By Rev. Mindi
Over four years ago, my husband JC had a dream of starting a new worshipping community, a new church gathering, built on including persons with disabilities in the leadership, worship, education, and mission of the gathering. The idea was not to have a separate worship service for disabled persons as some churches do, or a separate ministry, but that this was the vision of Open Gathering: just like some churches wave a rainbow flag out front, we were going to wave a flag with a puzzle piece. We came up with the motto “Open Gathering: You Fit!”
Over the past four years, we have gathered with us abled and disabled, married and single, families with children and grandparents, folks from all walks of life. We began worshipping together twice a month in rented space, using a moveable picture schedule instead of a bulletin, using “Godly Play” and “Worship and Wonder” as our way of engaging scripture together, sitting on chairs and couches and throw pillows and walkers and wheelchairs. We broke bread together at the communion table, which was also our dinner table as we continued our worship. And, as the last spot on our moveable picture schedule indicated, we cleaned up and prepared to go home.
We also started a Mom’s Group that was for all moms and honorary moms, to offer support and encouragement, and also a place for fellowship and gathering. We had game nights and pottery painting nights, and we cheered our friends on in Special Olympics. We gathered each summer for Family Camp for our families with young children, a place where we could all go on our own schedule, where Outdoors for All helped some of our kids get into a kayak for the first time (and no one fell into the water!) We had picnic gatherings during the summer, visited pumpkin patches in the fall, and offered respite for parents of children with disabilities in the spring. We collected socks for our friend’s ministry to neighbors on the street, and volunteered in various other ministries over the past four years.
And sadly, this fall we buried one of our own: our friend Marilyn, who had MS, who through friends at Open Gathering began to advocate for herself with her doctor and received a power chair instead of relying on the somewhat unreliable ride service and her walker. With her power chair, she was able to use the public transportation system and gained more independence (meeting me to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens at her favorite movie theater). Through Open Gathering, Marilyn gained confidence and joined the disability board of her city to advocate for change. She managed to get one of the city managers to walk the route she took every morning, so she could show him how she was unable to reach the crosswalk button, or how the sidewalks in certain areas flooded, making it impossible for someone using a wheelchair to pass. Marilyn was inspired by Open Gathering, and in turn, we are inspired by her, and we were shocked and saddened at her passing earlier this fall, the first time our community experienced such grief together.
In two weeks, Open Gathering will celebrate its fourth anniversary, and it will hold its final worship gathering. Once again, we are grieving, now in losing this worshiping community. Financially, we were unable to cover our expenses. Four years is not enough time to become self-sustaining, nor is it enough time to develop the internal leadership needed. When our funding was reduced unexpectedly after two years, we were not sure how we would continue on. Bellevue Christian Church, which gave the funds for the grant that initially funded Open Gathering, is fulfilling its charter at the end of March. Bellevue Christian gave more than funds: it covered us under the umbrella of their charter and insurance. But as they come to their end, so must Open Gathering come to its end.
The seeds planted by Open Gathering will continue. Our Mom’s Group is continuing to meet and support one another. The folks that gathered with us are hoping to pull together to continue a Bible Study. But its pastors must move on.
However, what Open Gathering has given birth to is the seed that our ministry was not a separate ministry for folks with disabilities. We were a gathered community of people, and we raise the flag with the puzzle piece and declare You Fit! And it is high time all of our churches, just as much as we embrace the rainbow flag for inclusion of queer folk, embrace the racing wheelchair or the puzzle piece or whatever symbol you use to show that disabled folks are welcome and included—not only in worship, but in leadership, in decision-making, in education, fellowship, and mission.
So as we turn away from winter (hopefully soon) into spring, as Open Gathering prepares for its final worship gathering, we scatter these seeds, hoping they take root in fertile soil, and hoping our friends in ministry will move towards a more inclusive, welcoming community where everybody fits.