Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Disability and Access in the Hybrid Church

by Rev. Kelly Colwell (Associate Pastor, First Church Berkeley UCC)

The following article was reprinted with permission from the book “Hybrid Hope: Church of the Future for Churches With a Future.” For additional reflections on how hybrid church will endure beyond the pandemic and how to capitalize on the lessons learned in order to do ministry in new ways, we invite you to purchase a copy of the book on Amazon.

In those first few weeks of the pandemic, when the very air seemed full of strange new danger and we were being encouraged to stay at home as much as possible, I offered my large, Silicon Valley congregation something I’d never offered before: Zoom coffee meetings. “You bring yours, I’ll bring mine, and we’ll just meet online and chat instead of meeting up in person.” Before the pandemic, my congregation wasn’t big on one-on-one meetings, and I was relatively new as an associate pastor and was still building relationships. I was only having a handful of pastoral care conversations each week, so I thought response to this offer would be similar. Instead, I quickly found myself with a dozen Zoom meetings on the calendar, and I had to switch the coffee for herbal tea to prevent caffeine overload.

Perhaps the third or fourth Zoom coffee I had scheduled was with a member I didn’t know well at all, a woman whose name had been on our prayer list but who had rarely been present at worship or other events. “How are you holding up?” I asked her, expecting a similar response to the others I’d had previously: exhausted, scared, frustrated, anxious.

Instead, her eyes lit up with humor. “I’m exhilarated,” she said. “I can’t believe how many options of things to do there are now! My schedule is packed!”

Image credit: Yomex Owo on Unsplash

As my early-pandemic experience felt completely opposite to what she described, I had to admit to being both confused and intrigued. “I have multiple sclerosis,” she said, “so, for me, it’s like the whole world has opened up. My old book club that I couldn’t drive to? It’s moved online, so I’ve rejoined! I’m going to lectures, I’m getting invited to parties, and I can come to everything at church again!”

Her excitement was a revelation to me. I hadn’t even realized that we were excluding her from activities before. “I’m so sorry that we weren’t figuring out how to get you to church before,” I told her. “I had no idea. I thought we had the ride-sharing group all sorted out and folks who couldn’t drive could still get to things.”

She smiled and explained that, for her, the in-person events weren’t accessible for more reasons than just transportation. Her immune system was weakened by treatments for her condition, and she couldn’t risk picking up a cold or flu in church. She found the walk from the parking lot tiring enough that her energy and focus would be impaired by the time she got inside and settled down. And because her condition affected her differently at different times, she often missed things that she wanted to attend because she didn’t feel well enough at the right time. “Even when I had a ride,” she explained, “sometimes I wouldn’t feel up to it, and it was embarrassing to have to cancel my ride. So, I just didn’t come most of the time.”

Image credit: Kari Shea on Unsplash

Moving things online solved all these problems for her. She could participate fully through online platforms without wearing herself out on travel or risking her health through exposure to germs, and she could watch recordings when she felt up to it if she missed a live event. Far from feeling trapped in her home like I did, the pandemic pulled all the things she’d been missing into a space that she could easily and safely access. “I thought I’d never be this active again,” she said, “but here I am. And I only have a few more minutes before my online yoga class, so I’m going to have to go soon!”

Fascinated, I began asking other disabled folks at my church and others nearby about their experiences. The parents of an autistic child described watching with delight as their child made truly joyful (and very loud) noise alongside the hymns during the online service. What a relief to give him the space to express himself without bothering others! Another member with a speech disability wrote me a lovely note about how energizing it was to share comments in the online service chat “just like everyone else!” People with hearing loss described finally understanding everything fully; between the auto-captions on our Facebook service, the close-up shots of speakers to support lip-reading, and being able to turn the sound up as high as necessary at home, the service was audible and comprehensible in a new way. Members with vision loss shared the high-definition large-screen viewing they were enjoying at home: my face magnified to double or triple its size, which was terrifying to me as a leader but a pleasure to those for whom the visual details were hard to access in “real life.”

Of course, many with mobility disabilities described the pleasure of engaging with church without paying the cost of traversing the physical distance. Four different members undergoing various chemotherapies described the relief of being freed from the risk calculation they’d been forced to make to participate in church: “Is the connection and spiritual nourishment worth the possible risk of infection?” Mental health was a factor, too; I heard from several people with social anxiety about how relaxed they felt during the services, how precious the experience of peace and rest was in a chaotic and tiring world.

The online services were not a panacea for access issues, of course. People with cognitive issues seemed to find it especially difficult to connect through the screen. Elders with dementia suffered from the loss of the familiar space, smells, sounds, and textures that cued them how to participate. And there were things we could not do online in a satisfying way, especially congregational singing and hugs! For accessibility, however, the online service was a net positive. So many people who had been at least partly excluded because of disability prior to the pandemic found a new and accessible welcome.

I was (and am) so grateful to know more about these ways that church had been inaccessible prior to the pandemic, but, as we approached our re-entry into our sanctuary, I began to notice some anxiety among the congregation, particularly those with disabilities. I think disabled members of the congregation were picking up on the longing that others in the community were feeling to return to a pre-pandemic normal. “When we’re back” was a refrain that I heard a lot, and it was easy to see how “going back” was appealing to those for whom the pre-pandemic normal had been easy, safe, and comfortable, but scary for those who had been excluded.

So, in my congregation, we began reframing the shift as “going forward” instead of “going back” and as “becoming hybrid” rather than “going back to in-person.” We are a congregation that includes some people who will participate primarily or entirely online. We are “hybrid people” who exist online and in the physical world simultaneously, and we are a “hybrid community” made up of different people with different abilities and disabilities. How could we do anything other than build a “hybrid church” that crosses all the barriers we can?

Image credit: Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

Moving to hybrid space has not been seamless in my congregation. For those who were used to the ease of hearing at home, the echo in our sanctuary was newly challenging. But the bigger question was how to make the new hybrid services feel as intimate as the ones fully online, and as equally accessible. For people worshipping at home, the new hybrid services felt more distant. Seeing people in the sanctuary was initially fun, but quickly made the members online feel like they were missing a party that they couldn’t get to. Some of our congregation members are continuing to worship from home for the same reasons they found the online services so much more accessible: it’s easier or more comfortable, more comprehensible, more relaxing, or safer. Some are worshipping from home because their little kids can’t be vaccinated yet. Some are worshipping from home in solidarity with those who cannot come in person.

In truth, our community has been dispersed and fragmented for years now, spread among the various phones and computers that structure our particular Body of Christ, and we long for unity and connection. But as we become hybrid (or become more aware of being hybrid) we are going to need to recognize that unity and connection can’t come at the expense of those who aren’t there in person.

In our congregation, this has meant prioritizing online settings for things that work well online. Most of our leadership meetings are online and will stay there, which allows leaders with young kids, leaders with disabilities, and leaders who aren’t quite as local to participate as equals with those who were always able to be present at in-person meetings. Special services continue to take place online. We have a sweet and intimate online “Blue Christmas” service, an online Ash Wednesday experience, and online options for Maundy Thursday. At least some of our events for children, youth, and young adults will stay online. All of those online events have auto-transcription, so those with hearing loss are better able to participate.

It also means working to spread the challenges of hybrid events between those who are participating online and those who are participating in person. We include some pre-recorded video in our hybrid services, which is more engaging for those online than it is in person. We mention the online worshipers directly and try to look towards the camera some of the time. It’s not easy; I struggle every week to try to remember that some of my folks are not in the room with me. But it’s easier than it was before the pandemic, when I didn’t even know who we were missing and why.

It has also given us a chance to reflect on the conflicting access needs that various members have so we can try not to exclude the same people every time. Conflicting access needs are just what they sound like: when two or more members need things that conflict with each other in order to access or participate in activities. For example, if one member has a severe allergy to dogs and another needs the support of a service dog, those are conflicting access needs. An autistic child’s need to move, stim (self-stimulatory behavior), and make noise may conflict with an elder’s need to use hearing aids or an anxious person’s need for calm and peace to feel comfortable. Even space can be a factor; one person’s need to feel separated from noise can conflict with another’s need not to move very far.

Space use has been one of the most prominent conflicts around access needs, one that has come up in some surprising ways. In Summer 2021, newly vaccinated and ready to see folks in person, I wrote a little article in the congregation’s online newsletter, inviting people to help me host outdoor office hours in parks and yards so I could get to know people better. I had some lovely conversations that way, but I also received a very polite but critical note informing me that what I was offering didn’t work for everyone. Here is a paraphrase of that note:

Dear Pastor Kelly, I would like to request that you consider meeting some members indoors without masks. I know that there are COVID risks involved and that you are striving for safety, but the wind outdoors makes my hearing aids go nuts, and I truly can’t understand speech when people have masks on. I know you are trying to keep us all safe, especially us elders, but what exactly is this life we are preserving if we can’t have any real conversation in it? I’d like to host an office hour with you in my home. Please let me know your thoughts.

I felt torn by this note; how would I deal with the guilt and sorrow that would come if I had unwittingly introduced COVID into the home of elderly and vulnerable members? But, at the same time, her direct request struck me as reasonable. I realized that in my zeal to protect my congregation members, I had failed to let them identify their own boundaries of risk and safety. Theirs would have to be balanced with mine, but I did not want to position myself as a better decisionmaker than any of them. I had to respect that their calculation about benefit and risk might be different than mine. I have to respect others’ articulations of their own access needs, even if I might feel differently about what would be best.

Image credit: Arthur Miranda on Unsplash

In our congregation, identifying these as access needs has helped to depersonalize them. We’re trying to stop saying, “That’s not how we behave in church” and shifting towards, “Those access needs are in conflict.” Once we identify what the access needs are, we can find creative ways to reduce the conflict. Maybe the person with the service dog could plan to sit far away from the person with the allergy. Maybe moving the child-friendly things to a part of the space with less echo could reduce the conflict between kid-noise and hearing-aid users. Maybe finding the parts of the sanctuary with the best sound quality might help us guide the low-hearing folks to the best seats for them. We know it won’t be perfect, but at least we won’t be excluding the same people every time.

In-person worshippers and online worshipers can have conflicting access needs as well. Online worshipers need to feel a close connection to the action—we’ve installed new cameras to help them see what’s going on better. In-person worshipers need to feel they can worship without being watched by some anonymous body, while online worshipers need to see those in person to feel connected to them. We try to address this by making zones in the sanctuary where you can count on not being livestreamed, and by inviting online worshipers to participate in leadership by recording videos for the service. We repost our service whole and in pieces to our social media so those with variable energy can access things when it works for them.

Image credit: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Some parts of this are awkward. Part of the awkwardness is because some of us—the ones who weren’t experiencing exclusion—miss what things used to feel like. We miss feeling like we were all in one place, doing the same thing together. But that past? It was an illusion. We weren’t in one place together. Some of us were in one place together, pretending we were all of us, pretending that some of our siblings weren’t being excluded. I don’t think our ignorance lets us off the hook for this exclusion; it was real, and tangible, and important, and wrong. We’re not going back. We’re moving forward, together, in a hybrid way, both more awkward and more inclusive.

A hybrid church that spans ability and disability, online and in-person, present and future? Well, it’s not perfect yet, and I don’t expect we’ll get there anytime soon. But we’re closer than we were before the pandemic because we know more about who was being excluded before. We’re conscious of being hybrid, and we’re more committed than ever to being one people across all kinds of barriers, following our barrier-crossing God.

Our thanks to Rev. Kelly Colwell for allowing this reprint of her chapter from Hybrid Hope: Church of the Future for Churches with a Future (available for purchase on Amazon). Kelly serves as Associate Minister for Digital, Hybrid, and Beloved Community at First Church Berkeley UCC. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto with a focus on eco-theology and recently finished a PhD in practical theology from Graduate Theological Union, with a dissertation on church in the pandemic. In addition to her ministry at First Church Berkeley, she teaches at several of Graduate Theological Union’s seminaries in the areas of worship, practical theology, and church leadership. Learn more about Kelly.