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Leading with Friendship

Most people tend to enter the disability conversation through their own disability or that of a family member,” says Bethany McKinney Fox (PhD ’14), pastor of Beloved Everybody Church in South Los Angeles. “For me it was mostly through friendship.” In high school, Bethany volunteered in a special education classroom and became friends with a boy named David, who had intellectual disabilities. While Bethany helped in David’s classroom and sometimes gave him social pointers while they ate lunch together, she also valued their friendship for the gifts that David brought. “My way of dealing with my parents’ divorce was to cut myself off from my emotions and become very cerebral,” Bethany remembers. But David modeled an emotional integration that intrigued her. “He smiled if he was happy, there were tears if he was sad, and if he was angry he would maybe bang his fist on the table,” she says. “Either way, the emotional pipes were flowing for him in a way that they weren’t for me. And being around him was very healing.”

This early experience allowed Bethany to carry that same approach—expecting the possibility of genuine friendship—to her future interactions with people with intellectual disabilities. “Instead of a hierarchical, patronizing attitude, like, ‘I’m going to help these poor special people,’ my starting point is that everybody has their own gifts to bring and there’s this mutual exchange that happens.”

Throughout her 20s, Bethany taught high school special education, where she found herself wanting to be involved in her students’ lives beyond the classroom. “I wanted to pray together and have more authentic relationships,” she says. “I wanted to be more like a pastor or a friend, something that was a different category than a teacher.”

During that time, Bethany did have some of those friendships through her connection with L’Arche, an international organization of communities where people with and without disabilities live together and share in daily life. While she pursued her doctorate at Fuller, she drove to L’Arche Wavecrest in Orange County every Tuesday afternoon to hang out. “We would swim, play around, I’d help make dinner, we’d eat together, and I’d stay the whole evening,” she says. “The L’Arche community became my family.” It was during that time, as she pursued her PhD in Christian ethics with a focus on disability, that Bethany was able to clarify her calling more. She describes it as a passion for “cocreating communities where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are fully included, their gifts recognized and celebrated, and where they’re welcomed into the mix as true, valued friends.”

Joy Thompson

Joy Netanya Thompson (MAT ’12) is communications senior editor at Fuller. She is a writer focusing on the intersections of theology, motherhood, and pop culture, and has published her work in Sojourners, RELEVANT, Motherwell, and Outreach magazine, among others. Find her at joynetanyathompson.com.

Nate Harrison of FULLER studio and magazine

Nate Harrison is a video storyteller for FULLER Studio and Senior Photographer for FULLER Magazine. His award-winning photography and filmmaking include showcased work for indiewireThe New York Times, UCDA Design Competition, and include clients such as Time Warner, Sundance Institute, and Nettwerk Music Group. His personal work can be found at NateCHarrison.com.

Most people tend to enter the disability conversation through their own disability or that of a family member,” says Bethany McKinney Fox (PhD ’14), pastor of Beloved Everybody Church in South Los Angeles. “For me it was mostly through friendship.” In high school, Bethany volunteered in a special education classroom and became friends with a boy named David, who had intellectual disabilities. While Bethany helped in David’s classroom and sometimes gave him social pointers while they ate lunch together, she also valued their friendship for the gifts that David brought. “My way of dealing with my parents’ divorce was to cut myself off from my emotions and become very cerebral,” Bethany remembers. But David modeled an emotional integration that intrigued her. “He smiled if he was happy, there were tears if he was sad, and if he was angry he would maybe bang his fist on the table,” she says. “Either way, the emotional pipes were flowing for him in a way that they weren’t for me. And being around him was very healing.”

This early experience allowed Bethany to carry that same approach—expecting the possibility of genuine friendship—to her future interactions with people with intellectual disabilities. “Instead of a hierarchical, patronizing attitude, like, ‘I’m going to help these poor special people,’ my starting point is that everybody has their own gifts to bring and there’s this mutual exchange that happens.”

Throughout her 20s, Bethany taught high school special education, where she found herself wanting to be involved in her students’ lives beyond the classroom. “I wanted to pray together and have more authentic relationships,” she says. “I wanted to be more like a pastor or a friend, something that was a different category than a teacher.”

During that time, Bethany did have some of those friendships through her connection with L’Arche, an international organization of communities where people with and without disabilities live together and share in daily life. While she pursued her doctorate at Fuller, she drove to L’Arche Wavecrest in Orange County every Tuesday afternoon to hang out. “We would swim, play around, I’d help make dinner, we’d eat together, and I’d stay the whole evening,” she says. “The L’Arche community became my family.” It was during that time, as she pursued her PhD in Christian ethics with a focus on disability, that Bethany was able to clarify her calling more. She describes it as a passion for “cocreating communities where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are fully included, their gifts recognized and celebrated, and where they’re welcomed into the mix as true, valued friends.”

Written By

Joy Netanya Thompson (MAT ’12) is communications senior editor at Fuller. She is a writer focusing on the intersections of theology, motherhood, and pop culture, and has published her work in Sojourners, RELEVANT, Motherwell, and Outreach magazine, among others. Find her at joynetanyathompson.com.

Nate Harrison is a video storyteller for FULLER Studio and Senior Photographer for FULLER Magazine. His award-winning photography and filmmaking include showcased work for indiewireThe New York Times, UCDA Design Competition, and include clients such as Time Warner, Sundance Institute, and Nettwerk Music Group. His personal work can be found at NateCHarrison.com.

Bethany McKinney Fox
Bethany McKinney Fox

For a while, it seemed like L’Arche was the route to that calling. “I basically wanted to be Henri Nouwen,” Bethany says, referring to the spiritual writer who spent the last decade of his life at L’Arche Daybreak in Canada, serving as their pastor. “That was my model,” she says. She imagined herself joining a L’Arche community and eventually serving as their chaplain. At the same time, she had been working part-time at her church for years and was becoming ever more aware of the lack of inclusivity in many of the traditional Sunday worship services. “For the most part, church is a passive experience. There’s something going on up front and you’re kind of an audience member,” she points out. “It tends to be heavily verbal and can be really abstract theologically.” While such a service works for some people, Bethany knew that many others were being left out, not only people with intellectual disabilities like her friends at L’Arche, but “anyone who connects to God and community in ways that are not primarily verbal or cerebral.”

Out of that awareness, the idea for Beloved Everybody, a church that intentionally includes people with and without disabilities—as both leaders and participants—was born. Bethany recognized how much would need to change in a regular church service “to be truly accessible” to some of her friends with disabilities. But she was also aware of how slowly change often happens in established, traditional church communities. “I knew it would take four of my lifetimes to incrementally make these small adjustments,” she says. And small adjustments weren’t the way forward. Bethany wanted to make significant changes, starting with throwing out the idea of a 30-minute sermon, which simply doesn’t work for a lot of people.

When others see that Beloved Everybody welcomes people with disabilities, Bethany says, they might think of it as a “special needs church.” But she pushes against that, noting that some members had nothing to do with disability before attending. “We are literally called Beloved Everybody, and the reality is, if you’re not intentional about including certain folks, then you’re excluding them,” she says. Some people attend because “they just appreciate a more participatory, relational, embodied way of connecting to God and one another.”

Sara Wells, who teaches on Fuller’s faculty and serves as the universal design in learning coordinator in her role as a curriculum development specialist, is a member of Beloved Everybody. She describes a typical Sunday service: “Every person is invited to participate and lead . . . It’s an organic, familial gathering. No person is left out of the conversation,” she says. A service might incorporate song, prayer, discussion, drama, art, and practicing biblical interpretation through lectio and visio-divina. “Bethany puts in place structures that allow for the full participation and inclusion of those who may otherwise occupy the margins of church life,” Sara says. Bethany acknowledges how those structures and ideas, while born out of the desire for accessibility, have “ended up creating space for nondisabled folks to connect in deeper ways, as well. So accessibility for some ends up actually being good for all.”

Beyond inclusion or accessibility, friendship is a significant element of the Beloved Everybody community. Members don’t only see each other on Sundays but support one another’s endeavors, like a hair braiding business or a basketball league. They celebrate holidays and special occasions together. Bethany says, “When I ask myself, are we doing anything? What I can point to are the relationships that would not exist otherwise—I see people who, because of ways our culture tends to segregate folks with intellectual disabilities, would never have met were it not for our community, and they’re legitimate friends now.” That happens in both facilitated and organic ways. An example of the former is “Talk-o Time,” where participants are randomly assigned as pairs to check in with each other at some point over the next week. “People with intellectual disabilities in particular aren’t often given roles of ministry, but we invite everyone to call and check in and pray for someone,” says Bethany. “That relational part of our church, to me, is a beautiful, beautiful thing.” As for organic forms of connection, Bethany brings up a man in their church who loves to call people on their birthdays and sing “Happy Birthday” to them. “It makes people feel so happy, connected, and loved,” she says.

The idea that everyone has a gift and a way to minister to others is a core value of the church, and one they revisit at the beginning of each service by contemplating a wrapped gift on the table (or a picture of a wrapped gift when meeting on Zoom). “That is really important to me,” says Bethany. “All of us need support and have gifts to bring. And that’s true of people with and without disabilities alike.”

“Bethany stresses the idea that all are an integral part of the body of Christ,” agrees Sara. “She sees potential in people who are often overlooked, and counts them among her friends.”

shows on sidewalk
shows on sidewalk

Seeing that potential in her friends with intellectual disabilities and how they connect to God and each other has unleashed innovation and creativity in worship and Bible study at Beloved Everybody. “People think that the highest way of engaging with God or engaging with Scripture is in an academic way, and if you’re drawing, or moving, somehow that’s the lowest common denominator,” says Bethany. “But that’s a lie that keeps people from engaging with God and each other in embodied ways that are important.” Some of these embodied practices have included learning the Lord’s Prayer in sign language and using play dough to reflect on the idea from Psalm 46 that God is with us through change. During the pandemic, Beloved Everybody sent out “Worship-at-Home Toolkits” to regular members with items to facilitate a multisensory worship experience while gathering on Zoom.

Imagining fresh ways for everybody to connect seems to come naturally to Bethany. Tina Mata, a member of Beloved Everybody, says, “Bethany is always pondering something, breaking things down, connecting with new folks and new ideas, integrating, and exploring new aspects of the beloved community, herself, the community at large, our human family, and God. And let me tell you, we all benefit.”

Bethany’s PhD work at Fuller provided a container for some of those ponderings. “I recognized, when I talked to more and more people with disabilities, that so many theologies and practices around healing and disability were so wounding for people,” she says. “Obviously when people with disabilities interacted with Jesus in the Bible, though, they didn’t leave feeling wounded and offended. So if they are leaving our churches or encounters with us feeling that way, then we are clearly not following the way of Jesus.” Leaning into this tension drove her dissertation and led to her book Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church, which explores the question, as Bethany simply puts it, “Can we faithfully follow Jesus as a healer and not hurt people?”

Even a casual look at Beloved Everybody’s joyful Instagram feed shows how they have truly caught on to the essence of Jesus’ ministry as shown in the Gospels. Their community looks a lot like the way of Jesus: a diverse group of friends journeying together, learning to love God and each other in both big and small ways. A place where everyone is not just welcomed, but celebrated. Where space is created, time slows down, and power is shared. Church member Tina fully captures Bethany’s vocation of inclusion and friendship this way: “Y’all come. Table’s set. Not to worry: come as you are. And sure, bring whoever.”

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