Changing our Pews: Access and Worship

Changing our Pews: Access and Worship

If you have ventured into the University Christian sanctuary over the past few months, you may have recognized that a few pews have lost a bit of weight. Specifically, four of our pews were cut by 36 inches each to ensure that any person who used a wheelchair could fully participate in the service.

In the past, a person using a wheelchair had a few options. For starters, if they used the chair but could shift into a different seat, they could navigate out of their chair and around the side of the pew. Or, they had the option to sit on the sidelines, near the congregation but more in the aisle. Fire codes aside, what messages did these options send?

When we ask someone to leave their wheelchair to sit with us, we ask them to give up a piece of what makes their life experience uniquely theirs. It matters that a person uses a wheelchair – that is a piece of who they are and how they navigate the world. In both little and big ways, it gives them a different lens to see the world. Asking someone to leave their chair to be in service is not only potentially dangerous for some, but it also disrespects our commitment to diversity. As a church, we care about the differences that set us apart. We want to learn from Black people. We want to learn from Hispanic people. We want to learn from white people, and Asian people, and those from Puerto Rico, Oceania, Africa, and the Middle East, too. We invite both liberal and conservative political leanings, we celebrate non-heteronormative sexualities, we seek the world views of our Jewish, Muslim, atheist, and religiously-other neighbors. We don’t ask them to ‘take off’ their experience in order to be here; rather, we want to learn from those differences, and be informed. Asking someone to leave behind their experiences means we as a community lose a big opportunity for growth. “Indeed, God will speak to God’s people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue!” (Isaiah 28:11) – no matter how different, we will find God speaking through each and every person.

Likewise, when we ask someone in a wheelchair to sit in the aisle, we’re essentially saying, “we didn’t expect you to be here.” It’s a design that tells others that some of us are meant to be in worship, while others are not. Sitting in the aisle is a form of exclusion – you might be welcomed in the building, but you aren’t welcomed truly into the congregation. You can be here, sing our songs, give money, take our
communion, but you aren’t considered one of us, since there is no place for you.

These are messages we adamantly refuse to accept. We believe that if you invited someone in, but in a way that doesn’t change your church, you never actually invited them in.

We cut our pews because we believe people with disabilities are important, and that we have something to gain from them being a piece of our body. We believe we cannot be the church without seeking all people, and therefore we have committed to making real changes in structure, design, and most importantly, our own hearts and minds. So, when you come in and see these pews, please bear in mind that God is speaking to us through foreign tongues. But we can’t just listen – we have to act. If you find more ways for us to respond to the diverse body around us, please don’t hesitate to tell us! It may just be the Spirit speaking through you!