Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities

An Ecumenical Appeal for Inclusion:
The First U.S. Regional Initiative


Rev. Betsy J. Sowers is Adjunct Associate at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, Westborough. She can be reached at

Over the past 25 years, the local church has been the focus of inclusion of people with disabilities in the religious community. Now inclusion is emerging as a global and ecumenical movement. Reflecting this direction, the first regional, ecumenical initiative in the United States was begun by Rev. Diane Kessler, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, and Rev. James Miller, former Executive Director of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. It is offered here as a model for others who are building networks between faith communities.

The initiative began in 1999 with the convening of an ecumenical group of people from Massachusetts and Rhode Island involved in disability services and advocacy, and in inclusion in faith communities. The group turned out to be a welcome haven of support, networking, and resource sharing among people who often felt isolated and alone in their local settings. Simply gathering together to share successes and frustrations was empowering. New friendships and working relationships emerged across denominational lines.

A key insight soon emerged from our conversations. When people with disabilities are unable to enter church facilities because of physical barriers, or when a congregation fails to welcome all as equal members, there is more at stake than civil rights or hurt feelings. When people are excluded from churches, something is theologically amiss, with painful consequences for those excluded and for those inside the church whose faith community is incomplete. Likewise, churches that reflect the diversity of God’s children embody a deeper understanding of their faith, which permeates their entire ministry. Physical and programmatic accessibility alone do not result in inclusion unless the theological piece of the puzzle is in place.

Out of a desire to communicate this insight to the larger religious community the ecumenical group charged a committee to draft “The Accessible Church: Toward Becoming the Whole Family of God.” It is an appeal to churches “to re-examine our ideas about disability and how our attitudes, expectations, behavior, communication, and architecture often create barriers for people with disabilities. It is a call to be reconciling communities of faith, committed to making our worship, programs, and physical structures fully accessible so that all can participate.”

The process of crafting and approving the appeal was designed to draw in a wide constituency within the ecumenical community. Carolyn Thompson, Disability Project Coordinator for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, drafted the appeal, with assistance from an ecumenical committee, and editorial suggestions from theologians of the Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic traditions. Next, the document was presented to the Boards of Directors of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Councils of Churches for discussion and vote. It was circulated to the heads of denominational and ecumenical organizations in both states, and received endorsement from more than 30 religious leaders. Finally, it was distributed to over 6,000 congregations and individuals via newsletters, placed on the Massachusetts Council of Churches Web site, and released to the secular press. The entire process took over a year, and resulted in drawing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, into the conversation.

Response to the appeal has been as intimate as a telephone call from a mother of twins with Down syndrome, sharing her gratitude that others had named the source of her pain at her church’s inability to welcome her children; she was heartened to have a tool to help that church change. It has included requests for information from across the country. It has been as global as the invitation to Carolyn Thompson, chief architect of the appeal, to travel to Geneva to consult with leaders of the World Council of Churches on its disability strategy.

The ecumenical group continues to meet annually. It has created an e-mail network to keep members connected for sharing resources, support, and prayer. It is developing a list of speakers who are willing to visit congregations. It has provided workshops at Council of Churches and denominational meetings, and is in the initial stages of planning a conference for church leaders in 2003. Local congregations continue to be the focus of our efforts, but those efforts are no longer confined to the local congregation. Caring individuals are reaching out across denominational and geographical lines with a shared goal: churches where all God’s children are welcomed.