For someone living with a disability, it can be difficult to find a church where they feel like they can belong.
“We know that those impacted by disability often feel they do not have churches that they can call home,” said Dave Vander Woude, a church planter with Resonate Global Mission. “The picture of the kingdom is that we’re equally made in God’s image, so how are we worshiping as the church together?”
That’s the question driving the mission of City Hope GR, a new Resonate partner church plant in Grand Rapids, Mich. City Hope GR is a church where people of all abilities can worship, serve, and grow together.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in five Americans lives with a disability. Statistics Canada reports similar numbers for Canada. For people with disabilities, church can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. This can include everything from the way the buildings are designed to the atmosphere of the worship service to the way ministries and programs are run. People on the autism spectrum, for instance, can be sensitive to bright lights, loud sounds, and certain paint colors. Some people have difficulty sitting still and listening quietly to a sermon. Some people get nervous in large crowds.
As a result, people with disabilities might choose to avoid church altogether.
While some churches make accommodations for people with disabilities, that does not necessarily mean that people with disabilities are included in the life and community of the church. They might worship in a room apart from the rest of the congregation or be limited to a program specifically designed for people with disabilities.
“Disability is not a priority for many churches, so many people with disabilities are isolated and excluded,” said Pete DeRitter, one of the people starting City Hope GR.
But City Hope GR considers everyone in the decisions they make. They share Monroe Community Church’s new building, which was built with universal design standards; they incorporate a variety of worship and communication tools in the service; and everyone is given an opportunity to participate in worship, serve, and use their gifts.
That’s why DeRitter and his daughter, who is affected by disability, are part of the core team starting the church.
“I’ve never experienced the camaraderie and care I’ve seen for each other here,” he said.
Kelli Straayer and her family also joined the church. Her son and daughter both have autism, and she said they wanted to be part of a church where her children could serve and where their gifts could be recognized.
“Just knowing that we’re accepted and loved … it’s a relief,” said Kelli. “It’s such a relief to feel like we’re not alone in it. … It’s something you don’t experience everywhere.”
“I love it,” Elison Frazine said. “It’s a lot quieter and not too many people. … I’ve served at other churches, but this one feels like a good fit for me. I don’t feel like an outsider.”
Joni Lee and her husband are helping to start the church with their son, who has autism. “Our son can be in a place where he belongs,” said Joni. “Everyone, no matter their ability, can come and be part of a church body and be just as involved as the next person.”
Vander Woude said that everybody gets to be the church at City Hope GR. He said they are still learning what that means—and discovering how to best include everyone—but being inclusive remains central to their mission.
“We know that God is going to bring healing and hope to people who have been left on the margins. He’s going to continue to change lives,” said Vander Woude.
It is often difficult for individuals and families affected by disability to navigate day-to-day life, and church should be a safe place where everyone belongs. Because of your support, City Hope GR is able to provide that community.