincy program for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.  He spends much of his free time spearheading efforts to incorporate and extend a genuine welcome to those who have developmental and intellectual disabilities into congregational life. Earlier this year, he was recognized for his volunteer efforts on behalf of those with special needs by The Arc of Cumberland & Perry Counties, the leading agency in Central Pennsylvania which provides support, training, and opportunities to people with intellectual disabilities and their families.



What I’ve learned from living in the L’Arche community



One of the curious parts of life in L’Arche is the way we talk about each other. Joni and Marilyn are not clients or customers. These two women, adults with intellectual disabilities, are “core members” in L’Arche Portland, OR. For a while I shared daily life with them as their Assistant. We ate together, took walks to the corner for boba tea, went to doctor’s appointments, and celebrated each other’s birthdays. I’d help them get dressed in the morning before we made breakfast together. Through the sharing of daily life, they taught me to be gentle and patient.

The terms we use to talk about life in the L’Arche community are significant. Core members make up the center of our life. We form life around them, around those whom the world has called the weakest. Life adjusts to them, it forms around their needs, their desires, their hopes.l'arche

What I find happens “out there”—as Marilyn would call the world beyond L’Arche–is that we make accommodations when we can. We ask people with physical or intellectual disabilities to submit to the majority. This happens in churches and youth groups, at summer camps and schools.

I wonder what it would look like to live in a church where the weakest made up the center of our life, a church where we started with those whose needs fall outside the norm. It’s a strange premise. We live by majority rule.

Jesus offers us another way of imagining life together. Consistently Jesus shapes his ministry around the weak and the oppressed. He bends purity codes around those who are outcasts, reshapes Sabbath laws with the hungry at the center. He puts the lives of children, the sick, and the needy at the front.

Imagine a youth group that took Jesus seriously in this way? Imagine a music team that played only acoustic songs because of audio-visual sensitivity in a member of their group. Imagine a junior high small group that met in places accessible to a friend in a wheelchair. Imagine a mission trip chosen with a Down Syndrome high schooler in mind.

Every child with an intellectual disability or special need is different, and there’s no one way to make a youth group or church perfect for everyone. But what I learned at L’Arche was to flip the mindset – from accommodation to centrality, from trying to fit someone into the busyness and noise I take for granted, and instead to ask, “How is this person inviting me into a new way of life?”

What I learned in L’Arche is that there is something wrong with my “normal” way of living. I move too fast.

There isn’t enough time to listen or see or feel what God is showing me. I spend much of my time thinking about my benefit, the payoff for me. Our core members offer up their lives, their dependences, as invitations to see the brokenness of life “out there.” What might we learn from others with disabilities who come to share life in our places of worship?

What might we find by following after them?

Melissa Florer






Melissa Florer-Bixler is licensed for ministry in Virginia Mennonite Conference, although she currently serves the people of Duke Memorial UMC in Durham, North Carolina as Minister of Nurture. She parents three small children with her husband, Jacob. They attend the evening service at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. Melissa is a board member of Friends of L’Arche North Carolina.

Youth Ministry and Disabilities

Each human being is unique, created in God’s image, a mixture of strengths and needs, abilities and disabilities. Youth with obvious differences (“disabilities”) offer a gift to their youth group and to the church. Their presence is a constant, visible reminder that each of our youth is unique and has unique needs and strengths.

At the same time, it is hard to be different, to feel apart from others. It is especially challenging during the pre-teen and teen years, when fitting in and belonging to the social group mean so much. How can youth leaders support and nurture youth who live with physical, cognitive and/or emotional disabilities?

Youth ministry is as much about relationship-building as it is about programming. Building supportive relationships and effective programming require an understanding of and appreciation for who our youth are.

What is “disability”? A disability is present when the resources of the individual are not sufficient for the demands of the environment. Living with a disability is somewhat relative, depending on the overall resources of the individual, the nature of the environment, and how society expects persons to function in that environment. As a simple example, an individual with blindness is not “disabled” in the dark.

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, the apostle Paul talks about the gifts of those who seem to be weaker. The passage suggests that the church needs the gifts of those living with disabilities as much as they need the support and care of the church. Youth leaders need to be aware of disabilities and mental illness—not just because they will encounter youth who need and deserve wise care and support, although that is true—but because, even more importantly, in helping each youth to find the physical, emotional, and spiritual resources to face the unique challenges of his or her own life, the youth leader will also grow, and the church will become more complete. It is one of the mysteries of faith: we are each necessary for the well-being and healthy functioning of the church.

Having said all this, how can we get a handle on a vast array of potential challenges that a youth leader may face? Just as a laser focuses light, we can focus in on some practical concepts through this “LASER” model of caring for youth with differences. (Actually, this is a good model no matter what the age or condition!)

lasers-ftThe LASER model:

  • Learn
  • Accommodate
  • Support
  • Encourage
  • Respect

Learn about the disability or illness.

  • Learn from parents: A good approach is to say, “We want each youth to feel respected and fully included in church and the youth group. How can we help this happen for your son or daughter?” Ask about interests and strengths, not just needs. In most cases, parents will be glad to share with someone who is genuinely interested in learning about their daughter or son.
  • Learn from media resources: There are many print, internet and audio/visual resources available. Take time to explore what those with experience in working with a variety of youth have to offer.
  • Learn from the youth themselves: Honest, respectful questions and conversations can occur once a relationship of trust has been established.

Accommodate the particular needs of individuals.

  • Ask and observe: What are the barriers to full inclusion and participation? Barriers can be physical, cognitive, sensory, or emotional. Accommodation is the process of adapting the environment to remove barriers and facilitate greater participation. To accommodate well, the youth leader needs to know the youth, understand what his or her real limits are, and make judgments on when it is appropriate to push the person a bit and when it is better to accommodate respectfully.
  • Some examples of accommodation:

Many youth rooms have couches where youth are expected to squeeze together. Provide some single chairs as well for those who need personal space. Make room for wheelchairs to move freely and space already available in which wheelchair users can park and sit comfortably with the rest of the group.

  • Provide snacks that all can eat. Eliminate foods that trigger allergies. Be aware of portion sizes for youth with diabetes.
  • Provide for a “reduced schedule” for such activities as live-ins and winter camps so that those who need it can get more sleep or simply take a break from sensory overload.
  • Have an agreement within the youth group to avoid strong-smelling deodorants and perfumes because of chemical sensitivity challenges.
  • Know what behaviors can be controlled and which are involuntary. Be gracious; ignore when appropriate, and model acceptance and respect. Youth will generally follow the leaders’ example.
  • Allow for variety of levels of participation in activities. Some youth are not as adept verbally or physically.

Support in ways which enable youth to participate with the group.

  • Very often, a few additional resources are all that is needed to make it possible for persons with disabilities to participate as fully as possible in the life of the church and/or youth group.
  • Examples:
    • In a camp or retreat setting, provide an extra adult whose main role is to provide for needs of a youth with a seizure disorder. This may mean such things as making sure medication is taken, returning to cabin early because of sleep needs, maintaining hydration, or directing an appropriate response if a seizure occurs. This person should not be “glued” to the youth the entire time, but should keep a watchful eye out and take primary responsibility for safety and health issues.
    • Large-print Bibles, devotional books, song books, and journals with larger, bolder lines for youth with visual impairments can be helpful.
    • ASL interpreter in worship service and Sunday school class for youth with deafness.
    • Willingness to work with parents (and sometimes youth as well) to create an appropriate, consistent “behavior plan” to support youth with autism.
  • Respectful, honest explanations to other youth so that they can relate well with individuals with mental illness or behavioral challenges
  • Supportive resources can make the difference between active participation and none at all. Parents can be an important resource in helping youth leaders understand the needs of their youth and plan for good support. However, the responsibility for thinking ahead and initiating the process belongs to the youth leader, not to the parents. In this way the church can show love and care to the parents and the youth. Without it, families will often look for another, more supportive church home or drop out of church altogether.

Encourage all youth by your words and your actions.

  • The youth group (and the church as a whole) is stronger when the gifts of all its members are valued and used.
  • Develop your spiritual “eyes.” Notice the potential in each youth, however small or insignificant it may seem to be.
  • Be an example of a person willing to take risks. Try out new roles and extend yourself in ways that stretch you beyond your comfort zone. We can’t ask our youth to stretch and take risks if we aren’t willing to do so ourselves.
  • Be sensitive and realistic. A youth with a fine motor tremor is probably not going to feel safe holding bulletins out to those entering the sanctuary, but she might be glad to help in the nursery. A youth in the midst of severe depression may not be ready to wander through the sanctuary with the roving microphone during sharing time, but he might be glad to help one other person prepare hot drinks and set up for the coffee hour.
  • Be creative. If you have a youth with very limited communication skills who can memorize and say aloud a three-word phrase, work with it! Teach her to say “Praise the Lord,” and then use this skill in a responsive call to worship in which you speak the larger parts, and she, in front with you, leads the congregation in the response.
  • Understand your youth. Be alert to hidden “disabilities” which result in fear and unwillingness to share gifts with congregation. This might include such things as discomfort in crowded spaces or reading difficulties.
  • Notice hidden gifts and talents, and find ways to use them. Many youth not verbally gifted may still have leadership skills when engaged in a group activity.
  • Develop and recognize “gifts of service,” not just “gifts of leadership.” Be an example of someone willing to serve in practical, humble ways.

Respect each youth as a beloved child of God.

  • Never underestimate the courage it takes for a youth with a disability, depression or other mental illness to simply show up and participate. Let them know you are glad they are there!
  • Value effort, not just results. Care enough to set standards that are “realistically high.” Pity is not love. Growth is a journey for each of us; be willing to share the journey with all your youth.
  • Use “People First Language.” How we speak can help or hurt. No one wants to be defined by an illness or what we can’t do. We are persons first, and sometimes we are persons with challenges, with disabilities, with chronic physical or mental illness.
  • The greater our willingness to know ourselves as individuals with a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, gifts and needs, prone to sin and saved by grace, the greater our ability to accept and respect others in the same way. Individuals with disabilities challenge us to move beyond our own comfort zones, to risk, to try without quite knowing how to succeed, and to take the chance of failing. When we notice, listen, and seek to learn and grow in opening our hearts, our youth groups, and our congregations to individuals and families with challenges, we open ourselves more fully to Jesus, and become a more complete expression of God’s love for the world.


cindy baker

Cindy Warner Baker has worked with youth in a variety of capacities: mother, teacher, youth leader, therapist and–most importantly–fellow-traveler in the human journey of faith and uncertainty.  She finds joy in noticing and supporting opportunities for growth that come through taking risks and embracing challenges that may seem daunting.  She and her husband, Doug, are members of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship in Goshen, IN.  They have five adult children and nine grandchildren, three of whom are living with them.

Study Circle


Amplifying Our Witness  by Benjamin T. Conner

This month we will be reading Amplifying Our Witness:  Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities by Benjamin T. Conner.  Nearly twenty percent of adolescents have developmental disabilities, yet far too often they are marginalized within churches. Amplifying Our Witness challenges congregations to adopt a new, practice-centered approach to congregational ministry — one that includes and amplifies the witness of adolescents with developmental disabilities. Replete with stories taken from Conner’s own extensive experience with befriending and discipling adolescents with developmental disabilities, Amplifying Our Witness:

  • Shows how churches exclude the mentally disabled in various structural and even theological ways
  • Stresses the intrinsic value of kids with developmental disabilities
  • Reconceptualizes evangelism to adolescents with developmental disabilities, emphasizing hospitality and friendship

We will be gathering to reflect on this book, Tuesday, May 24, 2pm EDT.  Sign up here.  Space is limited.

May Theme: Special Needs Ministry


As a first-year youth pastor, I remember one evening being with the Jr. Youth group who were eagerly talking about and planning to attend a popular Christian rock band concert playing at a local congregation.  Included in this conversation was also one 8th grader (“Jay”) who was wheel-chair bound since birth due to spina bifida.  As the excitement grew, logistical questions also gained traction.  How would we transport Jay to the event? What accessibility did the concert location have?  What about seating in pews? Handicapped parking?  With the help of J’s family and calling the congregation of the event, we eventually figured out all of these details and had an amazing time singing our hearts out, and deepening our friendships with each other at the event. But it made me, as a new youth pastor pause and consider how am I creating space for equal access and inclusion for everyone in our congregation?