By Tyler Roebuck
Six churches were welcomed into the Open Roof Fellowship at the Mission and Ministry Board meeting in advance of Annual Conference. The fellowship recognizes Church of the Brethren congregations that have made great strides in becoming more accessible to people with disabilities. Debbie Eisenbise, director of Intergenerational Ministries on the Congregational Life Ministries staff, introduced the new member churches.
The Open Roof Fellowship has grown out of the former Open Roof Award, which began acknowledging congregations in 2004. Foundationally, the award was inspired by scripture from Mark 2:3-4: “Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when whey could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.”
This year, six congregations from across the denomination join the 19 churches that make up the fellowship: Spring Creek Church of the Brethren and Mt. Wilson Church of the Brethren in Atlantic Northeast District, Parables Community in Illinois/Wisconsin District, Spruce Run Church of the Brethren in Virlina District, Luray Church of the Brethren in Shenandoah District, and Union Center Church of the Brethren in Northern Indiana District.
As part of the fellowship, these churches receive a copy of the book “Circles of Love,” published by the Anabaptist Disabilities Network, of which the Church of the Brethren is a member. The book features stories of congregations that have broadened their welcome to include persons with various abilities.
At the Mission and Ministry Board meeting, Spring Creek was commended for their efforts with these words: “Spring Creek Church of the Brethren made initial renovations ten years ago to provide physical accessibility to their building. These also increased building use by the wider community and over time have led to more local outreach. With a current emphasis on reaching out to children, the congregation is now making program adjustments to welcome those with special needs.”
The most unique change the congregation has made is with large screen TVs. “We put up large screen TVs in the sanctuary, and people use them instead of the large print bulletins because they see them better,” said Dennis Garrison, pastor at Spring Creek.
Mount Wilson was commended with these words: “Mount Wilson’s journey began with making their building accessible for one woman in a wheelchair. Today, there are others who have mobility impairments, who likewise are able to fully participate because the building is accessible to them. Along the way, various adjustments have been made so that those with limited abilities can continue to worship, teach Sunday school, sing in the choir and attend church functions.”
Kathy Flory, one such member, comments: “Our church is small but mighty with lots of willing, hard-workers, and this is how with God’s help we get so much accomplished.”
Jim Eikenberry, co-pastor with his wife Sue, told a story about one of the members: “Walt [Flory] shared that one Sunday, someone saw him struggling with the bathroom door. By the next Sunday, the men of the church had installed electric buttons on the bathroom door so he could use it.”
Parables Community was commended for its efforts: “A new congregation, Parables Community brings together adults and children with special needs, their families and caregivers, creating an inclusive, welcoming and participatory environment which includes multi-sensory learning, visual aids for non-readers, and a quiet space for those who might become over-stimulated. Children and adults share their gifts serving as greeters, readers, singers, music makers, prayer leaders, and ultimately teachers as all ‘celebrate together in thanksgiving and hope.’ Members reach out to the wider community through service projects including trips to the local food-bank.”
Jeanne Davies, pastor of Parables Community, says, “We are very relaxed about social norms. For example, once while I was leading a reflection, a member walked up and wandered around the chancel because there was something that interested him up there, and his parents did not have to worry about getting him. So long as you are not causing harm, you are okay here.”
The most rewarding part, to Davies, is in the spirit of worship. “The spirit when we worship together is very warm and comforting,” she said. “They [church members of varying abilities] really are teaching us how to worship, because when they lead, it is very spiritual.”
Spruce Run was commended with these words: “Spruce Run Church of the Brethren initially installed a ramp for accessibility in 1998. With growth and the passing of time, the congregation is now facing the need to repair and shore that up, along with the need to renovate facility bathrooms. While in the process of raising funds, the congregation is heroically taking matters into their own hands physically assisting their most vulnerable aging members so that they can attend worship and participate in church activities.”
Lorrie Broyles, the delegate from Spruce Run, believes the biggest reward comes from multigenerational worshippers. “We have had four to five generations worshiping together and it is a blessing.”
At the board meeting, Luray was commended for their efforts: “The Luray Church of the Brethren makes it possible for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities to fully participate in worship and Christian education, share their talents through music and serve through visitation ministries. Various accommodations have been made to assist those with physical limitations, including modifying worship so less standing is required.”
“It was a slow movement toward all being able to participate,” said Chris Riley, delegate from Luray. “Several pastors ago, we had a pastor with a son with disabilities, and that opened the path to enable all to worship with us.”
“We have several people who have been interested in working with special needs,” said Donna Lantis, a member at Union Center. The church started its movement toward inclusion by installing an elevator, handicapped accessible restrooms, and flattening several stairs near building entrances into ramps.
Lantis’ favorite story is of two boys with social difficulties who wanted to be baptized, but were afraid of having water on their faces. “The pastor tried to come up with a way to make it happen,” she said. “He filled the baptismal part way, so the boys were wading in water, and used a basin and covered their faces with a towel so they could not get any on their faces.”
One of the boys is now in the choir and brings a smile to everyone’s face as he joyfully sings along.
The 2016 Annual Conference News Team includes: writers Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend, Karen Garrett, Tyler Roebuck, Monica McFadden; photographers Glenn Riegel, Regina Holmes, Keith Hollenberg, Donna Parcell, Laura Brown; Conference Journal editor Eddie Edmonds; web manager Jan Fischer Bachman; web staff Russ Otto; editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.