News and Views

Ministers with disabilities meet in Washington

Posted by Leo Yates, Jr. on

By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.,
Consultant for Global Ministries’ Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries

Group Pic of Participants

The United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities (UMAMD), a national caucus that is recognized by The United Methodist Church, met Aug.1-3 on the historic campus of Gallaudet University at the Kellogg Conference Hotel. Gallaudet University is the first university dedicated to the higher education of Deaf and hard of hearing students.

At the meeting, the co-chairpersons, Rev. Russell Ewell, a Deacon in full connection, and Rev. Janine Delaunay, an Elder in full connection, both of whom are blind, worked with support persons to facilitate sessions during the three-day conference. Part of the challenge in planning an in-person meeting is identifying a location that not only is accessible for meeting space but also had lodging that is accessible,” said Bishop Peggy Johnson.

A group of individuals arriving to the conference- 2 persons using canes 1 person using crutchesConference participants came from as far away as England, though most of the participants were from the U.S. It was a welcoming sight to see people with all sorts of disAbilities arrive at the hotel that included: people on crutches, people with canes (used by blind persons), people in wheelchairs, people with assisted devices like a pocket talker for hard of hearing persons, people with Cerebral Palsy, people with invisible disAbilities such as mental health issues, addictions, and Multiple Sclerosis, along with allies and personal care attendants to assist with the trip. The conference participants were both laity and clergy. It was shared at the start of the meeting that the General Board of Global Ministries financially supported the conference.

The theme of the conference was "Taking Our Place at the Table: Disability Leadership Academy." The Rev. Stephanie Remington from the Lewis Leadership Center of Wesley Theological Seminary led the leadership seminar that provided insights to good leadership.

The Rev. Nancy Webb, a blind retired clergy person from the Baltimore-Washington Conference and a past co-chairperson of the UMAMD, said, “These insights are helpful across the board. What a wonderful presentation.”

The afternoon session had a panel discussion that had representatives from the General Commission on Religion and Race, the General Board of Church and Society, and a representative from the Board of Ordained Ministry from the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

The Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt, the chairperson of the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, shared how the board had worked with candidates with disAbilities in the past and offered accessible meeting spaces. One current provisional Deacon from another annual conference shared the challenges of her board examination and how the location would not be changed to make it fully accessible since she had to use crutches and did not drive. The gasps were heard throughout the room while sympathy filled the air. An appropriate response by Dr. Hunt was the encouragement to work with the conference disability commission; however, one of the participants stated that not all annual conferences have disability commissions despite the mandate in The Book of Discipline.

A group of individuals reflecting on their assignment during a time of group workAs other challenges were shared, Bishop Johnson, who was appointed by the Council of Bishops to be the bishop assigned to the disability ministries for consultation and awareness for the denomination, said she will continue to work with her colleagues to be certain that every annual conference in the denomination has a working commission on disability concerns.

The evening session concluded with small groups doing some reflection for how God used them and their disability to share grace with others after the Rev. Leo Yates first opened the session with a personal story.

To top off the evening session was the awarding of “The Unsung Hero Award” to Rev. Nancy Webb for all of her years of service and advocacy work. Bishop Johnson was provided with a book, Disability, Faith, and the Church, which was signed by all the conference participants as a reminder they were depending on her and her leadership. All of the participants, rolled up, walked up, or struggled to make it up to the front of the room to lay hands on her and prayed for her ministry. Bishop Johnson held back tears and said she will be faithful to the work. The Rev. Janine Delaunay said, "We are grateful for your leadership, Bishop Peggy, and we as a caucus will continue to support you as well."

A person putting up a sticky note during the strategizing sessionIn small group discussions, the Rev. Caroline Bass shared from personal experience that she did not find terms like disability and disabled as negative words, but it was society that put on negative connotations, and these words should be claimed openly and proudly. Adding, the euphuisms for disabilities, such as “differing abilities” or "differently-abled" are not necessary as disability does not need to be cloaked with euphuisms to be accepted.

The Rev. Hank Jenkins observed, almost every person with a disability at the conference had an adverse reaction to “differently-abled.” These observations pushed the caucus to publish a statement about wording and how language is often individualized (by personal preference) and first person (e.g. she has bipolar disorder instead of she is bipolar). It was clear that the disAbility community is not of one mind when it comes to terms.

The Rev. Greg Edwards, the UMAMD treasurer, led the final session, which was building on the work of Rev. Remington from the day before. New subcommittees were established from the reflection and group work to advance the future work of the caucus. Published statements were drafted that support the inclusion, accessibility, and empowerment of persons with disAbilities.

All in all, participants found the conference to be mutually supportive, educational and empowering for doing the leadership work in The United Methodist Church. The Rev. Russell Ewell thanked the participants for attending and looked forward to working with them to continue the work of the caucus.