‘A community with Christ at its centre must enable everyone to participate’
The Revd Christopher Brown recently became pastor at Market Harborough Baptist Church – one of the earliest members of Christian sight loss charity Torch Trust’s Sight Loss Friendly Church. Here he talks about his experience of coming to a church with a rich heritage of sight loss friendliness and why it still strives to do more
'Start the journey now'
There has certainly been a steep learning curve in this process, which Christopher is keen to emphasise: ‘Coming into a church where there’s already been a lot of work to make it sight loss friendly was a real eye opener, especially for my preaching. Up until coming to Harborough Baptist I would probably use quite a lot of visual components, whether that’s through the PowerPoint or physical props or whatever else.
'So the real learning curve there for me was to be really mindful of the fact that we have folks in the quite broad spectrum of sight loss. Trying to make sure that I’m not always saying “Look at this, look at that” but actually being very much more descriptive in my preaching. It’s been wonderful because you enter into somebody else’s experience and that can only benefit you as a person.’
Christopher has implemented one small change in particular: ‘The simplest thing of just reading out the song or hymn number in the braille and large print makes a big difference. If I forget then I exclude quite a number of people, but ensuring I remember means that everyone is included and everyone can participate in worship.
'And so now, if I do forget, I will stop and say “Oh yep, the number is this!” Little things can make a huge difference.’
'Listen - don't assume anything about anyone'
When asked what the most important part of the learning process had been, Christopher (pictured) replied: ‘I think the biggest thing is listening to people, not assuming anything about anyone. I think that’s the same for any disability or any challenge that someone may have, we must listen, we must try to understand, and to do everything we can to ensure that they are included.
'I think one of the most important things about a Christian community who have Christ at their centre, is that everyone is able to participate, contribute and take part. We showed the Torch video in church and the brilliant thing was that it was led by people with sight loss. To hear their voices, to hear their perspectives. I think in the past it’s been common to just assume and think: “Oh we know what we need to do”, but actually we need to listen. It’s something that means that people feel heard and valued.
'The changes that we then can make are very specific and very helpful.’
'Accessibility is beyond sight loss'
Christopher also acknowledged the fact that inclusion and accessibility needs don’t just apply to people with sight loss: ‘To be an inclusive church when it comes to all areas and types of disability is something that should be fundamental to who we are as followers of Jesus. Jesus was incredibly inclusive, especially with those folks who struggled in society or were in some way rejected or on the peripheries.
‘As a community of Christ, it’s fundamental that we are inclusive. It’s not just sight loss: it’s hearing loss, it’s physical ability, it’s the mental health spectrum, it’s special needs, it’s across the board. I think we as a church have a long way to go. The good thing is that people like Torch are helping make people aware of these areas where we can improve and that it’s an ongoing thing. It’s not: “oh well, we’ve done that, tick the box”.
'It’s actually something where you go so far, then you review. Hopefully it’s an ongoing dialogue: all the time aiming to improve.’
A missional aspect
Christopher spoke about his belief that reaching out into communities must also involve an inclusive approach: ‘In terms of outward-looking mission, we as a Christian community must absolutely make it clear that we are inclusive, that we are doing things and providing ways in which everyone participate.
'Every single person has spiritual gifts and is called by God to contribute and to participate, so when you can help enable that to happen, that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.’
People who are beginning to lose their sight
Being missional also means not making assumptions about who struggles with sight loss, Christopher continued. 'Grouping people together by one common denominator reduces people and narrows who they are. In terms of myth-busting, especially with sight loss, sometimes people think that it’s just people who are completely blind.
'But it’s much more than that: yes there are people who are totally blind and each individual will have their needs, but there are also folks who are beginning to lose their sight, so as a community it’s about journeying with them through that. It can be a very scary time, filled with fear and anxiety. Beginning to lose a key sense can have a tremendous impact on a person’s confidence.
'If they’re a part of a community that is aware, that is sensitive, that already has a collective communal wisdom and support framework, then that is a tremendous help.
'To be able to bring people together and to share communal wisdom, and draw alongside people, is a tremendous display of the Gospel and the love of Christ.’
Christopher said the second thing is not 'to wait until someone comes through the front door with a guide dog and then react.'
'Even if you have no one currently within your community who has sight loss (and they may already be there!) that’s not a reason not to start. If you can put things in place, if you can start to be a community who is inclusive, then that is attractive for people who are not yet a part of it. If they see what you’re about and there’s a way in which they can be included, where the barriers are removed, then that’s a wonderful thing.
'Absolutely sign up for Sight Loss Friendly Church, go to the Torch Trust website
, look at the video
, look at the resources and get involved. Don’t wait for someone to come, because they might come and find no provision and end up leaving. I think it’s heartbreaking as a Christian community whenever that happens, regardless of who it is.
‘So start the journey now. And it’s a wonderful journey, it will be a challenge, there’s no question of that. But the best things in life always are, I find, and they shape us and form us, we have to go deeper into the Gospel, deeper into Christ for understanding, and the fruit and the blessing is tremendous.’
'Being included in the service continues to bring meaning and pleasure to my life' - Joan's story
Members of Harborough Baptist Church’s congregation are certainly benefiting from the sight loss friendly approach. Joan, who has a degenerative eye condition, had this to say about the church’s support: ‘Although I attended church when I was younger, for a number of years life’s journey took me away from it. I’ve enjoyed a good life, a happy marriage and together we raised our lovely son. Thirteen years ago, sadly my husband passed away. My life was no longer as I knew it. I became very low and lonely.
'A good friend invited me often to her church, Harborough Baptist. She never gave up, despite my reluctance to agree. One day however, she invited me and I just felt there was something different behind the invite. I felt compelled to go. I have not looked back from that day. I was welcomed into church and my life has got so much better. I started to volunteer for a Christian counselling organisation as a welcome and support worker and I especially enjoyed reading in church and I also host a home group.
'A few years later I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition and my sight is now quite poor. Although I wear glasses, most people would have no idea how poor my sight is. I am determined not to let this stop me, never wishing to return to that low place.
'My church have been brilliant, producing hymns and my Bible readings in large print, they are so inclusive and I don’t know where I would be now without them being so sight loss friendly. My vision is difficult, but being able to read the Bible at the front of church, and being included in the service continues to bring meaning and pleasure to my life.’
Torch’s SLFC Manager, Paul Rhodes, says: ‘We are here to serve churches across the UK. We invite people to sign up as soon as they have an intention to be inclusive and are able to visit our website. Once that stage is complete, they will be on our Sight Loss Friendly Church map and we will journey with them, with resources, workshops, advice – whatever is needed!
To start your journey with Torch’s Sight Loss Friendly Church, visit sightlossfriendlychurch.org.uk and begin using the specially developed resources to help your community offer the most inclusive welcome it can.
For more information about Torch Trust, visit torchtrust.org