A crusading disability rights group in Toronto gives new meaning to the word “inclusion.”
A prelude of piano and syncopated drums burst through the sanctuary, accompanied by a chorus of voices. A young lady signs in front of the church choir, her cheeks spotted with variations of pink and red. Her brunette ponytail swings from side from side, as she sways to the music. Now nearing the end of the fourth stanza of Chris Tomlin’s “Everlasting God”, she spreads her arms wide as eagles. Robed in blue, they act as the wings that spring into the air — The stage is her open sky.
Here, at Morningstar Christian Fellowship, everyone has a place. And that means everyone. As the host church for Abilities Ministries — a leading disability rights advocacy group — the church community is especially fond of cherishing differences. The sign language interpreter for this late spring service, was born with Down’s Syndrome.
Since its founding in 2009, Abilities Ministries has been instrumental in advancing a most noteworthy cause. What this looks like, differs widely from the traditional approach in the church, which has often been to create separate ministries for people for disabilities. But through the work of Abilities Outreach, those with disabilities are integrated in all facets of life, both in the church and the wider community.
Bob MacGregor, senior pastor at Morningstar Fellowship, says an approach like Abilities’ must first be welcoming. “We don’t isolate [people that have disabilities]. We don’t target them,” he says. “We try to include them just in the life of the church.”
According to The Disability Services Act, a disability is defined as “any continuing condition that restricts everyday activities”. And in 2012, Statistics Canada reported that almost 14% of the Canadian population, or one in seven Canadians had a disability that limited their daily activities. Furthermore, The World Bank states that one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability.
This is why talks about accessibility and inclusion are paramount, especially with the rise and advancement of the disability rights movement in recent years. Jaime Castro, a leading disability rights activist and founder of the Abilities Ministries, says that he believes the church should be at the forefront of this movement. “The church needs to embrace disability because it affects all of us; it is at the core of the gospel, the message of Christ and the entire Bible,” Castro says. “If we are Bible-believing we can’t pick and choose what we want to. This should be a priority in the church”.
And making sure disability issues are top of the agenda, is what Castro and the Abilities team set out to do. Through this work, he hopes to live out their vision; one that was created from the early stages of the outreach ministry.
Tearing Down Walls
What started as “The Mix Community Club” soon evolved into what it is today. But the transition into church circles didn’t happen overnight. It was a step of faith, that first took off on training wheels. For a year, Castro and others took residents from group homes with them to visit hundreds of churches across Toronto, most with congregations of 500 and over. What they discovered was nothing short of discomforting.
“[The majority] of the churches [we visited] did not have an inclusive attitude,” Castro says. “They didn’t greet us; they weren’t hospitable, they weren’t nice. We were asked to go to the back, and they were almost like: ‘What are you doing here?’ “
Despite this mistreatment, Castro was not going to back away quietly. In fact, it only further drove him to engage in disability issues. As the only self-sustained local church outreach ministry to offer integrated services with partnering churches, they are cutting-edge in their approach. They are speaking up for people with disabilities, making sure to make it clear that there are every day needs that can’t be covered in one-off fundraising projects or inconsistent ministry programming. Most of all, they are opening up spaces for people with disabilities in Toronto and elsewhere. And their message is one that can’t be ignored.
Yet, while Morningstar Christian Fellowship was quick to embrace this message, they have been one of few spaces to do so. Most churches appear to be uncomfortable with this new model of integration. Although, many may have “special needs ministries”, it appears that these same churches are hesitant to include people with disabilities in their main worship services. These are some of the many walls that Abilities tirelessly works to tear down, in the efforts to promote inclusion for people of all abilities.
An Invisible Fight
“The way I dealt with that is I pretended to be invisible. I was really scared that people might judge me for the way I talked”
When referring to disability, there is a wider scope than meets the eye. Disability does not just pertain to the physical. According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, invisible disabilities can take the form of “debilitating pain, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, mental health disorders, and hearing and vision impairments.” The majority of disabilities affected by Canadians are invisible.
As for Brian Woo, he has lived with an invisible disability ever since he was a child. His speech impairment was first noticed by his first grade teacher — He stuttered when he talked.
When Woo was in his teens, he began to stutter more frequently. Because of this, Woo had trouble accepting himself, which led to feelings of negativity and eventual depression. “The way I dealt with that is I pretended to be invisible. I was really scared that people might judge me for the way I talked,” Woo says.
Then, on one summer night in 2007, he found himself contemplating suicide. But after a divine encounter — Woo says he saw unexplainable flashes of light before his eyes — his plans changed. Now looking back, he credits God for saving His life.
Since moving on from that dark period in his life, Woo started attending church, and it was here that he was introduced to the Abilities Ministries. Aside from volunteering as their social media director for numerous years, Woo also founded and actively leads “Stuttering Loudly,” which focuses on using improv comedy for confidence-building therapy. Through this ministry, Woo hopes to help others accept themselves and come to terms with themselves and their disability.
Ultimately, it is this core message of acceptance that propels Abilities’s key projects. Not only that, but their work ensures accommodations are in place to meet the various needs.
For one, the church building which hosts Morningstar’s regular congregation every Sunday, has two main levels, and is wheelchair-friendly (the installment of a $25,000 ramp testifies to this). These are some of the first steps taken by the church to remove some of the physical barriers one may experience in getting to and stepping into a church, including steps, too narrow hallways and washrooms, and lack of reliable transportation. But another unseen battle exists for those living with disabilities. And these walls are not so easy to tear down.
Scott Farraway, who is a representative of the Peel Halton and Wentworth chapter, has come across his fair of challenging attitudes when it comes to dealing with the subject of disability. For over 30 years, Farraway worked with clients with brain injuries, through an organization he founded called Recovery to Discovery.
Farraway says, in some cases, the negative attitudes clients experienced were enough to keep them from going back to church. “With the people with brain injuries that I have worked with over the years, families have attempted to go back to their churches after their loved one has had a brain injury and they haven’t had positive experiences. That’s what got me involved,” Farraway says. “I just thought that the church can do better. I am not sure how we can do better, but we have to try. Part of it is just raising the awareness of the fact that there are people out there that want to come to church and want to be part of our church communities and we need to reduce the barriers of access so that they can.”
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Opening doors and not closing them, should be the church’s highest interest. Yet, research has often shown otherwise. Instead, what ends up happening is that some are being shut out, and the majority of these people have disabilities.
According to Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, people with disabilities are less likely to attend church than those without disabilities. Further research by the National Organization on Disability, shows that while 85% of people with and without disabilities stated that religious faith is important in their lives, only 47% of people with disabilities attended church at least once a month.
And it would seem as if there is a deeper motivation for church attendance that looks beyond the mere act of simply opening the doors.
That spring service, Farraway makes a special visit to Morningstar. He is with his wife Laura. The two of them hadn’t made an appearance for some time. Simply getting to the church had posed its own hardships, especially for Laura who lives with fibromyalgia. Nevertheless, she had come in response to a special invitation from Castro. It was one of those rare yet beautiful moments, that may have made the hour drive worthwhile. “It was heartwarming for me, and is what the Abilities Outreach is about,” Castro says. “This is something powerful that God can use for His kingdom.”
It is connections like these, that truly have far-reaching influence. So through the Abilities accessibility network, Castro sends out invites for various community events, in the efforts to use this platform to raise awareness about disability issues. Part of how they do this, is through education and especially collaboration.
Every year, Abilities has Accessibility Sundays, which invites churches to participate in hosting their own worship services for the community. Prior to that, for three years in a row, Abilities hosted a tribute event on December 3 (International Day of Persons with Disabilities). The event was a huge success, and drew out over 1000 people, including GTA mayors and councilors, disability advocates, and influential faith-based leaders. It was an event that further expanded their platform and connections within the community. Since then, Castro’s wide sphere of influence has only continued to grow. Abilities has an expansive network of churches in the Greater Toronto area, Simcoe County, Ottawa, Peel Halton and Wentworth. The outreach ministry’s influence even spans on an international scale, with partnerships in India, Pakistan and Liberia.
In 2011, Castro was invited to speak at a mosque about the integration model for people with disabilities in faith-based places. Castro went above and beyond, and took time to reveal the true inspiration behind the model. “It was an opportunity to share the gospel. I told [the disability committee] the reason we do this, is because our Lord Jesus Christ mandates us to do it,” he says. “And they were blown away, because that’s something that’s not in the Quran. It doesn’t look at people with disabilities in a favourable way.”
Because of the work that Abilities does in the community, people like Woo have developed a sense of purpose and belonging. “I have seen lots of people with disabilities, including myself, grow into valued social roles with the Abilities Ministries,” Woo says. “I [also] learned that we should not see people with a disability and label them as ‘disabled’, ‘weird’, ‘strange’ or ‘special’. People with disabilities are just people.”
And the greatest lesson for the church body at large? Understanding that we all possess weaknesses, but herein lies the key to true strength. “Our secret weapon as Christians is weakness because out of that, God’s strength is manifested,” Castro says. “It is not about us; it’s about Him. It’s His ability, not our ability.”
Take Action: Download our free resource to help your church develop a similar model in your own community. (Information to create this was provided by Abilities Outreach.)
For more information or if you have questions on developing your Abilities Outreach, please visit their site.
Photos Courtesy: Jaime Castro, Alexandra Yeboah
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