Hospitality Towards Immigrants with Special Needs in Places of Worship

For the Studia Theologica Doctoralia – XIIth– XIIIth Edition – 10th-11th May 2021

Many countries, communities, and individuals are working on helping refugees and migrants by creating a welcoming environment to receive millions of dislocated people worldwide. Given the tremendous global increase in forced migratory flows, Pope Francis, himself coming from an immigrant family, insists on several encyclicals (EG, AL, LS) giving excellent support and a distinctive look to migrants and refugees. In this group, some are more vulnerable than others: children, women, and people with disabilities; perhaps the latter group is the most vulnerable one. The pope says, “I would stress that dedication and concern shown to migrants and to persons with special needs alike is a sign of the Spirit. Both situations are paradigmatic: they serve as a test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities” (AL 47). In these two sentences, Pope Francis first arises an absolute novelty in the Church Magisterium, persons “with special needs” (and not “with disabilities”), second associates them with migrants, third reinforces the idea that both are invited to become full parts of Christian Communities. From this point of view, the biblical figure best representing the person with a disability would not be the sick or the little one, but rather the stranger. If this new perception would settle permanently, the pastoral care of persons with disabilities could soon be part of the Service for Pastoral Care of Migrants, whose mission is to humanize the encounter with foreigners, to promote solidarity with the brother and sister in trouble, and to encourage local churches to welcome all of foreign origin. This paper proposes to put together “migrant” with “disability” and present a program from the Inclusive Design Research Centre for Pastoral Welcoming and Inclusion in faith communities.


Hospitality has become a common practice within a variety of secular initiatives for migrants: from sharing people’s lives and having social concern for them to working in a private and public sphere for their inclusion. These initiatives meet the many needs of migrants but do not address spiritual needs or a sense of belonging; creating a hospitality culture within our faith communities is a significant challenge. Marion Larson and Sara Shady working on the writings of Martin Buber have found that empathy can help a community move toward inclusion of the diverse other.  Through empathy, we develop the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person’s experiences and emotions; this is the base that enables us to enter into genuine dialogue with the individual in front of us. This perspective is very similar to the theological perspective expressed by Susan B. Parlow when extending the work of Karl Rahner that developing empathy is critical for having communion. These are Parlow’s words:

Back on the bus, I found myself staring at the throngs out the window and wondering what it would be like to establish a communion with the young woman with the arresting figure or the family of different ethnic background speaking a language I didn’t know, as the radiant man in the bakery had done to me. Psychoanalyst that I am, I was aware that to relate to each of them as that man had to me would require working through my own envy, disgust, and anxiety about social location and identity, would require my developing new capacities for empathy and a self-surpassing openness. But why would I do that? How did he do it?

Susan B. Parlow, “Personal Transformation in Karl Rahner’s Christianity: Constructed by Love,” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 28, no. 5 (2008): 570.

Thus, empathy must be developed for different contexts and individuals. To understand migration and special needs, our faith needs to dwell on specific vital and cultural contexts. We cannot ignore the diversity that is characterized by our society today in our theological thinking. For example, how can we respond to the dramatic reality of forced migration and refugees, especially those who have special needs, if we do not build on empathy and inclusion? Migrations and special needs are tangible signs of the times and need to be approached in a pastoral way despite being a challenge for our communities.

A Pastoral of Inclusion

Since 2012, I have been working on community engagement and outreach activities for and with people with disabilities in different projects at the Inclusive Design Research Centre. Over this time, I have noticed a lack of participation by parishioners with disabilities in religious congregations. My understanding of the challenge deepened when I attended a church that has been inadvertently accessible by projecting prayers and hymn lyrics on a screen. After a few weeks, they stopped this practice. The projections of prayers on a screen were a big help since I do not know French well enough, enhancing my ability to participate in the service with the other parishioners. When I asked why they had stopped about the screening, I learned that the church now provided a printed bulletin and saw no need to continue doing it. The printed version was too small for me to read and forced me to look down for guidance when my knowledge of the French version of the prayers was limited. Unknowingly, the church had become less accessible for me and others too. I realized then that places of worship also needed training to think inclusively and to understand accessibility. With my colleague Dr. Vera Roberts, and the support of our centre’s director, Professor Jutta Treviranus, we proposed to the “Enabling Change Program,” a new project that we called Our Doors Are Open: Welcoming People with Disabilities at Places of Worship. The realization that persons with disabilities go to churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, but rarely were involved in the life and organization of their faith communities. While communities understood Inclusion and accessibility as a matter of ramps and accessible bathrooms, there was a gap in welcoming that could be addressed with inclusive thinking. Our Doors Are Open spans this gap. Our team of experts has lived experience of disabilities. They have given special attention to issues of inclusion raised by members of disability organizations and by voices from the disability community.

When considering inclusion in pastoral activities for new members with special needs, we must think beyond simply providing service; we must change gears and reflect on community participation. To facilitate full participation for migrants with disabilities, it is essential to address many areas of inclusion. It is not enough to ensure that your new member can get in the door and use the restroom. There is more that can be done to foster a cultural shift in the congregation to develop a better understanding of inclusion and accessibility and the experience of members with disabilities.

Research has shown over and over again that the percentage of ordinary community members in the social network of a person with disabilities is usually tiny. The majority of relationships are family members, staff, and other people with disabilities. One study found that 60% of individuals in group homes had no friends who were community members. In urban centres and even more so in rural areas, places of worship act as important community meeting places for outreach, cultural, social, and faith-based activities. There is also a documented “participation gap” in faith-based activities for people with disabilities despite self-reports that faith-based activities are equally important to individuals with disabilities as those without; when you add that the new member is an immigrant with disabilities, the participation gap is likely larger.  Penina Goldstein and Melina Jones Ault show how families with members with disabilities have expressed the importance of improving participation and inclusion of themselves and their children in faith communities. Their research highlights that “feeling welcomed and accepted in a faith community was extremely important for families.”   The study done by Ault et al. indicates that 91.6% of parents with children with disabilities recognize that a welcoming attitude of a congregation helps them participate in their places of worship.  We centre on participation in our communities because it brings a sense of belonging and dignity. Gaudium et Spes delves into the question of the equal dignity of those who form a community:

God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who ‘from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth’ (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.

Gaudium et Spes. n. 24.

“Treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood” will help recognize a new paradigm whereby the other is not seen as a subject who must overcome many obstacles to achieve rights and brother and sister. This notion of human dignity is rooted in Christian theology. However, it has universal implications in other religious or philosophical traditions and even in many affinities with the human rights expressed in the Universal Declaration (1948). For all faith communities, an approach to developing an understanding of accessibility that fosters community engagement and a cultural shift in thinking about inclusion and accessibility is more important than an approach that focuses on providing service because inclusion centres on the new member’s dignity.

In Canada, many provinces have developed or are developing legislation to make their communities and services inclusive and accessible. Ontario has been a leader in this area, having passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005. However, even as Ontario works towards becoming an accessible province, there is an as-yet unmet need within faith-based and community-based organizations for support and expertise in understanding inclusion and for mechanisms to develop a culture of inclusion that can help Ontario fulfill its barrier-free goals. In recognition that places of worship act as an important centre for community outreach, social and cultural events, the Inclusive Design Research Centre was awarded funding to develop a program for Pastoral Inclusion called Our Doors are Open: Welcoming People with Disabilities at Places of Worship. We focus on developing best practices for accessible and inclusive community activities across Ontario’s different faith groups and communities. Participation in inclusive communities of faith requires commitment and participation of the community as a whole. Our Doors provides those groups with practical and sustainable steps for increasing accessibility and inclusion, while simultaneously building the capacity of community organizations and individuals with disabilities who are members of these organizations to think and act in ways that improve inclusion. Goldstein and Jones noticeably express:

As individuals with disabilities have unique and varied characteristics and needs, communities will need to be prepared to individualize programs to meet their needs, teach the tenets of their faith, and promote participation with the congregation. This focus will require communities to develop individualized support plans for specific individuals, adapt and modify religious instruction and worship activities, and provide supports from others within the community. This approach will best be facilitated by support of inclusiveness from the leadership; knowledge, expertise, and volunteerism of the members; and accepting and welcoming attitudes for the value and importance of all persons from the congregation as a whole.

Goldstain, and Jones Ault, “Including Individuals with Disabilities in a Faith Community: A Framework and Example,” 3.

The goal of Our Doors is to provide that practical help in developing more inclusive events for the community and members with disabilities and to help cultivate a greater understanding of what it means to be inclusive. This understanding is a cornerstone for welcoming new community members who may feel different, such as recent immigrants and those who have special needs due to temporary, episodic, and permanent disabilities.

Social Responsibility and Inclusivity

All faith communities desire to be socially responsible and inclusive but do not have the expertise and network to understand or test practical and meaningful inclusive solutions. Our Doors are Open project brought together a broad network of disability community members and others to support different faith communities in achieving a culture of inclusion by:

  • Providing expertise to identify barriers to access and develop community-supported solutions for their members and practices.
  • Building community capacity to identify and address barriers through workshops.
  • Developing guidance materials for evaluating and identifying accessibility, inclusiveness and active participatory activities of meetings and events.
  • Consolidating existing resources and highlighting best practices on a web portal.

The foundation of any faith community is weakened for all if barriers of attitude, communication or even the physical space prevent persons with disabilities from participating fully in community events, study, social services, and leadership of their congregation. Our Doors helps to create understandings that result in removing barriers to the full participation of people with disabilities in these activities.

Poster with a banner: Social responsibility and Inclusion.
Second line: Not all disabilities are visible. A drawing of several persons each one with one of the phrases

Outreach and Hospitality

Two questions under the Christian faith challenge and encourage our way of understanding and approaching the migratory reality in general and those with special needs in particular: When did we see you a stranger and invite you in? Who does Jesus share the table with? Ares Mateos remind us that,

Jesus carries out his mission as a migrant, wandering in a foreign land, misunderstood, always on the way, without home or support. Along the way he updates the Kingdom and makes it present. It is during his journey when he has the opportunity to meet the helpless, the widow, the leper, the sinful woman, the tax collector, the fisherman, the scribes and those excluded from society.

Alberto Ares Mateos, “Sons and Daughters of a Pilgrim: Towards a Theology of Migrations,” Cristianisme I Justicia 168, (May 2018): 20, accessed October 1, 2018,

The early Church took into her hands this mission. There are two essential elements of Jesus’s mission, hereafter, of the Church: looking after those in need and hospitality. Both notions demand our imagination and creativity. They are loaded with theological and pastoral meanings, can mobilize and inspire a whole community, and lead to action. Miguel González Martín assumes that “This is maybe due to its inherent attractiveness: the apparent simplicity of the welcoming gestures that embody it, releasing powerful political and inter-personal forces of a lasting nature.”[1] Our Doors focuses on what it means to make others welcome, which is the practice of hospitality in our communities:

  • Hospitality is to open the doors of our communities to strangers and make them a part of our world. This action is exceptionally hospitable when that stranger is a vulnerable, immigrant and also has disabilities. Hospitality enlarges our communities because it extends a welcome to those different from ourselves. The stranger immediately becomes a visitor since he or she finds empathy and someone who is listing. “There is no asymmetry in the encounter, but rather, reciprocity.” 
  • Hospitality connects us with the most deeply human experiences as individuals and as a community. Leonardo Boff says, “extending a welcome brings to light the basic structure of human existence … we exist because we have been made welcome.”  A permanent attitude of welcoming connects with our condition of being dependent, in need of care, and vulnerable. Maybe this is what we are, before all else. We all have special needs, that are easy to recognize when you belong.
  • Hospitality is a public act of our community in our society today. Nevertheless, in a faith community, it is a welcome action that goes beyond public policies facilitating the welcoming of immigrants, refugees, or persons with disabilities.
  • Welcoming persons with special needs are communicative, forthcoming, and inclusive. It starts at a personal level and like the mustard seed, it expands to our community. As González Martín expresses, “It gradually opens itself up to different areas of life, maturing in the social and community dimension, becoming fullest when it influences public policy for the good.”[2]

Those aspects are interrelated. Immigrants with special needs are a privileged space for hospitality, and it is a sign of our times. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis says, “I would stress that dedication and concern shown to migrants and to persons with special needs alike is a sign of the Spirit. Both situations are paradigmatic: they serve as a test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities.”  Our communities need to first glance at these two paradigmatic situations: families who live dramatic migratory experiences, especially when one of their members has disabilities.

Welcoming News: "I would stress that dedication and concern shown to migrants and to persons with special needs alike is a sign of the Spirit. Both situations are paradigmatic: they serve as test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities." Amoris Leatitia, Pope Francis.  Image of Pope Francis with a woman with disabilties.

Welcoming Gestures

Our communities are well-trained in welcoming gestures; Our Doors are Open helps to expand those with inclusive thinking. What is inclusive thinking? Inclusive thinking means keeping the diversity and uniqueness of each individual in mind. The needs of individuals with disabilities are as diverse as any population. A mass solution does not work well for us.

Inclusive thinking means changing habits and behaviours. Our communities may need to consciously bring inclusive thinking into all activities before these inclusive habits are developed. Getting to know what you need to think about to be inclusive can be easier than you expect. We recommend as a first strategy a straightforward approach: Just ask. Just listen. González Martín proposes,

A heartfelt welcome involves listening to what a guest says, empathising with him. The guest thus feels emotionally safe, subject to neither prejudice nor judgmentalism. And a heartfelt welcome is mutual, placing people on the same level. We have already mentioned episodes where Jesus brings consolation to houses that receive him as a guest. The places where a welcome happens promote a sense of gratitude; they are places where real dialogue is possible. The person who is made welcome brings with him different topics of conversation, a change of air, and different ways of looking at the world.

Alberto González Martín, “From Hostility to Hospitality,” 21.

There is a welcome connected with the language we use to new members. There is a welcome that takes place at the entrance door. Moreover, there is a heartfelt welcome. There are biblical tales of hospitality that harbour a great wealth of details, gestures, and symbols. Those tales convey consideration to the person being welcomed. These are gestures that speak of love, concern, and tenderness, symbolizing an all-embracing welcome.

A painting of a forest with persons with disabilities in the centre, from the bottom centre there is a ramp that goes outside of the painting, with a person getting inside with a person who welcomes him.

Bringing the Program to Your Community

Our Doors encourages a shift in thinking towards greater inclusion and accessibility in congregations. The project approach encompasses four main steps. Each step helps faith communities to reflect on the current involvement of people with visible and invisible disabilities in their community, to identify and remove barriers of attitude, communication, and architecture, and to encourage people with disabilities to participate in the religious, social, and cultural life of their community. The section below belongs to the “Guide for Accessible Congregations”[3] developed by Our Doors Team and the Advisory Committee members and colleagues.

Step I: Getting Started

The first challenge is understanding who people with disabilities are. They are our neighbours, friends, and family members and contribute to our communities. They want to participate in all aspects of our faith community. When thinking of people with disabilities, some individuals tend to think only of people who have visible physical disabilities. However, disabilities can also be invisible; it is not always apparent when someone has a disability. People with disabilities are not a homogeneous group; they consist of people who may not hear well, see well, walk easily, or have limited coordination or dexterity, or may process information slowly. The second challenge is breaking myths about people with disabilities. Just as we need to feel sorry for people with disabilities, that is patronizing. They do not need pity but access to opportunities.[4] The third challenge is to explore barriers in the faith community. Barriers are things that make it difficult—or sometimes impossible—for people with disabilities to participate fully in everyday life, including worshipping. Many people think disabilities are barriers, but that is not the case. Barriers usually develop because the needs of people with disabilities are not considered. Once the faith community understands what accessibility barriers are, they will be able to identify them more easily in their place of worship. Let us explore some of the barriers:

Attitudinal Barriers:

Attitude is perhaps the most challenging barrier to overcome because it is hard to change the way people think and behave. In addition, attitudinal barriers may result in people with disabilities being treated differently than people without disabilities. Such as assuming someone with a speech impairment has intellectual limitations.

Information and Communication Barriers:

Information and communication barriers arise when a person with a disability cannot easily receive or understand the information available to others, for example, the small print in prayer books, bulletins, and posters that people with low vision cannot read.

Architectural Barriers:

Architectural barriers may result from a building’s design elements that prevent access for people with disabilities. For instance, doorknobs that a person cannot turn with limited mobility and strength or clutter in the entrance or hallway.

The last and most crucial challenge is to build relationships with people with disabilities. Members of a faith community may be unsure about the best way to interact with someone who has a disability. As with most human interactions, there is some etiquette to follow. In the guide online, you can find a few tips on interacting with people who have various disabilities.[5]

Step II: Getting Organized

To start making a faith community more accessible, follow these three recommendations:

  1. Form an Inclusion Committee
  2. Identify Barriers
  3. Make a Plan

1. Form an Inclusion Committee

An excellent way to make inclusion and accessibility a priority in a faith community is to form an Inclusion Committee; this is a group of people that looks after the needs of people with diverse abilities. Members of inclusion committees are the community’s champions for accessibility for people with disabilities. A congregation can begin by recruiting people with disabilities for leadership roles within your community. Having people with lived experience of disability in leadership positions is critical for creating and supporting a more inclusive infrastructure. In addition, they will be able to advise on accessibility and inclusion matters within your community based on their personal/professional knowledge, expertise, and experience.

2. Identify Barriers

Although accessibility may seem like a practical issue, it is also a theological one. When a faith community has barriers to accessing its facilities, rituals, and practices, the community makes a statement about its beliefs and who should be included. Identifying and removing barriers is a critical step in the inclusion process.

3. Make a Plan

Our Doors Are Open Team has suggested some ideas for making a plan based on a checklist available online. [6] The committee should look at the items that have been checked “not yet,” then consider which of the items it can remedy easily, and which ones will take more time and resources. Have a short-term and long-term plan that will let it address each of the items, in consultation with community members who have disabilities.

Step III: Getting Down to Work

Any faith community is most likely a welcoming one and wants to be inclusive of people with disabilities and of other individuals who may feel under-represented. But unfortunately, a community may also unwittingly exclude people with disabilities, because many traditions and environments have been designed without considering the needs of people with disabilities. In the past, this exclusion was accepted by most and not questioned. Today, however, we know better but can still be exclusive because we have not fully integrated inclusive thinking into the design of our traditions, activities, and spaces. Our Doors suggests three strategies to follow:

  1. Strategies for shifting attitudes and promoting active participation.
  2. Strategies for improving communications.
  3. Strategies for making buildings and facilities accessible.

1. Strategies for Shifting Attitudes and Promoting Active Participation

A congregation can begin by actively questioning and thinking about its welcoming behaviour. However, welcoming goes beyond the invitation and includes making sure that a congregation finds out about the needs of individuals with disabilities to participate and then to engage in a way that meets these needs.

2. Strategies for Improving Communications

Communication is the process of providing, sending, receiving, and understanding information. A person’s disability may affect how the person expresses, receives, or processes information. Congregations should not make assumptions based on a person’s disability. What may be an effective way of providing information for one person with a disability may not be for another. People with the same type of disability may communicate in different ways because of diverse skills or resources—for example, only a tiny percentage of people who are blind use Braille. Where possible, it is helpful to ask the person directly how to communicate with them.

3. Strategies for Making Buildings and Facilities Accessible

Worship spaces are important places for outreach, faith-based programming, and social and cultural activities, making them ideal places for forming connections and socializing for people with disabilities. Inclusive thinking can be implemented in order to ensure the possibility for people with disabilities to make the most of their worship experiences.

Step IV: Welcoming New People in a Faith Community

When most congregations think of onboarding new members, they typically have a list of to-do’s focused on the vision statement of their faith. Nevertheless, what is often left to last is a plan that focuses on making the new member with disabilities feels welcome, appreciated, and part of the community as soon as possible. While most faith organizations have thought out and mastered the technical part of bringing on new regulars’ members, few do the appreciation and welcome part very well of people with disabilities.

A faith community only has one chance to make a good first impression with the new member, and the first few days will leave a lasting impression. Making new members feel welcome will reflect the welcoming qualities of that congregation. For example, the inclusive committee may prepare its welcome committee members on how to interact with people with disabilities. They let the newcomer know that inclusion and accessibility are a priority in that community. Suppose people with disabilities can share perspectives on worship spaces, committee service, community engagement, and hospitality with friends. In that case, faith communities can offer compelling proof of the diversity that all of our traditions strive to celebrate.

One way to reach out to people who are not currently included in the community is to spread the word about all the accessible and inclusive features the congregation has to offer. Our Doors recommends using your current communication channels and find new ones, such as asking advocacy groups to tell their members about that faith community and have their community members share with their social networks.

A significant aspect of knowing is that not everyone will come to a faith community fully ready to tell them about their disabilities or accessibility needs. Many may try to hide their disabilities or avoid entering the community altogether. For people to open up, a congregation must first build trust and a relationship. The Our Doors team has developed an integrated resource package that includes techniques and guidelines for accessible congregations.[7]

A poster with a quote: "People with disabilities are not problems to be solved; they're relationships to be embraced."

Next steps

Future research is needed to examine the features of Our Doors Are Open and other multi-component frameworks that are the most vital for increasing inclusive practices and leading to migrants and others with disabilities experiencing a network of welcome, participation and support. Additional research areas essential to maintain the long-term involvement of individuals are also needed. They may include facilitation of the participation of seniors, ongoing training of congregations and staff, the use of support groups or connections with other families as support for migrants’ families with sons and daughters with disabilities, and persons with disabilities being of service for others in the congregation.


[1] Miguel González Martín, “From Hostility to Hospitality,” Cristianisme I Justicia 160, (June 2016): 16, accessed October 1, 2018,

[2] Alberto González Martín, 18

[3] “Guide for Accessible Congregations,” Inclusive Design Research Centre, accessed October 1, 2018,

[4] Adapted from: Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, Count Us In: Removing Barriers to Political Participation. You can find more myths in the Guide.

[5] “Guide for Accessible Congregations,”  pg. 7.

[6] Our Doors checklist is available in the resources section of Our Doors Are Open website:

[7] “Our Doors Are Open: Resources,” Inclusive Design Research Centre, accessed October 1, 2018,


Ault, Melinda (2010). “Inclusion of Religion and Spirituality in the Special Education Literature.” The Journal of Special Education 44 (3): 176-189.

Boff, Leonardo. 2011. Virtues for another possible world. Eugene, Or: Cascade Books.

Carter, Erik W. 2007. Including people with disabilities in faith communities: a guide for service providers, families, & congregations. Baltimore, Md: Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co.

Goldstein, Penina and Melinda Jones Ault. 2015. “Including Individuals with Disabilities in a Faith Community: A Framework and Example.” Journal of Disability & Religion 19 (1): 1-14.

González Martín, Miguel (2016). “From Hostility to Hospitality.” Cristianisme I Justicia 160, 3-32. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Inclusive Design Research Centre. “Guide for Accessible Congregations.” Accessed October 1, 2018.

Mateos, Alberto Ares (2018). “Sons and Daughters of a Pilgrim: Towards a Theology of Migrations.” Cristianisme I Justicia 168, 3-29. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Parlow, Susan B. 2008. “Personal Transformation in Karl Rahner’s Christianity: Constructed by Love.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 28 (5): 570-579.

Pope Francis (2016). “Amoris Laetitia: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Accessed October 1, 2018.   

Shady, Sara L. H., and Marion Larson. 2010. “Tolerance, Empathy, or Inclusion? Insights from Martin Buber.” Educational Theory 60 (1): 81–96.

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