Braille Monitor                                                   February 2010

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Nipping Discrimination in the Bud
My Brooklyn Tabernacle Adventure

by Dennis Farro

Dennis Farro and his guide dog TaraFrom Barbara Pierce: Dennis Farro is an ordained minister and a licensed professional counselor with an MA in clinical counseling from Eastern University in Pennsylvania and an M.Div. from Columbia Biblical Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. He has served as an associate pastor in the Bronx, New York, for four years and has done drug and alcohol counseling and individual psychotherapy for about ten years. In mid-December he wrote an email to the NFB chapter presidents listserv. It caught my attention because the experience he reported was such a clear example of a church’s violation of Section 501(d) of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is the provision that the NFB insisted be included in the ADA before we would endorse it. It gives a person with a disability the right to refuse an accommodation if he or she wishes to do so.

I contacted Mr. Farro off list, and he encouraged me to contact the Brooklyn Tabernacle, which I did immediately. I did not manage to reach a live human being, but I did leave the Rev. Alex Burgos a message, inviting comment on the situation Dennis Farro describes in his email post. Here is Dennis’s email to the NFB chapter presidents:

For those of you unfamiliar with Brooklyn Tabernacle, it is a large, multiracial, multiethnic church in Brooklyn, New York, known for its choir, emphasis on intercessory prayer, and oft-expressed desire to serve others. The pastor, Jim Cymbala, is a reputable author, as is his wife Carol. I have attended services there three times in the past several years, most notably to hear guest speakers like Ravi Zacharias and David Jeremiah.

I anticipated a warm and friendly reception on my first visit, but I received a rude awakening. I entered the large sanctuary and made my way to the pews toward the front of the church. I sat down and slid my guide dog Duncan under my seat, anticipating the service to follow. It wasn't long before an usher informed me that I had to move because I was required to sit in the disabled section of the church. As calmly as possible I informed him that this would not be necessary, but he insisted that this was an inner-city church, and sometimes fights broke out in the pews. So, “You could get hurt.” I assured him that, if I had any indication that such a thing was taking place, I could and would quickly move out of the way. He left, and I assumed the situation had been resolved.

However, an associate pastor, Al Toledo, came over and insisted that moving was church policy. He added that, if an ambulance had to come and take someone out quickly, it would be a problem for me to remain where I was seated. Again I assured him that I could move as fast as anyone else if such a situation required it. He told me that I was not being cooperative and asked, if I claimed to be a Christian, why wasn’t I willing to submit to the church's policy. I don't recall my exact response, but, as things turned out, I stayed where I was. However, they warned me that the next time I'd have to sit in the disabled section.

I tried not to let this bother me, but it inevitably colored the way I experienced the service. I met some nice people where I was sitting, and I recognized that, had I obeyed Brooklyn Tabernacle policy, I would never have had the opportunity to meet them at all. I addressed this issue in a certified letter to Pastor Jim Cymbala but never received a response.

I wish I could tell you that this was an isolated incident, a onetime misunderstanding that was soon resolved, but I can't. Recently I again went to Brooklyn Tabernacle and was almost immediately commandeered by an usher who sought to redirect me to the disability section. Again I was told that this was protocol and that, if there was an emergency, an usher would be able to escort me out because he would know where I was. I again declined to move, but the head usher came over and insisted that I follow him to the disability section. My effort to convince him that this was unnecessary and presumptuous failed completely. I was seated by a very rude usher at the aisle end of the row, and, although I slid the dog well under the pew, the usher insisted that everyone entering the row go around and enter from the opposite side, even though there was ample room to step across in front of me, or I could have stepped out to let others in. I was told to “just sit there, sir."

The following day I contacted staff pastor Alex Burgos to report what had taken place. He informed me that the directive to enforce this policy came from his office and that he would stand by it. He said that it was a liability issue. I couldn’t, for instance, sit in a different section from the one prescribed because someone could fall over the dog while stepping across in front of me and sue the church. I pressed him on this issue, pointing out that the same thing could happen to someone stepping in front of a person with a purse or backpack on the floor, but this argument got me nowhere. He quickly informed me that the conversation was over and that nothing I could say would change the policy.

One is left to wonder who the people relegated to the disability ghetto are. Are they only those with overt disabilities? How severe does the disability need to be before one is redirected to those seats? What about the partially sighted, those on crutches, or even those with hidden disabilities such as epilepsy? If I were married, would I be separated from my wife and sent there, or would she be asked to sit there with me? Maybe I would be permitted to sit with her because they presumed that she would take the ushers’ role of supervising my safe conduct out of the church.

This entire experience has deeply troubled me for the following reasons:

1. It is based on a prejudicial perception of so-called disabled people, one that isolates and confines them to their own little ghetto, where they can be looked after by their would-be protectors in case any trouble should arise.
2. It stems from the erroneous notion that so-called disabled people are helpless and cannot handle themselves in the event of an emergency.
3. It violates the principle set forth in James chapter 2 of not showing respect or favoritism to one person over another in the church.
4. It communicates an obviously greater concern for insurance liability than for people on the part of the church leadership.
5. It points up the hypocrisy that infects many churches today, in which one message is declared from the pulpit or in promotional material, and the opposite message is demonstrated in the words and actions of those in leadership.

Chances are that, if what I have written doesn't bother you, it’s because you think it doesn't affect your life or seem relevant to your situation. So what, Dennis, just sit where they tell you to, or don't go back to that church. Sadly, this is the attitude of many today when they see injustice, yet turn a blind eye and a deaf ear because that is the easy thing to do. Ultimately this issue is not about me but about the way those in one minority group are treated in one of the premier evangelical churches in America.

I ask those of you who are outraged by what I've recounted here first to pray for Brooklyn Tabernacle and for me as I endeavor to address this issue further with the Rev. Jim Cymbala. Second I encourage you to express your concerns either to Pastor Cymbala <> or Alex Burgos <>.

If someone told you that, because you were black or overweight or too old or had one of a host of other characteristics, you'd have to sit in a special section, would that bother you? I think most people would agree that it would. This is exactly my point.

There you have Dennis’s message. I received a return call, not from Pastor Burgos but from Steve Rhoads, chief financial officer of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. It seemed an odd choice of staffer to follow through with this issue, but it turns out that Mr. Rhoads has a son who uses a wheelchair. It was clear from the beginning of our conversation that something odd had been going on. He assured me that the Tabernacle has neither a disability section nor a written policy requiring people with disabilities to sit together. He seemed genuinely shocked and distressed to think that a worshiper would have been treated in the way I described. At his request I sent him Dennis’s email post. Here is the substance of the message I received from Steve Rhoads the following day:

The only policy that the Brooklyn Tabernacle has adopted comes from our volunteer manual and states: “Be sensitive and use discretion with people or children in custom-made strollers or wheelchairs. Never make the person feel uncomfortable or draw attention to the person when you are seating him or her or looking for an available spot.”

We have now expanded this policy to include the following: “The Brooklyn Tabernacle is dedicated to extending the love of God and message of Christ to people who are affected by disability, whether it is the disabled person, a family member, or friend. Our objective is to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of this group of people in practical ways. As a result, we will make every effort to accommodate the needs of those who have specialized challenges. While preferential treatment provisions are intended to protect the rights of the disabled, we also respect the right of each individual to refuse those provisions.”

I urged Mr. Rhoads to be sure that all volunteers and the full professional staff were fully informed about the actual policy. He responded that this had been done at the staff meeting Wednesday evening, December 16. So there you have it. In future Dennis Farro may find ushers who want him to move to some other seat, but he now has a written policy to which he can refer when he refuses to do so. Let us hope that the folks at the Brooklyn Tabernacle have learned an important lesson. The existence of Section 501(d) of the Americans with Disabilities Act provides disabled people an important protection from intrusive or inappropriate interference.

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