Interfaith Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Care Alum Matthew Grimes '20 Reflects on National Disability Employment Awareness Month

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time to educate about disability employment issues and celebrate the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. Rev. Matthew Grimes, D.Min. ‘20 shares about his Demonstration Project exploring the impact that access to worship spaces has on disabled populations.

Rev. Matthew Grimes '20

Rev. Matthew Grimes ’20

Can you tell us about your Demonstration Project related to disabled populations and access to worship spaces?

Many African-American Protestant churches in urban settings across the country are full of kinetic energy and enthusiasm. We clap our hands, stomp our feet, and enjoy the flow of the Spirit. The church I pastor is no different. There is a colloquial saying among the people of my ilk when services are particularly spirited, “We went in”.  This phrase is synonymous with allowing the Spirit to have its way. In these moments the presence of God is particularly prevalent. However, for certain members of the congregation, I wondered what “going in” was like for them. While most worshippers clap their hands while the Hammond organ, drums, bass guitar, and keyboard roar to accompany the congregational singing or the gospel choir, a few remain in their seats, attempting to catch their breath, or unable to join in the synchronous movement of the fellowship due to one or multiple physical disabilities.

Our church is constructed of two floors and “stairs everywhere”. At least that’s how it’s described by one of the older parishioners unable to ambulate without a walking frame. Our church has no ramp, no elevator, and the restrooms are located in the church basement. That’s right – there is no access to bathrooms from the worship sanctuary. It seemed painfully obvious to me that attending houses of worship without adequate access to worship spaces must be a debilitating experience for devotees.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, through the Interfaith Doctor of Ministry Program for Education in Pastoral Care, meticulously provided guidance on my journey to understand the phenomenology of congregants with disabilities and their unique challenges to access the worship space. My Demonstration Project is entitled, “Disabilities and Limitations in Worship: How Do Individuals with Disabilities and Limitations Experience God When Access to the Worship Space is Difficult.”

What did you research and conclude?

The purpose of the study involved investigating and unpacking the meaning of the worship experience for six participants with no affiliation with the church that I pastor. Participants were also living with physical disabilities and mobility limitations.

Interestingly enough, entering the physical worship space did not negatively impact the worship experience of participants living with disabilities; and in their words, “did not limit their access to God”. When asked the grand tour question, “How does your disability connect at all to your worship?” there was no mention that the challenge of entering the building in any way connected to their worship. Essentially, the central focus for all six participants concerned what they felt and experienced psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually between themselves, others, and God.

Self-esteem factored into the quality of participants’ worship experience. Individuals reported that hearing the voice of God, understanding their purpose and call were most important. Participants established methods to forestall the shame of either becoming a distraction to some or being shamed by others during the worship service. Preparation practices prior to worship services provided an instantaneous method to create normalcy when feeling like the other. For instance, one participant always carried a brimmed hat to ward off would-be intrusive observers of her condition.

What methods did you take?

A qualitative method was utilized. In-depth individual interviews were employed to allow me to ask questions that encouraged the participants to reflect, examine, and express their inner thoughts and feelings while at worship. Individual interviews were important to this study to promote individual expression and catch a glimpse of their private worship experience.

What surprised you?

I was surprised by the error of my own presupposition that the challenges of the physical building were the primary concern of the individuals living with disabilities. Full inclusion in the activities of worship and not being faced with shame or overly concerned church members were the most considerable barriers in their worship experience. In other words, their connection with God and to others was much bigger than any supposed physical barrier.

What are some important takeaways for the general public?

It may be important to reassess what access means to individuals living with disabilities and mobility issues. Access involves more than providing ramps, elevators, and railings. Access involves open hearts and hands to receive those living with disabilities as very capable and able individuals to more than sufficiently, but brilliantly, carry on functions within the worship service, lending insight from a unique perspective possibly not previously investigated.

The New Testament underscores this approach in the book of Luke chapter 14. Jesus used a parable to illustrate his ideas of humility. He included those with disabilities as examples. Invited to an important supper, the host offered Jesus the choicest seat. Jesus responded by instructing the host to not call his rich friends, colleagues, relatives, and the like and instead extend the invitation to those who are without adequate resources, maimed, disabled, blind, and individuals facing physical mobility challenges. This was not a gentle suggestion; but rather, an imperative as the core issue involves justice.

Who do we invite to share our tables? Be they the tables in our homes, at work, community, or social circles? How do we respond to individuals we may consider other? To whom do we include, exclude, and the reasons why, bear careful scrutiny.

How does this work relate to National Disability Employment Awareness Month?

National Disability Employment Awareness Month lends itself to a season of self-assessment and personal reorganization around individuals with disabilities and physical mobility issues. NDEAM helps celebrate individuals living with disabilities, and may unveil the truth regarding the feelings of the able-bodied; if in secret only, about those with disabilities.

The NDEAM website does not include places of worship on its list of institutions poised to recognize NDEA Month. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law on July 26, 1990 and some parts of the law passed later to provide time for building owners to comply with the law. Houses of worship are technically exempt under the doctrine of separation of church and state. Notwithstanding, I believe that leaders have an obligation to assess challenges for those living with disabilities and an obligation to responsibly address the obstruction, if possible. If it is not possible, leaders should continue to engage in conversation regarding the issue and routinely seek out viable solutions. Architects and engineers love a challenge.

As with any holiday table, the opportunity exists for the individuals living with disabilities and the able-bodied to begin an authentic fellowship. Clergy are particularly positioned to invite individuals living with disabilities to the theological conversation. The prophet Isaiah records the words of the Creator, “Come now, and let us reason…” For me, this phrase connects the work to National Disability Awareness Month.

What does National Disability Employment Awareness Month mean to you?

Prior to completing the Demonstration Project, my sights were only set upon those in my own congregation living with disabilities and navigating physical mobility issues. Since then, my purview has expanded beyond my small congregation and our place of worship. I find myself counting the steps of other houses of worship and scanning for possible physical impediments for those with physical disabilities. I am much more aware of church physical spaces than before.

The church I pastor includes a significant aging population. Given the threat of Covid-19 and its variants, the church has been closed for in-person services since the start of the pandemic. Notwithstanding, within our congregation we are making strides to address our mobility barriers – not only for our current parishioners, but for those in the community with similar issues. We are working on long-range plans which include ensuring that no person, regardless of physical ability, is excluded from any service or activity. This includes church and community engagement activities. This is an opportunity for our congregation to celebrate our congregants living with disabilities and reach out to those in the community with disabilities of all kinds.

What led you to HUC?

Dr. Brian P. Gault, Professor of Old Testament at Columbia International University, but I never met him a day in my life! I’ll explain.

Some years ago, I attained a Master’s of Theological Studies Degree at Drew University, School of Theology in Madison, New Jersey. I decided to reengage in a Master of Divinity Program. To that end, I created a pros and cons table on an excel sheet and began my quest to find a school. Near the top of that list were professors of some personal interest based upon their area of concentration. Dr. Brian P. Gault stood out to me as he completed his graduate work at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I had never heard of HUC-JIR, but I was intrigued. Dr. Gault currently teaches at a Christian University. I wanted to learn more.

I googled HUC-JIR and was immediately excited as I perused the possibilities until I learned that one of the campuses was located in Los Angeles. L.A. was way too far, but I decided to take a second look at the Interfaith Doctor of Ministry Program and found that the program was actually located in New York City. It’s a two-hour commute and I’m afraid to drive in New York. Yes! I am a wimp. I own it. Septa, NJ Transit, and Amtrak made it doable, but Greyhound would make it a done deal (if I could get in), provided my employer granted release time. What do you know, my employer granted release time, and the rest is history.

How did your work at HUC influence your professional work and aspirations?

The curriculum combined all of the elements I was looking for in a seminary learning experience, but the fun part was that I got a Doctorate at the end of it all. I’d always wanted to be in the therapeutic world officially, but spent most of my time as a college counselor in several high schools throughout Philadelphia. It was not until I attended HUC-JIR and received such overwhelming support from the faculty and my graduate cohort that I decided to pursue a social work license in the state of New Jersey. Upon completing the Interfaith Doctorate of Ministry for Education in Pastoral Care, I matriculated into the Master of Social Work Program at Rutgers University. I graduated in May 2021, and received my License in Social Work in August. In addition, I have a pending application for an LSW in Pennsylvania.

It is important that I give a huge THANK YOU to Dr. Jessica Mitchell, Rev. Jennifer Harper, Rabbi Seth Bernstein, and a special thank you to Dr. Sandy Barbo. Dr. Barbo connected me to the Black Therapists Rock Organization. As a result, I received a scholarship for Level 1 Training in Internal Family Systems with the IFS Institute. My ultimate goal is to complete the requirements for LCSW licensure and practice independently.

Any other messages or insights you think are important to share?

These are unprecedented times that have seemingly released exponential anxiety leading to unspeakable cruelties and intolerances. National Disability Employment Awareness Month is an opportunity to access our treatment of others. It offers the space to find our compassion and empathic sensibilities. Common courtesies are not so common anymore. Rules of the road, subway etiquette, and just plain ole politeness are becoming norms of the past. I am considered an able-bodied person. I wonder how those with physical disabilities and mobility issues are experiencing the world today. I think this might be a good time to ask.