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Disability Ministries

The tAble

by Rev. Jonathan Vehar

Every three years in the days leading up to the ELCA Youth Gathering a unique event takes place that gathers young people together for worship, service, and fellowship. And if you’re thinking, “isn’t that what the Youth Gathering does?”, you’d be right. But what makes The tAble exceptional is that it brings together youth who have a shared experience of living with a disability. We know that every youth who comes to The tAble brings their own story, struggles, triumphs, and ways that they experience the world around them. But they also share an identity as a child of God who has created them to be fully themselves. They discover a sense of belonging, knowing that others who are there get the part of their story that isn’t translatable to the able-bodied world.

The biggest challenge that the tAble faces is that only a fraction of the young people in our churches who live with a disability even know about it. But you can help by spreading the word that such a community exists. And then being creative to make it possible to be at the tAble, where a place is waiting. Find out more at

ELCA Disability Grants 2023

Congratulations to the five recipients of the ELCA Disability Ministries grants for 2023! We have invited each to offer a snapshot of the project their grant will be fun, ding.

Thank you to all applicants! It is amazing to learn about all that is being done across our church for accessibility and inclusion! We were blown away by the number of project applications submitted and all that they entailed for your ministries. We hope those not chosen this time around will consider applying in the future.

I want to offer a special thanks to the advisory team for all their hard work in reviewing the grant applications and proposals. Thank you for all you do!

–Rev. Lisa Heffernan, ELCA Disability Ministries coordinator

2023 Grant Recipients

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, IA

Located in the heart of the Quad Cities, St. Paul Lutheran Church is a congregation of over one thousand families, many of whom have children and teens who identify as autistic or neurodivergent. Social Spectrum began at St. Paul in the summer of 2022 as a support group for parents and caregivers of neurodivergent individuals to connect and find empathy with one another. The stories, experiences, and needs shared within this group clearly identified several opportunities for growth in the ways the church as a whole welcomes, supports, and empowers neurodivergent children and youth and their families.  The funding from the ELCA Disability Ministries grant will bolster St. Paul’s efforts to address these needs, amplify autism inclusivity and awareness, and hopefully inspire other congregations to do the same.  

Specifically, St. Paul’s Social Spectrum will use grant funding to: 1) launch an inclusive family-learning style Sunday School class; 2) train St. Paul staff and volunteers who work with kids on how best to nurture and support neurodivergent children and youth; 3) construct a sensory-friendly space for faith formation for all ages; and 4) equip neurotypical teens to act as buddies and advocates for their neurodivergent peers. Through these initiatives, St. Paul aims to embrace and raise up an historically under-valued and excluded population in the church, thereby modeling a more inclusive, supportive, and whole community of faith. 

Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Seymour, WI

Park Vision: Working together, Emmanuel will build an inclusive and accessible community park to inspire, support, celebrate, and equip neurodivergent children and adults to fulfill their potential in life.

What is God asking us to do? An inclusive park!

Families with neurodivergent individuals and people dependent on mobility devices face many challenges but enjoying a park shouldn’t be one of them! Inspired by God’s hope and love, Emmanuel will create an inclusive park different from others in the Seymour area and develop accompanying ministries to enrich the lives of families in our community. We celebrate, inspire, and support neurodivergent children, adults, and their caregivers by creating a gathering place for all ages and abilities.

Working together, we reach, teach, and serve by building a community playground where children of all capabilities play side-by-side. This accessible area includes surfaces and ramps for children and adults to engage equipment with or without mobility devices. Emmanuel’s truly inclusive playground is designed for all abilities to participate in various activities at varying difficulty levels within the same space. We share God’s love by respecting and embracing the different ways God has created us. We purposely removed many barriers, so all God’s children feel part of His kingdom and experience the joy of play!

Our faith leads us to establish a community where all feel welcomed and valued. The inclusive park honors this belief by including spaces for multiple uses and all generations. Along with the playground, the complete project consists of bathroom facilities and a pavilion for church gatherings, celebrations, fellowship, and faith formation.

Peace Lutheran Church, Gahanna, OH

 Our goal at Peace Lutheran Church is to move from service ‘for’ people with disabilities to service ‘with’ people with disabilities.  We currently provide a program for adults with disabilities that includes a week-long summer resident camp, a bi-weekly Bible Study/Social Group and a Saturday morning respite.  For a variety of reasons, we struggle with recruiting volunteers.

The goal of our funded project, Friendship Connections, is to empower people to volunteer their services to connect with people with disabilities, to help broaden the scope of our congregation’s current ministry to become a more welcoming and inclusive community.   With education, coaching and hands on experience participants will increase their understanding and confidence.   The project has three components: 1) group sessions targeting education, etiquette and awareness, 2) direct experiences with adults with disabilities and 3) creation of a ‘what’s next’ project for each participant to complete the one-year experience.

We are grateful for the grant and excited about the coming year as we implement our plans.  We hope to open the hearts and minds of the project participants to allow for new and fulfilling relationships with others whom they may otherwise have avoided.



North Avenue Mission, Baltimore, MD

 North Ave Mission (NAM) is a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community of the Delaware/ Maryland Synod of the ELCA. NAM is a fellowship of people experiencing homelessness, people who are food and housing insecure, people who use drugs and people in recovery, LGBTQ+, those living with physical disability or mental illness and those with lived experience of trauma, racism and hate along with their supporters, in central Baltimore. Centering the leadership and following the visions of those most directly impacted by structural racism and unjust systems, we walk together as we care for our community and one another. Most people in the NAM community and leadership have disabilities ranging from mobility limitations which require assistive devices, treated and untreated mental illness, substance misuse disorder, significant neurodiversity, and a variety of chronic diseases. The community comes together to encourage and support one another on their journeys, to worship, and to serve the wider community.

Many in the NAM community have remarkable gifts for ministry. Some speak powerfully in testimony, others write and share profound theology and theopoetics, some have the gift of encouragement and building others up, some post daily messages of gratitude and prayer each morning. Others share their perspectives through freestyle and other creative arts. Still others pitch in to make sure Family Life is set up properly, share worship leadership, and ensure that the service runs smoothly. People with disabilities are already and have always been in leadership roles within the NAM community and now some are ready to take the next steps to hone their gifts further so they can be shared beyond the worshipping community.

Building on Leadership Gifts will provide mentoring, hard and soft skill-building, learning opportunities, and enhanced wellbeing supports for three to four specific members of the NAM community for one year so that they can grow as leaders to share their gifts both within and beyond NAM. All four of these individuals will benefit greatly from training and coaching in communications to enable them to write out drafts, workshop with each other’s writing, put into words both faith and the long-term effects of the systemic oppression they have experienced, and grasp the many and varied forms the written and spoken word can take. We are planning a six-month curriculum that will include one-on-one coaching sessions as well as small group workshops for learning, trying out public speaking in safe environments, providing feedback to one another, developing each person’s unique voice, and learning the soft skills of leadership.

Pastor Elazar Zavaletta, Mission Developer at NAM, will identify appropriate ways for these emerging leaders to be connected to settings beyond NAM, while also providing additional leadership opportunities within the NAM community. Experiencing the DE/MD Synod Assembly will increase understanding of the wider church.

Pine Lake Lutheran Camp, Crossways Camping Ministries, WI

Pine Lake Lutheran Camp (part of Crossways Camping Ministries) is excited to extend a wider welcome to faith-filled, camp programming for youth and adults with disabilities! Thanks to the generosity of the ELCA Disability Ministries, Pine Lake Camp will be able to implement new programming and additional supports for campers with disabilities.  Our new Self-Determination Camp Program is welcoming adults with disabilities in the middle of August. Young adults with disabilities will come together to create connections, experience traditional camp elements, and create individualized plans for participation in order to engage in meaningful church and community ministry upon their arrivals home.

Alongside our tailored program, we aim to include a wider community of youth and family program participants throughout the summer by employing an Inclusion Advocate who will serve three primary audiences at three primary times. Our Inclusion Advocate will work with camper families, campers seeking additional support, and the camp staff to provide meaningful supports and needed accessibility.  Our Inclusion Advocate will coordinate needed supports in advance of weekly camp programming.  In addition, support from the Inclusion Advocate to the staff or campers will happen throughout the onsite week.   Finally, Our Inclusion Advocate will record important details after the camp program has completed, in order to plan for future success in other camp programs.

In addition to our new Self-Determination Camp program and Inclusion Advocate staff position, we are investing in other ways to build meaningful relationships and opportunities for our siblings in Christ with disabilities. We are working with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) to train, support and employ a young adult with disabilities on our current camp staff.  In addition, we welcomed a self advocate with an Intellectual and developmental disability, to lead a staff training session on best practices for including and supporting campers with disabilities.




July is Disability Pride Month

This month’s article is written by ELCA Disability Ministries Advisory team member Rev. Peter Heide, written from a perspective of blindness.

“Organizations by and for people with disabilities have existed since the 1800’s.” [1] In 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) Home | American Foundation for the Blind ( was created to help veterans who had been blinded during World War I. Through the AFB, supported by Helen Keller and the national organization of Lions (Keller called them the Knights of the Blind), great strides were made creating employment opportunities for the blindness community (e.g., Randolph-Sheppard Act, 1936) Randolph Sheppard Vending Facility Program | Rehabilitation Services Administration ( and access to books through the National Library Service (NLS) “Talking Book” program NLS at the Library of Congress – National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) | Library of Congress (

Yet, by the end of the 30’s, there was a realization that, if blind people were going to gain parity with sighted people, blind people were going to need to advocate for themselves. In November 1940, Jacobus TenBroek and others living with blindness, formed the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Homepage | National Federation of the Blind ( Its tagline is, “Live the life you want.” Through the advocacy of the NFB, progress was made in gaining better education and training for job opportunities that focused more on what blind people wished to do rather than areas sighted people relegated them to.

Later unrest in the NFB caused a number of blind people to break with the NFB. In July 1961, a new consumer group, the American Council of the Blind (ACB) Home | American Council of the Blind (, was formed. It too advocates for the needs of the blind in living independent lives. ACB’s tagline is, “Together for a bright future.”

It is little known or recognized that these organizations have not only advocated for the needs of the blind, but that these organizations have contributed to the case of Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the 70s, Judith (Judy) Heumann led advocacy work for people using wheelchairs. She, with the NFB, ACB, the Deaf community, and other disability advocacy groups, helped write and pressure congress to pass the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), which was signed by Pres. George H.W. Bush in July 1990.

In recognition of the enactment of the ADA, July is designated Disability Pride month. The continued work of advocacy by and for the disabled continues to make life for many safer and better. At the same time, the work they do adds to the lifestyles of the sighted. The availability of audio books and voice-activated hands-free phones are only two of the things that the general population benefits from. Wheelchair ramps also benefit us all by often making bicycle travel safer and easing the lives of parents pushing strollers. Accommodations for people living with disabilities makes life for all of us better.

Happy Disability Pride Month!



[1] Disability History: The Disability Rights Movement (U.S. National Park Service) (

Grants: Next Steps for Applicants

Dear Friends in Christ,

On behalf of myself and the Disability Ministries advisory team, I wanted to say “thank you!” to everyone who applied for one of our grants of up to $10,000. We were blown away by the response and interest of so many congregations, camps, and other ministries. If you remember, we said we would take the first thirty applications that came to us into consideration before ultimately choosing five to receive the funding. Well, you all got to work! We received almost double the amount we will be able to consider this time around.

While we are saddened to not be able to consider them all right now, we do encourage those whose applications came in after the cut off to apply again the next time we are receiving applications. I will be in touch soon with those applicants on what your next steps could be for the time being.

To those we will be reviewing: Please be on the lookout for an email to come from me soon indicating that you are moving along in the process. Over the next eight weeks the advisory team will be reading through your applications and making the hard decision to narrow things down to the five who will be the recipients of the funding. That means that shortly after May 1st we will be making and announcing those decisions. For now, please keep a watch on your email and communications for any questions or needs for clarifications that the review/advisory team may need. I will follow up with the other twenty-five and look at possible next steps as well.

Again, thank you so much for your support of what we do at ELCA Disability Ministries. Especially, we thank God for you and the way the Spirit is moving you to make accessibility and equity for people with disabilities a priority in the lives of your ministries.



Rev. Lisa E. Heffernan

Book Review: The Pretty One by Keah Brown

Keah BrownA book review by Rev. Peter Heide on “The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me” by Keah Brown

Rev. Peter Heide

Rev. Peter Heide

At first, the title of this book seems presumptive, but I have come to realize that this is the courtship of one person learning to love herself amid a world that does not want to love her.

Keah Brown, a journalist, has filled this book with her essays. In each standalone essay, Ms. Brown addresses a particular issue of life as a black woman living with Cerebral Palsy in a mostly able-bodied white America. She discusses the depression that comes from internalizing the “idealized body” of the able-bodied world we live in. She explores the self-loathing that can kill when one allows the able-bodied world to dictate one’s image upon oneself when our bodies can never “measure up”. She considers the challenges of dating, of feeling loved and accepted.

In “You Can’t cure me. I Promise it’s Fine.”, the reader is challenged by how prayer can be an abusive tool that makes claims on the faithfulness of the disabled and that person’s willingness to trust in the power of God to heal. As Ms. Brown illustrates the difference between the able-bodied and the dis-abled, she also spotlights how this kind of faith/prayer isolates, demeans, and dehumanizes the person living with a disability.

Some issues are addressed multiple times which was a little exasperating until I was reminded of the similarity to reading Biblical stories: the more space given to any story raises the importance of the subject. Consider the amount of space that Nebuchadnezzar receives in an encyclopedia and then look at the space he gets in Scripture. Or maybe the story of Peter and Cornelius might be helpful. Outside the Bible no space is given it, but Scripture reports the story of the vision of the sheet coming down from heaven with unclean foods upon it three times. Such is the importance of these repeated themes.

The essay format of this book lends itself to congregation discussion.

Reinterpreting John 9 

A reflection on John 9 through the lens of disability, by Rev. Brian Krause

Rev. Brian Krause

Rev. Brian Krause

 The healing of the blind man in John chapter 9 is one of my favorite healing stories in the whole Bible.  I love this story because in this story Jesus confronts and rejects the common belief that disabilities are somehow caused by sin.  Jesus and his disciples are going along when they find a man who has been blind from birth.  The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.”  Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  (John 9:1-3)   

I myself have encountered the idea that my Cerebral Palsy is punishment from God for some sin in my life.  I have had some people pray for my healing.  Most of the time it was forced upon me.  I was told that first I needed to confess the sin(s) for which I was being punished.  People have prayed for me to be healed and nothing has changed in me physically.  I was once told that God wouldn’t heal me because I had a selfish need to be pitied.  Unfortunately, some in the church today continue to teach the idea that disabilities are punishment for sin through the way they talk about healing passages. 

When we preach, lead worship, and sing hymns we need to be careful how we speak about healing and disabilities.  We especially should be aware of the pervasive narrative of the church regarding blindness.  Too often blindness has been associated with a lack of faith.  We see this in the infamous hymn, Amazing Grace; “I once was blind, but now I see.”  Equating blindness to a lack of faith is harmful to people who are blind or have low vision. 

This year during Lent we will be reading the story of the blind man in John chapter 9.  As we think about this text and craft our sermons, we need to be careful how we speak about blindness to not cause greater harm to persons who are blind.  We need to rethink the common ways that this text has been interpreted and find new ways to speak about this passage that are uplifting to all. 

A Healing HomileticI commend to you the book A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability by Kathy Black.  Kathy Black is an ordained Methodist minister who has served as the chaplain at Gallaudet University and pastored two churches for deaf persons.  Black has also taught classes in deaf ministry and ministry with persons with disabilities as Wesley Theological Seminary, Pacific School of Religion, and the School of Theology Claremont.  

In chapter one of the book Black gives a broad overview of how disabilities are often interpreted.  Chapter two addresses hermeneutical hazards of preaching on healing narratives.  In the subsequent chapters Black dives into the healing passages that appear in the Revised Common Lectionary where she offers common interpretations and then a new “healing homiletic” that looks at each story in a different way that is inclusive.  Black looks at the various stories of Jesus healing people who are blind in chapter three.   

Black raises some important issues in her reading of John chapter 9.  Black speaks about the fact that people who are blind are often not believed and are not seen as credible witnesses.  This appears multiple places in the narrative, first when the neighbors of the blind man refuse to believe in his healing.  It appears again when the religious leaders don’t believe and call on the man’s parents.  Black speaks about how the blind are often ignored and the tendency of people to speak only with a blind person’s companion instead of directly to the person themselves.  Black says that when this happens, “the person with the disability becomes invisible-nonexistent.”1   Speaking only to the companion instead of the person with the disability is a common problem for people with various disabilities and may not be picked up by people who do not have experience with disabilities. 

Black also speaks about what sometimes happens when people with disabilities speak up for themselves as the man who had been blind does in the text.  Black says, “And like the man in this text, when they are bold and speak up for themselves they are seen as being too pushy or aggressive rather than as the passive receivers they are expected to be.  They too experience rejection by faith communities.”2   Once again Black picks up on an issue that may not be recognized by those without experience with a disability.   

How does Black suggest that we proceed in preaching about this passage?  Black gives several options in her section on a “healing homiletic”.  Black suggests we could look more at Jesus seeking out the man who had been born blind at the end of the narrative.  Black says, “Certainly Jesus seeking us in our times of loneliness and rejection could be explored further.”3   Black also rightly notes the major change that happens in the former blind man’s life.  Black suggests that a preacher could explore how major life events lead to changes like loss of community and identity and the long road to developing a new community and identity.  Finally Black notes that this man did not have faith when he was healed and suggests that a preacher could challenge the idea that confession is needed before healing can occur. 

There is so much good material in the third chapter, and I do not have enough space to relay it all here.  I highly recommend that every pastor pick up a copy of this book and read it before preaching on healing passages.  The way we talk about healing is important and getting it wrong can cause a lot of grief as I have experienced in my own life.  We as a church need to do better when preaching on healing.  With Kathy Black’s book I believe we can. 

 1 Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. 71.   

 2 ibid. 73 

3 Ibid, 77.