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2004 Nancy Jennings Award – Bebe Baldwin

Bebe Baldwin was a latecomer to ordained ministry. After life as an English teacher, professional volunteer and church schoolteacher, Bebe entered seminary and was called as Assistant (later Associate) Pastor and Director of Christian Education at North Como Presbyterian Church in Roseville, Minnesota. In her first year as a pastor, an emerging vision problem escalated and she lost most of her vision, including the ability to read. Rather than give up, she took this as a challenge to find ways to demonstrate that her gifts could be used differently.

Recognizing that North Como had a significant number of members with disabilities, she organized a Disabilities Committee. Over the next few years, it became very active both in terms of making modifications in program and the building and getting involved in the planning for a hoped-for building addition and remodeling. However, equally important was her work on changing attitudes among members of the congregation and the staff regarding persons with disabilities and their gifts. For example, two of the members she recruited for the Disabilities Committee had never been viewed as having any leadership potential because of their disabilities. Yet, both became active in the congregation, served on a presbytery committee, were elected elders and played a major role in the planning when the building program became a reality.

Her next effort was getting the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area (PTCA) to establish a Disabilities Concerns Committee. Under her leadership, the committee did Access Surveys of all congregations and published the results, organized a Speakers Team with a slide presentation for use in adult education programs and other meetings, conducted workshops at presbytery education events, and presented programs and led worship at presbytery meetings. The committee developed a three-point program of encouraging congregations to become more accessible, working to get persons with disabilities more involved in the work of churches and of the presbytery, and helping the church to adopt policies which demonstrated a commitment to inclusiveness.

The committee had successes in all areas. The Presbytery saw a great increase in the number of congregations adding ramps and elevators. Persons with disabilities were elected to a variety of presbytery committees. Bebe became chair of the Committee on Representation and helped get that group to recognize that there were many kinds of diversity that needed to be included. A “Church of the Year” program was established by which the presbytery recognized a congregation that had made significant advances in their ministry to persons with disabilities and in accessibility. The presbytery adopted a policy that presbytery meetings and other presbyter-wide events must be in accessible buildings. In 1995, the presbytery sent an overture to General Assembly which was combined with one from another presbytery and the action that the G.A. approved became the basis for a major expansion of the denomination’s capability to minister to persons with disabilities. The Disabilities Concerns Committee of the PTCA was viewed as one of the most effective in the PC(USA) and became a model for others to follow. When Bebe stepped down as co-chair of the committee, she still continued to serve on it. She was the principal writer of a Bicentennial grant which the PTCA received to help develop materials that church schoolteachers could use to help children with disabilities in their classes. Unfortunately, while the grant was in process, the PTCA reorganized, the committee shepherding the grant was discontinued, the key staff person left, and the project was never finished.

After her retirement, Bebe had more time to teach, write and consult. She continued to serve as a curriculum writer for the PC(USA) and used her viewpoint as both a person with a disability and an advocate as she wrote and reviewed materials for the denomination. She continued to serve as a resource to congregations and the wider church. She led workshops on disability issues for the presbytery and at Ghost Ranch Conference Center. She helped in planning a major conference sponsored by the National Organization on Disability, Courage Center and most of the faith groups and disability organizations in the Twin Cities area.

Bebe continues to serve. As a member of the Women’s Focus Committee, she edited a booklet on the history of clergywomen in the PTCA. She became involved with the PTCA partnership with a church in Hungary and wrote a book about their struggle. In the congregation she now attends, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis, she is actively involved in programs for women and seniors. In all of these activities, she constantly advocates for the church to be inclusive in all ways, for all people, and is a vibrant example of a person who did not let a major disability keep her from using her many gifts.

She developed her gifts for preaching, teaching, counseling and writing curriculum while making the adaptations necessitated by her vision problem. Thus, all the contributions enumerated here were done by a woman who was forced to drastically alter her lifestyle and redo all the ways in which she had planned to do ministry. Not only did she do it with both grace and competence, but also in doing it, she became the living embodiment of why the church should focus on the gifts people have, not the disabilities.

Bebe met Nancy Jennings, for whom this award is named, in 1986 and may have encountered her at some other times. Having worked with both Nancy and Bebe, it is clear to me that both exhibited the skills of ministry, the compassion to serve those often forgotten by the church, and the determination to serve God despite major physical problems.

Janice L. Noller, nominator