Churches improve inclusivity with accessibility

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On Palm Sunday, a lifelong member of Puyallup United Methodist Church in Washington was able to use the newly installed ramp to access the chancel area of the sanctuary for the first time in her life.

Last winter, a woman who had been attending the meal program in the basement of Ebbert Memorial UMC in Springfield, Oregon, was able to finally go upstairs for worship because the church had installed an elevator and she is now able to access all five different levels of the building.

These two churches are some of the latest in the Greater Northwest Area to learn that to be a fully inclusive church, you must be a fully accessible church for individuals with disabilities or mobility challenges.

“I think it was a really great vision the congregation had,” said Rev. June Fothergill at Ebbert Memorial.

The outside of Ebbert Memorial UMC in Springfield where an elevator (right corner) shaft was built and made all floors of the building accessible for anyone.

For the last few years, the church initiated a capital campaign to finance the elevator and some walkways that would allow people to access the basement, sanctuary, and the different levels of the attached education wing at Ebbert Memorial. The church raised more than $460,000 for the project, with additional resources coming from a Springfield Kiwanis group and a $40,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation.

Ebbert Memorial serves meals five days a week to low-income or houseless residents in the area and having an elevator allows people to access the building for multiple purposes. Additionally, Fothergill said the church is hoping to develop more opportunities to work with the Egan Warming Center to provide shelter to the houseless in the future – something that has been put on hold during the pandemic.

“It was a really good experience having the campaign and getting people involved,” Fothergill said.

At Puyallup UMC, the conversation over installing a ramp and being an inclusive church were not separate thoughts, according to Rev. Cara Scriven.

“In 2019 our congregation began having conversations about becoming a reconciling church and welcoming all people into the full participation in the life of our church,” Scriven said.

The pandemic delayed the vote, meanwhile, the church merged with Summit UMC in July 2020. Finally, by mail ballot a year ago, Scriven said 94 percent of the congregation approved a new vision to be an inclusive congregation.

While the building was still closed to in-person worship during the pandemic, Scriven said church leaders began discerning if it was the right time to remodel some of the facilities. The following letter was sent to the congregation a year ago to discern whether it was time to expend reserve funds for the remodeled, accessible sanctuary.

“As we seek to be a more hospitable place for everyone, we also want to evaluate how our building can be more welcoming. We already have a unisex bathroom that is accessible, as well as additional accessible stalls in our gendered bathrooms. We are also blessed by past members who designed a single leveled church. This allows those with mobility challenges easier access to almost all areas of the building. However, the one significant area that is not currently accessible is the Chancel (or stage) in the sanctuary. This means that members who have challenges navigating stairs are not able to be liturgists, band members, or participate in any activities that happen on the Chancel.”

A view of the new ramp inside Puyallup UMC.

The congregation moved back into its renovated space on April 10, 2022, where Scriven saw a young woman and lifelong member who uses a wheelchair access the chancel for the first time.

“It was an amazing sight. She was so excited,” said Scriven. “When our trustee chairperson and I saw this, it was very clear to us that all the work we did to make it happen was worth it.”  

Fothergill said she learned a lot through the process of raising funds to make their 105-year-old building an accessible one. She was often surprised by the generosity of her congregation, who supported the concept of making their church inclusive for people of all abilities and she hopes other churches consider capital projects like this as well.

“That’s one thing I’ve learned,” she said. “People just need to be asked.”

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