Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The First Time Can Only Happen Once...

It seems kind of self explanatory, you can only do something for the first time once, but it's easy to forget.  Sometimes, when we look at our churches, we try and look a them with the eyes of a first time visitor, but really, we can't do that.  Sometimes, we need a real first time visitor to come look with fresh eyes, but that isn't always practical.  So, what we can do, is try and look with fresh eyes.  Maybe visit a church that is new to you.  Pay attention to what you notice/don't notice and then come back to your church and look for those things.
One Sunday in February I visited a new to me church (I wrote about it some in the post entitled "come, for all things are now ready"). What I have to say next might sound highly critical of the church.  In some ways it is, and I feel badly about that, but at the same time, I want to be honest about how I experienced this, in the hopes that it will encourage everyone who reads this to look more critically at their own churches.
 My visit to the church started before I actually got there.  Because of the role I was going to be playing in the service, it was going to be important that I could hear what was happening. Otherwise, the group I was working with was going to have to make some changes.  We wanted to know so we could plan ahead.  I started by visiting the church website, looking to see if they had a sound loop or FM systems available. Their website was less than helpful.  There was no statement of accessibility of any kind on their website.  They even had a link to their bulletin for the Sunday I was going to be there.  I read through it, hoping for some statement of accessibility. Nothing.  To raise my anxiety, the picture of the church on the website looked as if it was a great big, old, beautiful church building.  I love old beautiful church buildings, but typically, they are inaccessible.  We decided to wait until we got there and see how bad things were.
We arrived at the church in good time, about half an hour before the service, mainly because we had to practice. I looked at the doors as we entered, hoping to see the familiar blue sign indicating the presence of the a hearing loop. There was none.  I look at the door to the sanctuary, hoping that there would be a loop (that would make things a lot easier for me).  There was no familiar blue sign.  Since I was there way early, and since, because of the role I was playing in the service I need to talk with the sound technician anyways, I asked him if the sanctuary was looped.  It was, which was a great thing for being able to hear the sermon.  However, the loop did not include the stage, which meant it was not very helpful for me being able to hear while I was on the stage (perhaps the most critical place for me to actually be able to hear what was going on that morning).  I was frustrated, both by the lack of signage indicating the presence of a loop, and by the fact that it didn't encompass the stage.  The first frustration was the greatest though.  I was there in plenty of time and need to speak with the sound technician anyways, so I could ask about it and get my answers.  A "regular" visitor would have had no way of knowing that the sanctuary was looped.  
I was already in a state of judging accessibility in the church, so I kept my eyes open to see their strengths and weaknesses.  Unfortunately, I didn't see many strengths. Their sanctuary was beautiful, with smooth wooden pews (very fun for sliding on), but there were no "short pews" to allow for wheelchairs to be present in the sanctuary in a non-conspicuous way. There was a wheelchair lift to allow wheelchairs to come up to the level of the sanctuary, but it was one that needed a key to operate it.  A visitor would not immediately know who to ask for the key.  I can't judge how conscientious the church was about having a person with the key (or a person who knew where the key was) at the bottom of the elevator (on the main level...the sanctuary was up a flight of stairs) to assist visitors because no one in our group was in a wheelchair.
I also didn't get a chance to check out the restrooms, but based on what I was seeing in the rest of the church, my hopes weren't too high.
The big thing that struck me about this visit, and what I took away from it is that accommodations are only useful if people know they are there.  If your church has accommodations available, make sure you publicize them.  If you offer gluten free communion, list the ingredients of the gluten free bread/wafer you use in your bulletin and on your website (people with gluten allergies may often have other food allergies as well) and make sure it is correct.  Check it frequently (every time you buy new bread or wafers!)  If you have a sound loop, make sure signage is in place at your church and on your website.  If you have FM systems available, make sure people know.  Same with large print hymnals or orders of worship.  It's great to have accommodations, but they are going to be under-used if people don't know they are there.

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