Tuesday, August 11, 2009

how do we embody welcome?

My best friend and I have been talking recently about issues of church accessibility. [See also her post here, where she focuses on welcome as it relates to physical dis/ability.]

I expect we at CWM would say that we would be happy to do whatever necessary to be inclusive and accessible to people who are worshiping with us -- and I have seen us do that -- but there's something problematic about saying that we will make accommodations only when someone asks us to. (It reminds me of discussions around becoming "officially" a Reconciling congregation -- both the power of explicit public statements, and the obligation to combine statements with tangible actions.)

But when we're a small community with limited resources, how do we decide how to use those limited resources?

I don't have answers to the question of how to manage that balance, but I do want to lift up some of the different ways in which a church can be inclusive and get us thinking.

My best friend said (in the above-linked post), "Inviting someone to church when they can't get in the door, hear the sermon, or share fellowship without going into anaphalactic shock is an empty invitation." I think this is a really powerful statement.


In the spoken welcome which opens each Sunday's service, we explicitly welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and straight persons. I have said before that this is something that's really valuable to me. (We also explicitly welcome those who are newcomers and those who are long-time attendees, as well as people of many other different kinds, and that part of the welcome is also something I really appreciate.)

The bathrooms on our floor are clearly gender demarcated, but there's a wheelchair-accessible not-gender-marked bathroom on the first floor. Though see below re: stair-alternative accessibility.

Physical ability

We worship on the second floor, and I'm fairly confident that there is no elevator in this building. (You would think that having worshiped in this building for two and a half years now I might know this. Witness my able-bodied privilege.)

Edit: I have been informed by a member of CAUMC (whose building we use) that, "There is an elevator kitty-corner from the parlor; I think it works. I know I've seen people use it when there have been potlucks." Learn something new every day! /edit

When Kirk worshiped with us, we had an ASL interpreter, but we don't have one now, nor do our website or bulletins say anything about our willingness to hire one (though I know that we would be happy to hire one again). Will Green (who no longer worships with us on a regular basis, now that he's based in Hull) and I both took ASL, but neither of us knows enough to really engage in that way with someone who's Deaf. (This also raises the issue of accessibility to people whose primary spoken/written language is not English.)

We don't have a sound system to make the service more accessible to the hearing-impaired, or large-print or Braille bulletins for people with vision impairments.

Our seating arrangement is a series of moveable chairs, which makes it very accessible for people who can't (comfortably or at all) sit in traditional pews (witness Michele putting her sprained ankle up on a chair while she sat during service this most recent Sunday, for example).

Food and drink

As good Methodists, we have non-alcoholic "fruit of the vine" for Communion (though the fact that we don't have an alcoholic option is in some ways exclusive; I know people for whom it's really important to imbibe actual wine when taking Communion).
We don't have gluten-free Communion bread (I also have no idea if our Communion bread is vegan).

We offer dinner after service every Sunday, and all are welcome to join/stay for dinner. (We also mention this on the website.)

We always have vegetarian options at dinner, though we're less good about making sure that we have sufficient vegan options (which is something that we should really work on since we do have actual vegans worshiping with us, so this isn't a theoretical issue of inclusivity). And yes, I know that of the small congregation, it's an even smaller subset of people who routinely provide dinner, and I'm certainly not helping that problem by volunteering to provide dinner myself.
We also don't do a great job of labeling ingredients (for people who are vegan, are lactose-intolerant, have a gluten intolerance, have peanut allergies, etc.), though I have noticed in recent weeks that whomever provided dinner will announce relevant information like "contains dairy" or "doesn't contain gluten" -- and during the closing announcements we announce who provided dinner, so everyone knows who to ask if they have questions about ingredients.


Sean Delmore said...

First, three quick notes:
1. Actually, the building in which we worship *does* have an elevator. We have used it on an as-needed basis, and when we advertise our special events, we indicate that the building is accessible.

2. Regarding the gender-segregated bathrooms on the second floor: I was told when I first started attending CWM that I should self-select the bathroom I prefer (which, hypothetically, could change any - or every - given time). I realize these aren't unisex bathrooms, but there are transgender people who strongly dislike unisex bathrooms. In short: It's good to have a range of options, because there's no one simple answer to achieving bathroom equity.

3. It's my understanding - and someone please correct me if I'm mistaken - that it's not cool to do ASL interpretation when no one there needs/understands it.

OK, now that I've said all that:
Thank you!
A simple (or somewhat simplistic?) answer to your (rhetorical?) question is: by raising the very questions you've asked.

Repeatedly. Because of course we never get it "right," once and for all. It's a learning process, and it's so important to keep having these conversations. For example, you're right, we can do much better about food-related issues; even as we're actively working to be better, there's still more we can do. And we need to consistently and repeatedly articulate these options around elevator use, bathroom use, ASL interpretation, etc.

In response to your bigger questions about expressing inclusion: I'm not sure a litany of services in the bulletin is the (only) answer. I think there's always potential we're overlooking something important when we do that. I prefer inviting people into a conversation about what they might need to get the most our of their time at church.

OK, this is turning into a blog post rather than a comment on one, so I'm stopping. But thank you again for opening the conversation in such a clear, excellent way!

Kirk said...

Confound you Sean...you only beat me because my post was waaaay longer!

To that extent, here goes a multipost. Bear with me!

Hi Elizabeth,

Thanks for raising the issue. As your friend points out very aptly, "If there's no way in, it's an empty invitation."

Most of Disability studies breaks down accessibility into two general categories; 1) physical accessibility and 2) attitudinal accessibility.

It becomes fairly obvious here that this dichotomy disregards the language and culture issues that Deaf people who use ASL bring to the table, which is probably a large reason why Deaf studies develops its own paths that sit somewhere between disability studies and ethnic studies.

That stuff aside, CWM does better than you think about accessibility sometimes.

1) There is an elevator! However, the only truly accessible bathroom for a wheelchair user is on the first floor. So, it's not the most wonderfully accessible worship space, but once someone is up stairs, everything (other than the bathroom and that kitchen) is fairly reachable without any real issues. That is presuming you're still doing dining in the same space worship is held and not back in the older hall leading to the classrooms/old office. That hallway is somewhat narrow leaving a turn into the doorway somewhat tight.

2) I've not talked with Liz in a while but when I last spoke with her, she was of course willing to interpret for CWM anytime. She enjoyed interpreting our worship. She'd probably also be able to recommend a number of other people who might be available as well. I believe funding for that was procured via the finance committee approaching a local congregation with the need and getting a pledge for it.

3) Attitude is generally great. In my experience, one of the greatest things about CWM is that as a community, you know your comfort zone pretty well. Thus you know when you're presented with something outside of it and can recognize "the call" to go charging outside of that comfort zone and figure out what to do. In addition, the sensitivity to the dynamics of oppression, power, privilege, and oppression tend to be understood when charging over those lines. That doesn't mean you always get it right, but, you do much better than most places I've worshipped!

I believe I've shared some of that in comments during coming out week services and my farewell. I also blogged about it here:


(someday I'll return to that blog...)

Kirk said...

All that said...there is always work to be done:

1) Awareness. With the turnover that any community faces, part of "becoming a participant in CWM" should include all the usual stuff and also some sense of awareness about disability. Whether this comes in the form of a book people read/study together after church, awareness services, community volunteer projects, or all that, the goal should be to introduce people to actual people and not present an entire class of people as "an issue."

2) Preparedness. Know where your elevator is. Some sort of greeting process at the door to make sure people coming in know where to go and how to get there. That's been a huge issue since the move from Grace UMC because it's no longer "walk in the door and there you are" but rather walk in the side door of a church and look around for a sign that tells you to go upstairs...etc. I'd be willing to bet that we've lost a chance with a fair number of GLBTQ people who might be at that stage where they're just coming out and nervous about being "seen in such a place" to begin with. The irony being that once they're in the door, they're much more safe to mingle outside the view of any random "outsiders" coming into the building than they could ever imagine. This sort of segues me into wondering if some intentional outreach with BAGLY and PFLAG might be useful where some CWMers go to a meeting and explain what we are and offer to meet up with anyone interested and come with them to church. Something similar could be offered to DEAF, Inc. and BCIL either through their staff or through their consumer base. I know DEAF, Inc. has a monthly bingo night that CWM could from time to time volunteer to help run. You'd have to stumble your way through learning more sign but I'm sure they'd be happy to have some volunteers and if you'd sponsor to buy and prep the food for that night, they'd love you forever and ever and ever! It's also one of those things where you can...you know..."be who you are in church, outside of it." (Bet you all saw that coming from a mile away!)

3) Use the assets in your congregation! You've got one of Boston's more fun and lively and well read up disability advocates in your circle of friends...the Tzar(ina?) has much wisdom for you about disability community in Boston. You've also had some others show up in the congregation to some degree or another and empowered them to have a voice and a presence whether it be giving them the opportunity to preach or recognizing their right to be there--no matter if what they say or do is sometimes what would be considered "odd."

Kirk said...

Regarding Sean's point #3:

It's a pet peeve of mine when hearing people have "ASL in worship for pretty." I'll readily admit that my depiction of this is a dismissive, reductionist, and somewhat petty reflection on some hearing people's attempts to exhibit an attitude of acceptance and welcome to Deaf people. I'm not perfect and things that peeve me tend to draw out my bile somewhat too strongly sometimes.

Not to mention, it'd soak funds out of your budget like crazy on the "off chance" that someone may just "show up."

What can and should be done though is

1) readiness with funding have some money ready for requests when/if they do come in. Have enough to ensure that you'll have enough time to find and secure ongoing funding if said Deaf visitor decides to make a regular go of it. Try not to dip into that fund for other needs unless it's absolutely dire need. The day you spend it on something is is probably gonna be the day someone Deaf calls...heh.

2) advertising on the website that ASL interpreting is available on request and a note "please let us know x days in advance if you would like to join us and would benefit from ASL interpreting."

(where x is whatever you've worked out with an interpreter who's willing to come if called. Be aware an agency tends to want 2 weeks notice minimum but if its someone willing to freelance like Liz or someone else she knows in the interpreting community, they can be more flexible. There's no shortage of GLBT allies in the interpreting world...finding one that's cool enough with religion is more of a trick, but generally they'd groove on CWM once they saw what it is.)

3. Outreach and avert. See my above missive about volunteering as a group with DEAF, Inc. for an idea. Carol Hilbinger is the IL Director and that dept. I think is pretty much still in charge of the Bingo nights. If you need an 'introduction to the idea' from me, I can help try to pave that way. You'll want to be crystal clear you're not there to proselytize (and of course not proselytize while you're there.) You can at the very least post an ad on the bulletin board and talk to the IL regional director there at the Boston office so the staff can be aware that there IS a GLBT friendly congregation that'll provide interpreters. I don't know of anyplace in Boston other than the UU's in Cambridge who've got that. An occasional post to the "Onelist" (an email Yahoo group Mass_Deaf-Terp) for your special services, particularly those with regional or national known speakers...or things like that fantastic Trans awareness service. Line up an interpreter, announce them and say "interpreting available on request" and see what you get.

Kirk said...

There. Kirk will now shut up.

Elizabeth Sweeny said...

Thanks for the compliment, Sean.

My best friend and I started talking about this on Friday, I think, and I tend to be a perfectionist, and I really do love CWM, so I didn't want to just flatly say, "inclusive welcome: ur doin it rong," whereas I also didn't want to spend too emphasis noting the things we do well since we're already pretty well aware of those.

I'm glad that 3 different people (Meredith commented on my facebook status) were quick to inform me that the CAUMC building _does_ have an elevator (though the fact that I didn't know this says something about how well we publicize that fact as well as of course about my privilege as an able-bodied person).

re: bathrooms ... I definitely agree that having a range of options is optimal -- I know plenty of trans folks have no problem using gender-marked bathrooms, but it feels really important to me (albeit me who is a cis-gendered ally) to have a unisex option. Knowing CWM, I certainly don't feel like any of us would "police" anyone's use of the bathrooms, though it's never occurred to me to actually articulate when a visitor asks where the bathroom is, "Feel free to use whichever bathroom you feel comfortable," in addition to, "There are men and women's rooms at the end of the hall on your right, and a single-stall unisex bathroom at the bottom of the stairs" (witness my cisgendered privilege).

re: ASL interpretation ... my instinct was definitely that it would feel bizarre to have someone doing the physical work of interpreting an entire service with no one present to actually understand any of it (I suspect if I'd paid more attention to Liz's interpreting I would have learned some stuff, but if I really want to learn church vocabulary in ASL I can use my very own money for that and certainly CWM's budget can be put to better use). But I also felt like, "Well _I_ know -- because I was here when Kirk and Liz were here -- that we would be happy to hire an interpreter were there a need, but how would a Deaf visitor know that?" I really appreciate your thoughtful comments, Kirk. The idea of noting on the website "ASL interpretation available upon request" makes a lot of sense (and thanks for the reminder that if we're going to say that then we actually have to do advance planning work).

Thanks to you both for your thoughtful and substantive comments -- and feel free to make as many and as lengthy comments as you would like :P

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