This world. This place. This life.

Barrier-Free Welcome


In your mind’s eye, take a photo of your church’s entrance.  Better yet, look for a picture on your church’s website or Facebook page.

How many stairs are in that photo?

I’ve looked at photos of several UU churches online this past week, and I’ve got to tell you, there are a lot of stairs.

Today I “liked” a UU congregation on Facebook (this is one of the easiest ways for an Alaskan UU to “visit” other member congregations of the UUA).   A photo of the church shows it built on a hillside, its back to a wooded area, with at least twelve stairs built into the hillside leading to the front entrance.  No parking-lot level entrance is visible in the photo.

My first thought as I looked at that photo was to wonder how my wheelchair-using partner would get in.  Further poking around on the congregation’s website reveals other aspects of the building that would make her experience of attending services separate, and unequal.

I’m writing this, not to shame congregations whose buildings are less than welcoming to wheelchair-users, but to make a pragmatic argument.

Here it is:  churches thinking about new buildings should first increase the diversity of their membership.

Buildings emerge from imagination, and imagination emerges from experience.  If the combined experience of a congregation’s members is very diverse, than the congregation will imagine a building that works for a wider variety of newcomers.

Of course, the logical question is, “How can we increase the diversity of our membership when our current building keeps us from extending a barrier-free welcome?”

I don’t have a good answer to that question.  I suspect that an answer begins with humility, with admitting the limits of our welcome, and with asking for help from those our buildings exclude.


6 thoughts on “Barrier-Free Welcome

  1. Two thumbs up on this post!

    My small fellowship (27 members) is very lucky to have a building at all – and one that serves us very well in many ways is a real blessing.

    But our building is certainly a challenge for anyone with mobility issues. We’re not on a hill, but our parking lot is uneven. The sidewalk from the parking lot to the entrance is not wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. The ground next to the sidewalk may be solid enough that the wheelchair could make it to the entry. But at that point, anyone not able to climb the seven steps to the entry has only one option: an outdoor lift that is exposed to the elements that was installed by a previous owner of the building. It is key-operated from above, which means that the person with mobility issues who arrives alone has to hope someone will see hir and be able to find a person who knows how to operate the lift. To exit the lift at the top, one has to turn to the right through a rather narrow gate that would be a challenge for a wheelchair. Then once on the landing at the top of the steps, there is still a high threshold to surmount to enter the building.

    Once inside, things would probably be fine for the worship service, and there is a wheel-chair accessible restroom on the same level of the sanctuary. But the library, really an amazing collection for a small congregation (>550 books), is off the sanctuary through a narrow doorway a wheelchair probably couldn’t get through, and the coffee hour and all potluck meals are in the basement – totally inaccessible to wheelchairs and probably to many others with mobility issues too.

    And that’s just wheelchair/mobility issues.

    As I said, we truly are lucky to have our building. In many ways it is perfect for us. But it was built in the 1920s for a Lutheran congregation that, when they build their new building built a fully wheelchair-accessible building – all on one level with pavement-level entry doors. They learned the lesson of our building. But in the 1920s people just weren’t thinking about such things.

    Meanwhile, we do not have the financial wherewithal to install an Otis elevator with parking lot-level entry and access to sanctuary and basement. And space is very limited for devising a wheelchair ramp with suitable slope.

    And mobility issues are not the only thing to consider… Remediation takes money. Potentially a lot of it. So small congregations have a very hard time considering raising sufficient money unless the improvements are needed by someone who is a current member or attendee.

    It’s a real challenge.

    • Thanks for the two thumbs up, Paul. It’s hard to write about this stuff with both honesty & love.

      Our fellowship in Anchorage doesn’t have quite your challenges, but we do have some. Any event that happens downstairs is accessible only by chairlift (involves a transfer to the lift, and someone else lugging the wheelchair downstairs). Every person who uses a wheelchair is different, of course, but my fiercely independent partner really doesn’t care for the whole chairlift thing.

      We also have outgrown our sanctuary, but our budget doesn’t yet allow us to move to a new building. We make space by adding more chairs, making all the aisles but the center one very narrow.

      It’s a complicated issue, and many of us are caught between our aspirations (inherent worth & dignity) and our reality.

  2. There are so many kinds of (in)accessibility and a church can mistakenly give up on the whole project just because it has a historic building with lots of stairs, or can’t make a big part of the property accessible without hugely expensive renovations such as an elevator. But this is one area where making *some* changes is better than making none, and being clear on your website about what ways you *are* accessible is a good start. The UUA has resources to help congregations figure out what changes to make . . . if you can’t afford an elevator, how about large-print orders of service and assisted listening devices?

    • Hi again, Amy! As I wrote this post, I was very aware that really the only kind of inaccessibility I know about is wheelchair access. And even that knowledge is second-hand.

      I wonder what you think about something like this on Paul’s church’s website: “Unfortunately, our building is less accessible than we would like. If you would like to join us and have concerns about access, please contact us at….”

      This would give a visitor options, such as arranging to have someone available to operate the lift, or perhaps meeting someone from the church at a coffee shop to consider ways the visitor could become part of the UU community.

      • Thanks for the suggestion that our website include wording that gives the potential visitor options about restricted accessibility. I would be interested in multiple alternatives for such wording but will bring this approach to the attention of our board.

  3. Pingback: The effects of church buildings, GA reflections, and more « : The Interdependent Web

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