“Only 5 to 10 percent of the world’s disabled are effectively reached with the Gospel, making the disability community one of the largest unreached – some say under-reached – hidden people Groups in the world.” – Joni Eareckson Tada.
A few years ago, we moved to another area of Grand Rapids, Michigan, from our house to a condo due to my husband’s cancer diagnosis. It was the final straw in a series of health issues which had made it difficult to maintain our house. The condo was also much closer to our daughter’s job. Our daughter cannot drive due to her disability. A bus ride to her job from our previous home took at least an hour. From the condo, it is about 15 minutes, although we do drive her to her job at this point.
As a result of our move, our former church was now a 45 minute drive one way. This was tiring for my husband, and it made attending church activities in addition to the Sunday morning service more difficult. After about a year, we decided to look for a church that was closer to our condo. We found Forest Hills Baptist Church about six miles away. Coincidentally, when we were first married, we attended Bethany Bible Church. Forest Hills Baptist Church occupies the same building. Bethany Bible Church was dissolved in 1992 and the building had been occupied by other congregations, but not very successfully. Forest Hills Baptist Church purchased the building about 10 years ago. In our search for a new church home, I drove by the building and noticed a lot of cars in the parking lot. So we decided to try it out.
I sent an email to the church office asking for more information and telling them a little bit about our family. For us, at previous churches, it had always been a good idea to prepare the way for our family. At our former church, we contacted the church ahead of time for our oldest daughter who had special needs growing up. She was severely learning disabled along with having some fine and gross motor skill deficits. When she was nine, she was also diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. One of our main concerns was her safety. Would she be able to navigate the stairs? Would her teachers know that in an emergency, they needed to grab her hand and help her navigate, even though she was twelve years old. Would they avoid asking her to read verses out loud? Our efforts at preparing her teachers and leaders in youth activities were mostly successful, but occasionally not so much. I’m sure we were sometimes viewed as too concerned about her. We had previously changed churches twice due to safety issues for our daughter.
When we started attending Forest Hills Baptist Church, we discovered that they had a heart for fostering and adopting children, many of them with special needs, some of them in wheelchairs. And they were in the midst of a campaign to raise funds to make the church building more accessible. The congregation was actively seeking to minister to the needs of those with mobility challenges by building a foyer (bridge) between their two buildings in order to add an elevator and a ramp.
We were so encouraged by this gospel focus on those with disabilities. Forest Hills Baptist is not a large church, yet the members are giving sacrificially to make changes in their facility to meet the needs of those with disabilities.
From our own experience and from the stories we’ve heard from other families in our situation, we know that every time a family with a disabled family member walks into a church, they carry an extra burden. Before they will have heard a word of that church’s gospel message, they will have scouted out possible barriers for their family member. A friendly, “welcome to our church!” rings hollow if the family has a difficult time navigating the facilities and taking part in the same activities as everyone else.
In addition, previously able church members may become disabled, temporarily or permanently, due to illness or injury. An elevator would also help those who become disabled due to natural aging. Being unable to navigate the building often causes withdrawal from the life of the church and may impede healing.
After two years of planning and raising funds, the church has begun the physical changes necessary to add the elevator and ramp to prepare the way for those with disabilities. It is so wonderful to see this come to fruition.