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Rusty Costanza, For the Deseret News
Rev. Eric Pridmore, pastor of Poplarville First United Methodist Church in Poplarville, Mississippi, walks out of church with is service dog, Atlas, on Sunday, March 20, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Rev. Eric Pridmore offers many excuses for churches that have responded poorly to his blindness.

They might not have known he planned to attend more than once. They might not have had a large-print hymnal. They might have thought they were being polite.

"Perhaps they didn't know what to do and maybe didn't want to offend," he said. "They might have been waiting for me to say, 'Hey, can someone show me to a chair?'"

The Rev. Pridmore, pastor of Poplarville First United Methodist Church in Poplarville, Mississippi, tries to be understanding because he knows talking about disabilities isn't easy. But he also knows the Bible instructs Christians to love everyone, not just those who can find their own seat.

"The theological takeaway, as demonstrated by Jesus and expressed by (the apostle) Paul, is that all people are to be welcomed," he said.

More than 50 million American adults live with some form of mental or physical disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An even larger group cares for someone with a disability, such as a parent or child.

And yet few faith communities are prepared to welcome children and adults with special needs. Only 1 in 10 congregations offer disability-related training for their church members, according to the Collaborative on Faith and Disabilities.

"The number of churches serving people with disabilities is so low compared to the number of churches who say they want to do it," said Laura Huntley, who coordinates All God's Children, a ministry for children with disabilities and their families, at Broadway Christian Church in Columbia, Missouri.

However, as a recent Utah event on faith and disability illustrates, there's growing interest in closing this gap, said Bill Gaventa, chair and coordinator of the Collaborative on Faith and Disabilities. Religious leaders are working to overcome problematic approaches to people with special needs and ensure everyone feels like they belong.

"It's not just about people with disabilities. This is about what anybody would like to feel like at church," he said.

Multiple obstacles

Faith communities can fail people with disabilities in a variety of ways, ranging from worshipping in a building that's hard to navigate to asserting that mental and physical challenges stem from not praying hard enough, the Rev. Pridmore said.

Architectural issues, like the need for a wheelchair ramp, may cost more to fix, but it's the theological and emotional ones that often go unaddressed, he added.

"You don't have to interact with somebody on a personal level to put up a ramp," the Rev. Pridmore said. "It's when we begin to interact with and know people that things become complicated."

And so church members avoid asking necessary questions or offering help.

"They don't want to do anything that's wrong, so they kind of hang back," said Gaventa, whose book, "Disability and Spirituality: Recovering Wholeness," was published earlier this year.

This hesitation leads to frustration for parents of kids with special needs, who often describe attending worship as one of the hardest activities of their week, said Ann Hoffman, a physical therapist who specializes in helping children with special needs, during her presentation at the recent Utah event. These moms and dads are left to deal with tantrums or mobility concerns on their own.

"It breaks my heart. (Sunday) should be a wonderful family day," Hoffman said.

The Bible doesn't teach that everyone must stand during a song or sit still during the sermon, but faith communities often have strict behavior-related expectations for participation in worship, Gaventa said. These standards interfere with creating an inclusive environment for people with disabilities.

"The challenge sometimes is to help the congregation broaden their understanding of what's acceptable," he said.

As she trains pastors to be more inclusive, Huntley reminds them of their own statements about caring for one's neighbors.

"I tell them, 'I hear you saying your table is open. I hear you saying come as you are. So let's make it a reality,'" she said.

Adjusting the church's approach

Creating a more welcoming environment for people with special needs starts with communication, according to disability experts.

Church members need to know what's expected of them, as well as where to go when they're confused.

"My job is about getting to the root of the fears people have," Huntley said. "It's about saying, 'I'm not going to ask you to do something without first equipping you to do it.'"

And people with a disability or caring for someone with a disability need to know that the congregation is committed to meeting their needs.

"I say, 'We might not get this right every time, but please stick with us,'" Huntley said.

The goal of these conversations isn't to make people with disabilities feel like they're creating a never-ending series of challenges for the church, Gaventa said. Instead, it's to help congregational leaders see existing programs or tools in new ways.

For example, a discussion about how to respond when a child with disabilities cries out during a worship service can become a broader discussion about what's available for any child who's upset. A congregation may realize that the activity-packs with coloring books and games given to toddlers should be made available to anyone who struggles to stay quiet at church, Gaventa noted.

"A kid with a disability is not the only kid fidgeting," he said.

Huntley works with around 30 children and young adults at Broadway Christian Church who are affected by a variety of disabilities, from autism to deafness. She creates specialized programming to serve their needs, but also finds ways to incorporate them into the regular life of the church whenever possible.

"If I have a 12-year-old with significant (developmental) delays, I'm still going to make space for them to be with other 12-year-olds in the church," she said.

Although Huntley has professional training in special education, she believes it doesn't take years of training to make a difference for families affected by disabilities. Even something as simple as visiting their home can lead to important realizations.

"I think the best way to learn how to work with a specific kid is to spend time in their home with them," she said.

Sense of belonging

Faith communities shouldn't end their outreach to people with disabilities once existing architectural or emotional obstacles are addressed, Gaventa said. The process is about nurturing belonging, not just solving problems.

"Belonging includes making friends, feeling needed and a variety of things like that," he said.

In other words, people with disabilities should feel like they're part of the fabric of the congregation, not the church's pet project.

Hoffman noted that her pastor worked with the parents of a young church member with autism to help him feel more involved in congregational life. At the end of each worship service, he now goes to the front of the sanctuary to extinguish the candles.

"He doesn't go to the Sunday School program, but he loves that work," Hoffman said.

People with disabilities may not always worship in ordinary ways or communicate easily with the people around them, but they have lessons to share with anyone who is willing to listen, Huntley said.

"One of the kids that I work with loves church more than anyone," she said. "He always sits in this one place in the front row and, during the song he likes, he dances and sings really loudly."

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She continued, "I have people who tell me that when he's not there, worship is not the same. He is communicating with God in a way that I don't know I'm capable of."

Building an inclusive congregation is not easy, but it is rewarding, the Rev. Pridmore said. And it may one day become an even more personal cause than it is already.

"If you are blessed to live a long life, there is a high chance that you are going to be a person with a disability," he said. "Our churches have to be more accessible."