The Ephraim Moravian Church may have been built in 1859, but it’s just been brought into the 21st century.
Our church—and basically all of Door County, Wisconsin—has an aging population. All but a few of our Ephraim Moravian kids are in high school, college, or have gotten married and moved away. Those of us remaining can see a day where a cane, a walker, or even a wheelchair will be a welcome addition to our transportation, and many of our departed members had spent their last years aided that way.
Some years back, local artist Karsten Topelmann painted a beautiful picture of the front of our church with an open door, called “The Open Door”—it adorns our stationery and our newsletters—and we prided ourselves in our ministry to all, especially the summer visitors who frequent Door County.
The problem, however, was our church. Steps up the front of the church, steps up the side of the church, and steps down to the sanctuary from the back of the church. A few of our elderly members had to give up coming to church at all; there was no comfortable and easy way to get in. What to do?
The “what to do” was not so hard—make it accessible. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low. The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”(Isaiah 40:4)
Churches in ancient days were set apart—intentionally raised above ground to distinguish sacred space from the outside world, to set apart those spaces for those in the “inner circle” of religious life. In just the last fifty years, however, there has been a growing awareness that barriers keep people with disabilities from full participation. Congress enacted the first federal accessibility requirements in 1968, followed in 1990 by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities.
At Ephraim Moravian, there was no disagreement about the accessibility goal. Since 2005, the joint board members had copies of “Accessible Faith: A Technical Guide for Accessibility Houses of Worship” from the Retirement Research Foundation. It was talked about every year beyond 2005. Still, the funds were not there, the roof had to be replaced, there was a leak in the plumbing, and so on. All churches suffer from never having enough funds, so the essentials—such as bringing people in our Open Door—were put off.
When Pastor Dawn Volpe arrived in our congregation in 2010, she heard about our inertia and wondered how Ephraim Moravian Church could call itself “an open door” when we were increasingly inaccessible to people wanting to come. The church had already made several upgrades to the parsonage in anticipation of the Volpes’ arrival, and the needs of the church building came to the forefront. A capital campaign was organized by the joint effort of the Elders and Trustees. Studies were made, costs were estimated, meetings were held and pledge letters sent. The estimate of the parsonage and church renovations totaled $200,000.
The time was ripe (remember, all our members can see their own needs in mere days ahead), and the campaign has been a rousing success. So far we’ve been able to renovate the parsonage bathrooms, refinish the parsonage floors, construct an outside ramp and canopy into the church with a ramp from the Fellowship Hall into the sanctuary, build an accessible bathroom right inside the ramp door, purchase a new sign for the front of the church, purchase new front doors for our “open door” church, refinish the floors in the Fellowship Hall, and build new cabinets for the Fellowship Hall and choir room.
To make sure we are visible to the community for a century to come in that iconic view from across the bay, the church steeple will be replicated exactly in August (the last work done for major steeple repair was forty years ago). We are only $12,000 away from our total goal, which will enable us to replace the back roof of the church, straighten the parsonage foundation, and repay what we borrowed for earlier parsonage work.
On June 17 of this year, we gratefully held a dedication of our accessibility upgrades, and some of our members at the local nursing home were able to enter the church for the first time in years. It was a wonderful day shared by the community and earlier pastors of Ephraim Moravian Church.
You can say “where there’s a will, there’s a way” and hope that people will step up to the plate; we tried that for several years. Or you can tell them that to be The Church, to be inclusive, welcoming and remove barriers from full participation by all who want to come—to be the Church Jesus wants us to be—we have to take action. It’s possible even in these lean times, and it’s necessary. Ephraim Moravian Church can now call itself “the church of the Open Door” and mean it.
Diane Kirkland is church secretary at Ephraim Moravian Church in Door County, Wis. Visit Ephraim’s website at www.ephraimmoravian.org.
From the October 2012 Moravian Magazine