Hi, I'm Louise. Join me at church

Disability inclusion in action at Melbourne’s Crossway Baptist

Louise used to be invisible.

A member of Crossway Baptist Church in suburban Melbourne, Louise is living with cerebral palsy and is non-verbal. But she had an interest in becoming a member of the church’s welcoming team.

“It’s not about starting a new programme.” – Dale Stephenson

Crossway had a sign made for Louise’s wheelchair to help her communicate yet it took some time for her to be fully welcomed in the welcoming role.

“I have stood next to Louise on the welcome team and watched peoples’ eye gaze go past her and straight to me, and they will only acknowledge me,” said Dale Stephenson, Senior Pastor of the church.

“I can see it happening. So I regularly say, ‘This is Louise, she’s on our welcome team, too!’ and that helps break the awkwardness they may feel, leading to further hellos and greetings.”

Crossway Baptist Church is one example of a church creating more inclusive environments. “It’s not about starting a new programme,” says Stephenson. “It’s about inclusion in the environments you already have at church.”

Louise was baptised at Crossway, but full immersion (which is typical of Baptist churches) wasn’t medically possible for her. The church created a large metal tray with ramp access for the wheelchair, and waterproofed the wheelchair with ponchos.

“It was a great moment for Louise.” – Dale Stephenson

A volunteer spent time with Louise to help prepare her testimony, which was shared on the day.

“People were deeply moved and crying,” says Dale. “It’s a powerful thing when you do give people their dignity. As she was uniquely baptised, the place erupted in applause and cheers. It was a great moment for Louise, and a great moment for Crossway.”

There are more people with disabilities in church now than there were five years ago, according to new statistics from the National Church Life Survey. In 2011, eight per cent of church attendees had a disability. In 2016, that number rose to 15 per cent. In 2015, ABS reports 18.3 per cent of Australians live with a disability.

Running for nine years, CBM’s Luke14 is one Australian initiative that aims to help churches become places of welcome and belonging for people and families living with disability.

Rob Nicholls from Luke14 says the National Church Life statistics are very good news. “There’s an improvement here. Something is going on within Australian churches. There’s a greater awareness [of the needs of disabled people in church]. There’s a bigger welcome mat out there. And also, people with disabilities are expecting more – they want to be more involved in the life of their church community.”

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