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The Blessing of Belonging: A Church's Journey to Inclusivity

Pastor Dave VanderWoude from City Hope GR shares insights on creating an inclusive church for people of all abilities. He discusses his personal journey, challenges in fostering belonging, and the transformative power of inclusivity. Don't miss these interesting stories and insights.

The following is a transcript of Season 8 Episode 5 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Hello friends, and welcome to another episode of Do Justice. My name is Chris Orme. I'm privileged to be your host and today I’m really excited to be joined by Pastor Dave VanderWoude. Dave pastors a church in Grand Rapids called City Hope GR. Dave, welcome to the podcast.

Dave: Thanks Chris, great to be here.

Chris: I’m excited to get in today's conversation. I'd love you to tell us a little bit about the church and a little bit about kind of the special calling that you have as a community.

Dave: City Hope GR, we say we are a church of all abilities. God made it really clear that we were called to help start this church – and I say help start because it's all what God has in store, and what he wants to do, and through so many other people that he uses – is just thinking about what it means to be a church that says, “Hey, whether you have disability or not, we literally are all abilities.” We all have a place where we belong as part of Christ's body, being made in his image with a plan and a purpose. It doesn't say that some people are made in his image and others are not. God says that we're made in his image. Thinking about that and what would it look like to launch a church, and encourage other churches to think about the reality of all abilities that surround each one of our churches, our communities, and to really live that out.

Chris: Awesome, and I know there's a story behind that. I know that there was there was an epiphany or a moment where you recognized both the needs and the beauty that differently-abled people bring to the church. Is there a moment that you can pinpoint that sparked your passion for creating churches of belonging for everyone?

Dave: I think to reflect a little bit there, I'd need to go back and give some context that maybe is very revealing and challenging both personally but then into this calling that God has given. As a teenager I was someone who was really not very kind a lot of times, very thoughtful, and sometimes was the person who might even make fun of… or try to bring attention to myself, because I looked at other people as less than. It was interesting because I'm an identical twin and I would often find myself as less than. I was the second one of us – born a minute after my brother and I always felt like I needed to compete. So there's a lot there. In that, I would overlook and again pick on sometimes those who – to me – felt like less than. When God made it clear through a series of events that He was calling me to think about what it meant to be His, to be made in His image, to be remembering that, even when I feel like I'm less than, I'm more than enough because of who He is. To think about those as well who are oftentimes forgotten,  may not look at themselves as less than, some do, but just remembering that God has an equal plan. He says, “Hey, wait a minute. I've got a different value system here, and I'm doing something in you and I'm doing something in the world that changes things.” 

For me, in that journey, in committing my life to Christ and how God has continued to work, when I received a call years ago about considering starting a church, at that time I was asked, for those with disabilities, I said no as quickly as that call had come. Thinking there's no way, I'm not good enough, I'm not the one and it’s embarrassing to even think of this, because of the past that has ruled my life. But God does make things new. He's always at work and doing things. Thankful for that, for sure, in my life. I've seen Him continue to do that work. Through that journey, it was really incredible because God continued to keep the gas pedal down, doing what He does and making sure that He knew like, “Look, I'm calling you out for this because I'm doing something in you, but I want to do something through you too in this in this way.” One of the things that we realized through doing some digging and some work as we thought about all abilities and in the world of those impacted specifically by disability around us, is that we know that over 30% of individuals impacted by disability have said, “Hey, I want to follow Christ. I've given my life to Christ.” But out of those that have said, “I'm giving my life to Christ,” a great percentage have felt like there are too many barriers in the church. That they are overlooked, they are hurt, they are misunderstood, and frankly, in that and being overlooked, they're just forgotten.

We thought, wait a minute, that's not okay. There are so many people impacted by disability right in front of us. Why would we not come together and say, “Wait a second, this isn't about just reaching out. This isn't about just serving.” We truly are better together, that kind of phrase that we hear a lot about. But what does that look like? In really living up to that and making the steps to see how we can step in our faith and put our words to action of looking to God on this, and saying what does a church look like as we think about all abilities in these crazy percentages, knowing that there are people sitting across the street from us, possibly next door to us, and so on that are just feeling like, “I'm going to just stay here because I'm overlooked, I'm forgotten, I'm hurt, I’m misunderstood, and it's too much work for church to think of me.”

Chris: I want to pull over for a second there and just say thank you. Thank you for the vulnerability. There's some real honesty in your answer there to say, “Hey, I wasn't on the right side of this conversation when I started.” I think too often we start at the happy part of the story. So thank you. It means a lot for us to hear that and for you to share that with us. So yeah, just wanna honor that vulnerability.

It's interesting, this is a deep conversation about an area in the church that often gets overlooked. We really want to drill into that. So the question for you is: what is something that people won't say about including and creating a sense of belonging for people with disabilities but it would be helpful as a starting point in being a light in the world for churches that want to go down that path?

Dave: I think something a lot of people wouldn't say is that when you think about being a light to the world, are we really – and I say we as the big-C church – are we really taking that to heart? Are we really hearing God on that? Are we really living that out? Or, are we saying that being a light to the world means more like being a light to certain people rather than to all? When we think of those especially impacted by disability, they would they would say, “Hey remember, we're here too.” But a lot of times there's weariness in that. When you have to continually advocate for yourself, when you have to continually stand up for yourself, that is super tiring. There are places where you stand up, where you're like, “Dog gone it, I have to do this. I just have to. It's not right if I don't.” Then, there are places where it's like, “I'm just sick of it. I'm so tired of it. I just can't do it anymore.” 

I think too, this is just coming to me, Chris, in the moment. In the story where Jesus heals the paralyzed man on the mat, it's the friends who bring the paralyzed man. He wanted to be there, I believe, all along, but the friends recognized too that that he needed to come. He needed someone, he needed people to also bring him. There was a blessing that the friends who brought the paralyzed man also received. The paralyzed man received this huge blessing, but so did the friends. I mean the passage at the end says that all gave glory to God. I think they would say, remember the light in the world means that it's us too. Who is going to come for me, who is going to help me, who is going to remember me? Knowing that there is something special that God wants in my life too – and again meaning the one who may not be able to come otherwise, or might be forgotten, or might be tired and unable to advocate for themselves anymore – that we need to remember, and reach out to, and also receive a blessing through. 

Chris: You mentioned the friends who lowered the guy down in front of Jesus, I want to ask about the caregivers. Here’s why: my wife and I are really fortunate to be part of an amazing community of friends. And dear friends of ours, their son is 22 years old. He has autism, he's non-communicative. They find it hard to come to church because they feel uncomfortable because he emotes, he yells out. I was preaching one Sunday and Caleb just yelled out “Baseball.” I love it and we love it, but for them, they're like, “We're disturbing everyone.” What do you say to the caregivers? What do you say to the friends?

Dave: I love that question. We get it a lot actually. I say: maybe you've been afraid before or maybe you felt like, “Uh-oh, how's this going to go?” Or you're looking around at who's looking at you, or who's paying attention now to something that was said or a movement that happened, or whatever. And we say, “Come with us. We get it. We're going to figure this out together, but it's not about necessarily fixing something. Our world and people around often want to speak into something, or fix something. But, it's about being something together, being the church together, being in this together, in the great places, and the messy places, in all of it. 

Recently, just as an example, we had a mom reach out and she sent an email first. She said, “I have a son – also impacted by autism – and sometimes he says things or might act out. That may not be necessarily a bad thing, but it's just how he's expressing, or what he's thinking in the moment, or whatever. Would that work?” That was the question. Does that create a distraction? Right away, I thought, “I'm just so sad that that's a question out there.” But it is for so many. Yet for us, even a question to a church that says we're all abilities. My response was, “Yeah, sadly I get it. That this is a concern, it's a question, but no, again, just come. Let's check it out, and see if we're the right family, the right belonging space and people for you or not. Let’s just walk this out together.” It's understandable but also that it's going to be okay. The great news is they would not be the only ones. We do this together. There are all kinds of things that are said, or seen, or whatever. There really are almost no surprises for us anymore. We just roll with it.

Chris: That's awesome. Thank you for that. It's something that's always on my heart, because I see them struggle, I see them feel self-conscious, I see them worry about everyone else and put what they need or want in the moment aside. So thank you for that. I really appreciate it. 

Dave: Can I share another small story?

Chris: Please do.

Dave: We had a Sunday where – and this was so great because, frankly, I wasn't even thinking about what had just happened during the worship service – but it was afterward, I had talked to a mom and she has a couple of kids also impacted by different disabilities and I said to her, “If one of the kids would ever want to share a prayer, or a thought, or do an announcement, or whatever in the worship service, in our time together, that would be so awesome.” You could tell she was a little nervous. She got that body posture where she was uptight, and she goes, “Oh well, we would just have to really think about that, and have it planned, and just know, and even in that like I don't know.” I said, “Well you just need to know, we don't need this in some pretty gift-wrapped box with the bow on top. We could just roll with it and it's okay.” You could just see her whole posture changed. The shoulders went down and the tear came to her eye. She was relieved. It was okay. And that was a gift. The reality is too that one of her kids had just said some things, done some things during the worship service that anywhere else would have been probably like, “What is going on? You maybe are in the wrong place.” But just knowing that this is the right place, the right family, and that again this is really all abilities. So how do we do this together? A lot of times it looks messy, but families are messy, but they're still family. So we're in that together.

Chris: So this is the part where, you know, we're recording this podcast on Zoom, and Dave and I are having a teary moment and we would usually pull over and have a hug here, but we're going to keep going.

Dave: Yeah.

Chris: It's just a beautiful picture, man. I love it. I love it so much. I also love that you chose the story of those guys lowering their friend through the roof. Because we're going to go there, okay? Someone was standing in that room going, “Yo! My roof! You are tearing a hole in my roof! What is happening?” Can you share a story about a difficulty that you've experienced in inclusion and where you see God working in it? I'm thinking of a church… I'm thinking of someone who's trying to lead a congregation right now. They want to start their journey of being accessible to people with all abilities. They need $100,000 for ramps and they're like, “We don't have that.” Or something's going to change. Some big project is going to have to be done. 

Dave: Boy, so a few things come to mind. I'm going to just share a few things here. The first one is this: sometimes we talk about including others, including those with disabilities. You might see buildings that even say things like inclusion on them anymore. The intention is great, but there's also this word that has been rattling around of belong or belonging. There's such a big difference. For a church like City Hope, it's really important to differentiate and to say you aren't just allowed to be here or included, but you belong here. The difference is that belonging, rather than including, is all about this: including says, come with the family, but belonging says, I'm part of this family. It's super different. Because you're not just invited to come along with. You're not an add-on. You're not like, “Oh maybe they'll invite me; maybe they won't.” Belonging is like wait a minute, I'm already valued and important here. I'm part of this family. They need me. I need them. That changes everything. 

One of the other things that comes to mind for me is in a difficulty. Many people, individually and as groups, would look at others that they are afraid of or don't understand – and usually, that lack of understanding is what creates fear – and they can look at specifically those impacted by disability and want to speak down to them. That is just a huge disservice and really disrespects the image-bearer in a lot of ways. I think each person wants to be treated equally and with ability rather than only seeing needs. For example, you might see somebody in a wheelchair and there are these levels that you might have heard about – five different levels – and so we might feel remorse, a sadness, and want to be like, “Oh man, I just want to pray for you.” That can come from a genuine heart, but what about saying, “Wait a minute, what's going on? Talk to me about your story, about your life. How are you doing? Tell me about the great things. Tell me about the hard things”. What about reaching out and saying, “Wow, I just want to say hello. Can I get you a cup of coffee? Can I spend a little time with you? Can I hear a bit about your story?” Rather than a place of looking at just the need. There are abilities and there's a gifting, there's a story here to be shared.

So, when churches think about like, “Oh man, we don't have a building set up or we don't have $100,000 for ramps and this, that, and the other thing.” All of those things are important, but the most important thing is how we see people. How we are willing to reach out and connect and to say you matter. Now, the physical things people do see. Zero entry into a space or the accessibility says something. Everything says something. But how we really reach out, how we take a personal step, says more than anything you might see on a sign. It's just like when we go down the highway and you see – especially we notice this throughout Michigan and West Michigan – like Jesus Saves or “For God so loved the world.” How true! But how are we living that out? What steps are we taking? Do you see that in people? Are they reaching out? Are they showing Christ to one another? That's what I think about. Those budgets matter, but what really matters, what really makes the difference, is what happens in each person as we reach out to the others around us. 

Chris: On a joyful note, can you share a story with us about the joy you've experienced in your own congregation as you tackle this elephant head-on? Where's the joy in it?

Dave: I need to share too, Chris, that first of all, we are far from having it all figured out. I know we never will. The world consistently changes. Some needs are there that are constant, but there are always changes going on around us. One person doesn't always have or often doesn't have the same needs as another place of life, things going on, all of that – regardless of disability or not. That is all abilities, whether you have a disability or not, we’re together in this and there are lots of needs and, with that, there's shared blessing for sure. I bring that up because I often say that I feel like we're building the bridge as we walk across it. It takes doing that, making some steps, and saying, “We're going to learn together as we do this.” There is a shared blessing. 

One of the things I think about is when we do this prayer time that we have oftentimes in our services. There was a moment, and I see this pretty regularly when we have these shared prayers, where people will write a prayer down or have someone write a prayer down for them. They might even grab us or say something during the service. We started off by doing what we call the people's prayer. It’s a congregational prayer but it's spread out where people just share something. I had a friend – a pastor actually – from another church who had brought a worship team to help this particular Sunday. And this friend of mine, who was a pastor at this church, he's sitting there in between songs as I was taking us into this prayer time. He's sitting in the front and down the row from him is another individual. This doesn't matter, but the reality is this guy is impacted by some different disabilities in his life. Oftentimes it's a little bit challenging to understand him, so I always work hard to try and know and discern what he is saying and what he wants to communicate here and so on. He puts his hand up and he wants to just share something in this prayer. 

So I said, “Yeah, what did you want to say today?” He looks over at the pastor down the row and he points. At this particular time, I could hear him and understand as clearly as anyone else. What you need to know is that a few weeks earlier this friend, who's a pastor again at this other church, had lost his father who had been battling cancer. Somehow, in between that time and this particular Sunday, this person found out about that. So he points down the row and he says, “Today we need to pray for him, because he lost his dad.” When you experience God at work in this way through someone who oftentimes again is overlooked or forgotten, you experience the presence of God in a way that blesses his body. That you cannot know unless you're in it. Unless you hear it, unless you see it, unless you're part of it. I looked over. I could hardly speak. I saw that pastor with tears just flowing down his face. The blessing of also being remembered and thought of by someone that he might have even least suspected that day. That is one example out of so many we have. Story after story, week after week. The church finds that it has this life that exists together in needing each other and belonging together that really matters. That’s not about just serving, it's about this blessing that happens when we're together in this way of really truly being all abilities made in God's image with a plan and a purpose that God has.

I thought of one other short story. Can I share one other thing about that?

Chris: Please, yes.

Dave: Alright, again, this is just a couple of weeks ago. During the message, I'm preaching and I always try and be really aware of what's going on around me, but also I continue on because there are lots of noises or things that might happen on any given Sunday. You just never know. This particular Sunday, I looked out and I saw someone just so red in the face. You see she wasn’t red in the face because she was angry. She was clearly sad about something because she was crying. This particular person also is often smiling, and really involved in things, and loves to be part of what God is doing all the time, regularly part of what happens at worship and loves to be part of extra fun things we do and so on too. So, you're wondering, when you're looking out there and you're seeing that. 

After the service, I went to her and she continued to stay in her chair crying. Her mom was sitting there next to her and I said, “What's going on? I noticed that you've been crying.” This makes me emotional because I continue to see how God is rebuilding me. I call myself this recovering pastor because of what God is also doing in me. Her mom said, “I think it hit her for the first time that she's going to be moving into another home where they can better care for her long-term with her different needs. Moving into this other home means that instead of being part of what happens here every single week, she's only going to be able to be part of what happens here twice a month. She's really sad about that. She's really sad because this is the place that she belongs and these are the people that she belongs with.” Her mom said, “When we first thought, ‘We're going to check this out.’ We thought, ‘Oh boy, we've had all these challenges around disability in our lives. We're just going to do this other thing.’” But, she said, “Now I see that this is far from another thing. This is something in our lives that we would be so hurt and so lost without.” Here's a mom who is not impacted by disability but has a family that is. So I say not impacted, clearly she is because it's in her family. But, personally, she sees the blessing of all abilities together. So it truly is with disability and without that it's like, wait a minute, God is doing something incredible here. 

Chris: I'm sure there are people in Grand Rapids and in the area who need to know, want to know more about what you're doing and how they can be part of this movement, this safe place, this home. How can folks keep track of what you and the community are up to?

Dave: I would say the first thing is, honestly, come and check out what God is doing. Come on a Sunday. We worship on Sundays at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Largely because we know that most who are not limited by mobility concerns or challenges or other disabilities potentially, they have flexibility of when they can gather. But for many impacted by disability, mornings are particularly challenging. So for us, we said, “We're going to worship on Sundays at 4 o'clock.” So come and check it out, and see what it's like. Taste and see what it's like. Taste and see what God is doing and hear about some other things as well. 

Beyond that, certainly, our Facebook page for City Hope GR and our website at is a good spot to learn more and check us out. We love being able to share what God's doing, but we also don't want to be an island. The reality is that one in three homes throughout America are impacted by disability either directly in the house or through their extended family. The truth is that every church is missing an opportunity for belonging and really for blessing, both-sided, when we're not stepping into the truth and the reality that our world is very much a part of disability. There is incredible opportunity there, right in front of us, in the largely missed people group that, again, feels often forgotten.

Chris: Wow. Well, our guest today has been Pastor Dave VanderWoude from City Hope GR in Grand Rapids. Dave, thanks. Thanks for joining us today.

Dave: Yeah, thanks for having me, Chris. Great to be here.


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