God made me whole and holy

In an ableist culture, a welcoming church is a joyful surprise

Members of Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio pray for Sarah Werner during her ordination as a minister of the Word on Sept. 17. — John Rintoul Members of Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio pray for Sarah Werner during her ordination as a minister of the Word on Sept. 17. — John Rintoul

Last September I had the honor of being ordained at Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio as a minister of the Word in Mennonite Church USA for my work in theological education and leadership of Olentangy Wild Church.

I am grateful to have been a member of Columbus Mennonite for eight years because I am welcomed for all of who I am, including my disability.

As a wheelchair user, I have often visited churches where the sanctuary is accessible to laypeople, but the pulpit and front chancel are up a flight of steps. The message is clear: I am welcome to participate in worship but not welcome in leadership.

The wisdom I have gained from my experience of embodiment is not valued enough to share in these places, and so coming to Columbus Mennonite after a move from the South was a joyful surprise.

There are push buttons that open the front doors, accessible restrooms, an elevator and, best of all, the chancel and pulpit are accessible via a ramp built into the architecture of the sanctuary. When I lead worship, a shorter podium is made available to me. When I sit in the pews, there are several wheelchair cutouts to choose from.

I feel a profound sense of belonging. My fellow members relate to me as just another person who happens to move through the world in a different way. My faith and my insights are valued, and if I need a particular accommodation, it is provided without argument or comment.

This is a rare and cherished experience. I have disabled friends who feel uncomfortable in any church setting because of being excluded in the past in a variety of ways.

The biggest issue for many of us is church people who don’t know anything about us wanting to pray for us to be healed.

This reflects a theology that sees disability as an aberration from the “normal” or, even worse, a lack of faith or the result of sin.

This kind of thinking and behavior is incredibly offensive to disabled people. My disability is part of my identity. It has shaped my life in powerful ways that I wouldn’t trade for a “normal” body.

This isn’t to say that all aspects of my disability are positive but that it is an integral part of me.

When someone assumes I want to be “healed” or that I lack faith, this reflects an ignorance that God created me this way — whole and holy.

My church community at Columbus Mennonite is a refuge in our ableist culture and a place I wish all people could experience, both disabled and nondisabled.

We were all created different, and diversity reflects God’s beauty.

Removing physical barriers to participation is just the first step in making churches welcoming spaces. But it is a step I hope congregations continue to take as they live into a commitment to inclusion and belonging.

In a world permeated by ableist attitudes and barriers, the church should be a place where people of all abilities are valued, heard and cherished.

Sarah Werner is communications coordinator for Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, leader of Olentangy Wild Church and author of Rooted Faith: Practices for Living Well on a Fragile Planet (Herald Press, 2023).

Sarah Werner

Sarah Werner is the communications coordinator for Central District Conference (Mennonite Church USA) and the facilitator of Olentangy Wild Church Read More

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