The Case for Accessibility

SMEC’s Vision as a Welcoming Church

Prior to 1960, the Austin community was predominantly white; today it is predominantly black. An area once served by seven Episcopal parishes, St. Martin’s is the last viable Episcopal congregation on Chicago’s west side. Predominantly African American with Hispanic, White and interracial members, the congregation is made up of people who come from the Austin community, as well as nearby and distant communities and suburbs. Diversity is St. Martin’s strength. Many people are drawn to St. Martin’s after having been alienated from more traditional churches. Known for its flexible worship space and welcoming attitude toward multiple types of families and households, St. Martin’s intentionally incorporates Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transvestite individuals and families into its congregational life. St. Martin’s wants to become truly inclusive and welcome people with disabilities into its congregation as well. To that end it is proposing renovations that will make the church accessible on all levels.

The Problem

Restrooms are in the church hall which is accessible only by relatively steep stairs either up or down from the entry (narthex) and sanctuary space. Facilities for small group meetings, food service and social events are only accessible via these stairs. Adult formation, bible study, choir rehearsal, the coffee hour, and other community programs and events are held in these spaces and are difficult to impossible for older and disabled congregants and visitors to access. As the congregation ages, a significant number of older and disabled members find this as a serious obstacle to their participation in the church’s life. There are programs that St. Martin’s would like to offer such as a food pantry, a mentoring program, literacy programs, community forums, etc. These are the things St. Martin’s would like to do, but can’t because of access issues. Physical barriers inhibit St. Martin’s programs and St. Martin’s growth.

The Solution (PHASE I DESIGNS)

Phase I of the renovation project will address these initial access problems. A lift will be installed to access the upper and lower levels. New accessible bathrooms will be constructed. The stairways will be reconstructed to make them less steep, and the narthex will get a new facelift. Several years ago St. Martin’s put together a multiyear plan to address building deficiencies. Accessibility is the last part of the process in that multiyear plan. To date, St. Martin’s has completed parts 1 and 2 of the plan by addressing the roof deficiencies, and the energy deficiencies, e.g. installing a new roof, new windows, a new furnace and hot water. St. Martin’s successfully completed parts 1 and 2 of the multiyear plan receiving funding from the Bishop & Trustees Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago to do it. It can do the accessibility part of the plan, as well, reaching out to the Diocese, granting bodies and other external sources. The accessibility renovation project has already received funding from grants from the Bishop & Trustees Committee and the Retirement Research Foundation.

The Outcome

St. Martin’s has built relationship and provided programs with partners, such as the Jane Addams School of Social Work, Bodies of Work Network for Disability Art and Culture, Chicago Alliance Against Racism, Episcopal Diocesan Anti-Racism Committee, Grace House, Good Ground Institute, Hopera World, Introspect Youth Services Inc., St. Leonard’s House, St. Martin’s Austin Repertory Theatre (SMART), One Earth Film Festival, Root Riot urban gardening, University of Illinois, Dept. of Disability and Human Development, and others; but in some instances stairs and inaccessible washrooms have prevented seniors, and persons with disabilities from attending and participating in the programs.
With the proposed renovations St. Martin’s will strengthen relationships with its existing partners, as well as create new ones to offer new programs accessible to everyone. In addition an accessible St, Martin’s will:
• Provide disabled people and their families with options for worship and social interaction.
• Make outreach to four senior living facilities in the Austin area viable.
• Attract new members to the church.
• Bring in new revenue by renting the facility to organizations and individuals for meetings, funerals, weddings, and other events and celebrations.
• Increase its capacity to forge new partnerships with organizations in the Austin community and beyond.

We applied for, and received a grant with B & T to begin and complete part one of Phase I.