Ecumenical Group Works to Build Inclusive Community

People with disabilities continue to struggle with less-than-total inclusiveness by faith-based groups. Certainly, some places of worship invest in elevators to move people from one floor to the next. While this is a praiseworthy effort, it’s not the most important [accommodation], according to Ron Cottone of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis. “What is interesting,” says Cottone, “is that the physical barriers are the [accommodations] that faith communities focus on first, and they’re always the most expensive thing, like putting in an elevator or ramp or redesigning the architecture of a building…. Attitudes are the least expensive to address. In fact, all that is needed is a little time for people to hear a lecture or read a book about disability awareness. It is attitude that poses the biggest and most effective barrier. Even if people can get into a building, they can sense that they are not welcome. If they’re not welcome, it doesn’t matter if there is a nice elevator or ramp. They’re not going to come back.”

Cottone is Executive Director of Twin Cities based Disability Awareness Ministries Incorporated (DAMI). DAMI does not provide direct support services to people with disabilities. Rather, it supports congregations to be more welcoming, accessible and inclusive. It is instrumental in setting up inclusion teams in faith-based communities that take on the work of inclusion within the congregation. Cottone, who came to DAMI in 2002, stresses the ecumenical aspect of his vision, “I don’t want to just focus on [my] church, because we’re an interfaith organization. So we have the potential of working with synagogues, temples and mosques as well as churches.” Through one of its board members, DAMI has a connection with the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) and other consciousness-raising ecumenical groups that work to reform negative discrimination against people with disabilities in faith communities.

Cottone believes that many faith communities are committing fundamental “sins of omission” regarding access. To bring a person who uses a wheelchair to the church’s second floor is not good enough if he or she is not a welcomed participant in all the programs of that faith community. To bring a blind person into a sanctuary of worship is not good enough if that person cannot fully participate in all church activities and follow along with the worship celebration. Cottone says these situations “sins of omission” are not intentional. It’s as if a faith community, with all good intentions, invests in one form of accessibility and stops there. To “come to the table” means much more. It means that all people, regardless of their form of disability, have complete access to all levels of church life.”

I am a person who comes to faith communities with tough questions. I’ve been legally blind for at least fifty years; I’ve experienced many harmful actions by self-proclaimed Biblical practitioners who were less than compassionate people. And I’ve wondered how such people could be so arrogant. The congregational care person and the funeral home team that coordinated the funeral of my wife’s mother, for example, pushed and pulled me through the line of people as we gathered to receive the host at the funeral service. At one point they even grabbed my hand that held the harness of my dog guide as I was dragged back to my seat—two pews behind my wife. Her other sisters and brothers-in-law were seated together by this same team of people, but my wife and I were not. Consequently I could not console her at this tragic time when she needed me at her side.

Here’s an example of another congregation’s attitude. Before one Sunday morning worship, my wife and I were sitting on a sidewalk in front of a church, where I held my blood-soaked foot. I had received an injury from a tumble I took when my sandal caught the edge of a curb. The folks entering the church walked around us as they traveled the twenty-five feet to the front entrance of the church. One person commented that I had a nice dog. Nobody stopped to ask me if I needed help. Nobody mentioned to the church administrator, who sat at a table next to the front door, that there was an injured man on the sidewalk. I’m not invisible—or am I?

In both of these scenarios, I felt the pain of insensitive acts. Although I brought my concerns to church leaders of these two faith communities, neither group followed through on their pledge to educate themselves or their congregation. These church people seemed to miss completely the point that Jesus once made: all are welcome at God’s table.

Ron Cottone met my questions head-on, lifting up the importance of values. “Attitudes are based on, and reflect, values. Values are formed to help us deal with our fears; and to help us feel safe both socially and psychologically in our communities. As we grow up, our communities and our families teach us values that make us think that we’re safer if we follow those values…. Unfortunately there’s a lot of teaching about difference that ends up creating [negative] values…. For example, … ‘Don’t trust anybody who looks different, or acts differently or thinks differently than you.’ That kind of value system often gets put into people as they grow up…. When they become adults, [people] don’t examine these values…. And they don’t see how [these] attitudes can get reinforced in a whole community of people with similar attitudes, [pushing the group] to exclude instead of include.“

Cottone believes faith-based groups need to expand their group identity. “Faith-based communities are really set up well to be welcoming and inclusive. But transcending difference, transcending group identity, is always a challenge. And it is a challenge that is easy to ignore because the power group that runs the community has the authority to reinforce and reward the privilege of maintaining the status quo and not inviting the expansion of group identity. Exclusionary group identity attitudes are challenged by Hebrew Scripture when it talks about welcoming the stranger, welcoming the alien, welcoming the traveler, welcoming whoever comes to you. A relationship with a person, who is made in the image of God, starts with hospitality and respect. So, in respect, you welcome that person into your midst.”

Cottone’s strength is in organization development; he has worked with inclusion programs at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis and Rosemount United Methodist Church. Thanks to Cottone’s efforts, the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has resolved that all United Methodist Churches in Minnesota hold an Inclusion Awareness Day on the second Sunday of October and that they all perform an accessibility audit in their places of worship.

For help from DAMI, contact Ron Cottone at ron.cottone@disability-awareness.org, or at 612-230-3264. DAMI is supported mostly by individuals and local congregations including the Basilica of St. Mary Catholic Church, Pax Christi Catholic Community, Wayzata Community Church and the MN Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.