When I first started out in ministry, I was advised to read a short book called 'Creative Listening'. My childhood circumstances had already taught me to listen creatively - hearing the actual conversation behind the words and actions - so I loved reading the book and understanding my way of listening.
Both these things have stood me in good stead for 'hearing' what people are saying through words and actions, but also understanding how people will hear and perceive what others are saying to them.
Language is everything, and our actions are language too. Here's just a few examples of how actions and words can speak negatively to people:
What if you turned up at church, where you could see the welcoming team and maybe the coffee through the open doors. But, you were told you had to use the door at the back, next to the bins, waiting in the pouring rain while someone searched for the key because "we don't get many people like you". It's the door where there's no welcome team, where you can't get a coffee or anything you would be given at the front door. What 'words' would that speak to you? Afterthought? Second class? Not really welcoming? This happens regularly.
How would you feel if you were told that your presence was a problem or ruining church for everyone else? This happens too.
How would you feel if you need the livestream to continue to access church, but the church announces they are only keeping it to act as an outreach to those nervous about church? The thing is, you actually need it and you're not in that 'nervous about church' bracket. Would those words make you feel as if your worthiness of having the livestream has been discounted? This has been happening a lot recently.
How would you feel if every time you were seen in public someone wanted to lay hands on you and pray? Would it make you feel that you need to be 'fixed' before God would want you? This happens to a lot of people and far too often.
Yes, these things are happening, and rather too much. But every time those affected speak up they are seen as being too sensitive, because the one thing that is being reacted to is seen as small and insignificant.
Consider this: what if hundreds of other things went before that one small thing? When you add all these actions and thoughtless uses of words together you see why there is a reaction.
If one straw can break a camel's back, there's a whole bale on the backs of a large number of disabled people and those who have additional needs. Our lives are full of those negative or thoughtless actions - one straw after another, each one eroding worth.
Why is the accessible entry to the church away from everything welcoming? It's often because of an old building, sometimes because access is an afterthought - a mistake. It is possible to make that accessible entrance welcoming. Some churches speak of two entrances - one of which has level access, there's coffee there too. Anyone can use it and it gets used more than the main entrance! Now that speaks of welcome.
Making thinking around access a core theme speaks loudly because actions matter.
For years and years before the pandemic, chronically ill and disabled people have needed livestream from church services, and Covid meant it happened. But now, with a lot of churches dropping the livestream, those who are keeping it are saying that it's for evangelistic purposes.
It's understandable, when disabled people have been an afterthought throughout the pandemic, that some might react to that. Sometimes with quiet, unspoken hurt; sometimes loudly. They feel forgotten - again. Why can't we keep the livestream for those in our family unable to access the building as well as for evangelism?
Yes, I know it's probably one of those 'I didn't think it needed saying' things, but words really do matter. It needs to be heard.
Many disabled people are often harassed by Christians on the street wanting to pray for them. It's far from being 'outreach'. What it's actually doing is saying you have to be well, whole or 'fixed' to be welcome in church - and worse, God only wants the healed.
Thinking through our words and actions and what they 'say' matters too.
My personality means that a lot of badly thought through words wash over me. I'm able to see a lot of unwelcoming actions as 'just not thinking'. I too experience many access issues that are accidental and beyond anyone's control, as well as those not so accidental! I shrug and carry on.
But I know many, quite rightly, feel pain over and over because of our lack of thoughtfulness. It's for those people I speak. Those who suffer this sort of thing time and time again, day after day like a drip, drip, drip effect, eroding worth and pushing them away.
Listen, regroup, and think about how words and actions can speak and be received by those around us. Especially to those whose lives are often seen as worthless.
Creatively listen, and 'speak' with thought.
Kay Morgan-Gurr is Co-Founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, part of the Evangelical Alliance Council. She is a visually impaired wheelchair user and blogs at www.ThePonderingPlatypus.com. Follow her on Twitter @kaymorgan_gurr