Access for all

Di Gow and Liam

Di Gow and Liam

It was an unseasonably warm autumn morning when I visited Tecoma Uniting Church at the foothills of the Dandenong ranges east of Melbourne. Ministers Di and Mike Esbensen are busy preparing for the Sunday morning service, the music group is setting up and people are taking their place in the pews.

I am here to meet Di Gow and Liam, a man in his mid-20s who has Down syndrome. Ms Gow has been caring for Liam one weekend a month for the past 11 years. Ms Gow and Liam arrive holding hands, he smiles and says hello to familiar faces as they make their way into the church.

Liam gives me a quick hug when we are introduced and we move into the church to listen to the service. Ms Gow introduces me to another man who is accompanied by his wife and adult daughter, Debra. Debra also has an intellectual disability and, her father later tells me, was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

The service is probably similar to thousands being held throughout Australia on a Sunday morning. A mixture of ages worship and sing together. But about 20 minutes into the service another group of people arrive. Four adults from Wesley House in Kilsyth take their place among the worshippers.

Rev Di Esbensen barely misses a beat as she acknowledges their entry and continues with the service.

Later, as the congregation share a cuppa and a chat, one of the four approaches me to welcome me to his church. Robbie tells me that he enjoys coming to church and introduces me to his friends. Esther is not very happy as she’s just had a flu shot. She refuses to have her picture taken but then agrees, telling me not to expect her to smile. Thomas is busy talking to Liam and Lisa is sitting at a table with Debra.

It is clear after speaking with this group that coming to church is much more than just an outing for them. As Ms Gow tells me, the church has become a place where they feel they belong.

“The church family have been amazing, they’ve watched Liam grow up,” she said.

“They are supportive of all families there who have children with disabilities. Liam has quite a close relationship with Deb.

“Even though she is now quite impaired she still remembers Liam and over the years they have always got together at morning tea for a bit of a chat. There are people at church who often chat with Liam. They have a connection and he gives them a bit of a hug when he meets them.

“For some people, it’s an experience they maybe haven’t had before.”

Ms Gow has worked in the disability field for nearly 40 years. During that time she has worked with Rev Andy Calder, disability inclusion with the Commission for Mission at the Vic/Tas synod. This work has examined how different faiths have addressed inclusive worship and developed suggestions for improvements.

Among the dreadful examples Ms Gow lists are people who have been put in a separate room to the main congregation for fear of disrupting the service, and parents who have been told a child’s disability was the result of ‘the mother’s sinful behaviour’.
But there have also been examples of inclusion being embraced by the whole church.

“I met a young Catholic lady when I was in the US at an international advocacy group conference. She had Down syndrome and had become a lay server in the church, so she had taken on a really significant role.

“There are still barriers to overcome. If someone’s behaviours are unusual then it can take a bit longer. Di and Mike are quite okay with the service being interrupted, like some people wanting to know if it’s morning tea yet or others asking questions. Di and Mike have no problem with that.

“The other thing I’ve noticed is that Di involves those guys in the service, so Robbie lights the candle sometimes and he takes up the collection. It is so important that they are not just seen as passive people in need of care, but they are active members of the congregation.”


Di Esbensen admits that running an inclusive church has presented unique challenges, both for her personally and for the congregation as a whole. But she feels that her time at Tecoma has presented a unique learning opportunity for her as a leader in the church.

When she and husband Mike took over the ministry at Tecoma seven years ago, there was already a fellowship group – Crossroads, established to enable people with disabilities to engage in church – being run from the church. While congregation members were familiar with some members of Crossroads, they generally didn’t take part in Sunday worship.

“The group that’s coming regularly is a household of people and their support workers,” Ms Esbensen explains.

“They’ve connected to the church via the Crossroads group and the Sunday roasts that we have four or five times throughout the year. They started coming regularly; building relationships around sharing a meal is a great way to get to know one another. So out of that, they started coming to Sunday worship.

“I can remember the first day, I had no idea they were coming. I had planned a particular style of worship that was going to involve small groups. As they walked in the door I realised I had to change what I was going to do. So, on the spot, it unfolded to make sure that this group of people could be included. Some of the questions I was going to use I had to change the wording without losing the content in any way.

“I guess that was the first real awareness for me that being able to modify things on the go was as important as having a plan.”

As Ms Esbensen discusses the reality of running a truly inclusive church, it seems the concept of ‘modifying things on the go’ is an ongoing process. Not only is the ability to adapt important, so too is maintaining a balance that includes the whole congregation.

“For some people in the congregation there is a challenge about sharing space with people with an intellectual disability because it’s not something that they personally have a lot of experience in.

“As far as worship is concerned I am sensitive to the fact of what is being led and how people are being included. The issue need not  be only ‘how do we include people with a disability?’, but, as we are doing that, how do we remain inclusive of everyone else?

“We can’t suddenly take our worship from what it was to something that is completely accessible to one group of people. We have to ensure some of the challenging intellectual questions are still being asked. It’s actually finding a way of holding something that might be intentional together and finding a way, not to do it all, but do it in a way that’s integrated.”

Flexibility appears to be the key to running a successfully integrated church. Often it is in the less formal settings of sharing meals and other activities that relationships form and the benefits to the church as a whole are evident.

Ms Esbensen says that some of the younger members of the congregation recently joined with a Crossroad’s cricket match. The teenagers enjoyed themselves so much that they will be going to the next Crossroads social event, a music night, as DJs.

“What is exciting is the changes happening, not just in the way we include another group of people, but in the way they change us and in the way they give people opportunities to be included in other things,” Ms Esbensen said.

Focussing on what people are able to do, rather than what they can’t, has enabled many in the group to feel a sense of belonging to the church. But Ms Esbensen says it is time to take things one step further.

“We have to now consider how we invite this group of people to participate in decision making. If you are part of the faith community then you need to be included in decisions that affect the future of that community. So I guess that’s part of what will develop next,” Ms Esbensen said.

“It’s still emerging, but that’s where my thinking is heading. People have been connecting with the church long enough to have a deep sense of ownership for themselves. Our responsibility as leaders is to find ways for them to be involved in the whole of the life of the church.”



Call for carers

Di Gow is asking anyone in the Uniting Church community who thinks they might like to become a respite carer to contact her directly. The bond she and Liam share is obvious and she feels other families could benefit by inviting someone like Liam into their family.
“When Liam first came to us I had just become a single parent. My four kids and I discussed it as a family and knew we wanted to do it. Interchange was advertising for families, so I applied.

“The relationship with the kids has developed over the years. I thought as my kids got older they would leave home and they wouldn’t be around but I’ve noticed they’ve actually connected even more.

“And Liam is really close with my grandson who is 11. Every weekend that Liam stays, Oliver stays, so it’s become a generational thing.”

To learn more about becoming a respite carer contact: or phone (03) 9831 5610


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