Bethany Fox is the founding leader of Beloved Everybody Church in Los Angeles, a church for people with and without developmental and intellectual disabilities. They seek to do church in a way that is accessible to people with a wide range of communication styles, learning styles, and abilities. Bethany says, “Church tends to be very verbal and cognitive, and there are many people who don’t connect to God in those ways.” Beloved Everybody seeks to create a participatory gathering where many people take leadership in different parts of the service.
They still gather for Zoom worship twice a month—something started during the pandemic—and are welcoming people from other parts of the country who have become a part of their community. Beloved Everybody Church has in-person activities in the community the other two weekends per month with anywhere from 15-20 people participating most weeks.
People sign up to lead different parts of the order of service: a song, opening prayer, and check-in. During the check-in they will use different tools like the “which dog are you today?” chart so folks can see, use numbers, and interact in a variety of ways. This allows for more group participation. Someone will also share where they experienced God this week, usually using a photo. After the check-in they read scripture. The community uses a lot of visio divina and other embodied, participatory practices to engage scripture. Then they have time for prayer. The person who signs up to lead prayer can choose to do it in a way that is comfortable for them: spoken or signed, on a whiteboard, written in chat, or in small groups of 3-4. They are also very big on birthdays and always sing happy birthday. The service ends with a final blessing.
Beloved Everybody has primarily grown through relationships and other associations. Bethany reports that they get a lot of visitors from around the country to learn from what they are doing, but growth is difficult because there can be suspicion around church when interacting with disability service providers in LA. Another layer that adds a lot of complication to the growth of the community is that adults with intellectual disabilities, for the most part, don’t get to make their own decisions about communities to join. Even when given choices on activities, if a caregiver isn’t interested in faith or spirituality, the person usually won’t be presented with the option to explore those opportunities. Bethany approaches her ministry with a mindset of mutuality and genuine friendship.
She notes that people with intellectual disabilities are rather segregated from others in our society. They either live at home, group homes, or other facilities and they aren’t well integrated into society. “People don’t even think about the fact that they’re missing from our communities.” She laments that there is a lack of accompaniment and genuine friendship that happens between people with and without disabilities. So much of our current mindset is that people without disabilities and caregivers are meant to be helpers, and that missional activity is usually about “we’re coming to help.” She sees the relationship as entirely mutual and that people with disabilities have just as much to offer to others, “…we’re missing out on their gifts, and they’re missing out on our gifts.”
A community of praxis
Bethany describes Beloved Everybody as a community of praxis. She said she often gets questions about what the community believes and her response is to come and see. “If you want to know what we believe, you should see how we act.” She describes them as a very embodied community, because of the variety of gifts and abilities that people bring to the community
This mindset of mutuality and genuine friendship is born out of her own story and experience. She shared that after her parents’ divorce while she was in high school, she became disconnected from her own emotions. She also started volunteering in the Special Ed. classrooms where she met her friend David. She described him as very emotionally free and through their friendship and his emotional freedom helped her heal. Alongside this friendship, she began to notice the absence of people with disabilities in the church and wondered what it would look like to create a space that was welcoming and intentionally inclusive, a place that actually allowed their gifts to flourish.
Although she is ordained, Bethany said that she is playing around with the title of pastor, and maybe Community Leader is more appropriate, because she is working to transition Beloved Everybody into being more than just a church. She imagines the church to be one part of a larger non-profit with a larger mission. She found an organization in London that has undergone a similar transformation and is looking to move in that same direction. Her larger vision is to create spaces where authentic, mutual friendships can form between people with and without disabilities. “A worship service is just one place where that happens.”
Holy God, you bring your people together. Bless the work of Bethany, Beloved Everybody Church and all faith communities that seek to form relationships and build bridges between people with developmental or intellectual disabilities and others. Keep us humble and help us remember that ministry and relationships are always mutual, that everyone ministers to everyone else. Everyone has gifts and abilities for ministry even when society says they don’t. Give us eyes to see who is absent from our communities so that the Body of Christ can become more complete. Amen.