Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Unexpected Guest

I think God has a sense of humor. I mean, God must have one to watch some of the things we do and still love us. And I'm not sure, but I think God might have been exercising that sense of humor with me today.

First, if you don't already know, I wrote a blog post about how March is National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. If you haven't already done so, maybe you might consider checking that one out and reading it. It's just the previous post on my blog, so it should be easy to find. But if you want me to make it easier for you, you can find it by clicking here. It's not imperative to this story that you read it, but to fully appreciate this story I think you at least need to know that I wrote it.

So, today I decided it would be a good day to take a book and go find a coffee shop and drink some coffee and read for a while. I drove a little ways out of town just so I could find one where I didn't think I'd know anyone. Not that I don't like talking to people, just some days it's good to be a little anonymous. I didn't have one in mind, I just drove for a bit and then saw a sign advertising a Caribou Coffee off the next exit of the highway, so I picked that one and decided to stop there.

When I arrived at this coffee shop, it wasn't very busy, so it wasn't hard to find a table and settle in. Now, I'm a people watcher and easily distracted, so every time the door would open I'd look up from my book to see who was coming into the shop. There were a few couples, some parents with kids, a few older ladies and some others. As more people came into the coffee shop, it began to fill up. Soon, as far as I could see, only one high top table was empty but no table was completely full. Most had only one, two or three people at them.

Well, one time the door opened and I looked up to see two young men walking in. As I watched them walk up to the counter and look at the baked goods, it became evident that one of them had a developmental disability (DD). I watched as the other young man talked to the young man with the DD and asked what he wanted to get. I didn't want to stare, so I turned back to my book and continued to read.

A few minutes later, however, the young man with the DD came over and sat right down at my table. He didn't say anything, just sat there and began to eat his chocolate chip cookie. I looked up from my book, startled and a little surprised, but I smiled and said hello. He mumbled a little hello before taking another bite of cookie.

I looked over at the counter and saw the other young man was still up at the cash register paying for the items that they ordered with his back to us, so I don't think he noticed what his friend had done.

Soon he was done paying and turned to see where his friend had gone and noticed that he was at my table. He came over with a sheepish grin and apologized saying, "I don't think he likes the high top table." I responded by saying that it was ok, that I really didn't need a four person table all to myself, so the other guy pulled up a chair at the end and sat down.

Pretty quickly after that, the first young man finished eating his cookie, so he turned and told his friend that he was done. As they got up from the table the other young man said, "Are you going to say good bye to your new friend?" The first young man stopped and turned and looked at me. I said, "Good bye!" and he looked at me for a second and then started to walk away. The other young man said, "Say good bye!" He then responded with a little wave before he made his way toward the door.

I couldn't help but laugh at this situation. Out of all of the coffee shops that I could have gone to I randomly end up at that particular one. I didn't choose any of the others I passed on my way there, for whatever reason I happened to pick this particular coffee shop, and so did these two young men.

And then, out of all of the empty chairs at all of the tables that were in the coffee shop, this young man chose to sit at the empty chair at my table, only days after I had written a blog post about my experiences with people with developmental disabilities. It just seems so random and so impossible, doesn't it? And yet, it happened. I was there and so were they. There was an empty chair at my table and he chose that one for his seat. I just can't not believe that God wasn't somehow at work in this situation, smiling at what was playing out, and probably even laughing a bit about it.

Oh, and what makes it even funnier? The book I happened to be reading was "The Road to Daybreak" which was written by Henri Nouwen during the year he lived in the L'Arche community for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their assistants in France.

So all of these things aligned at that one moment. Maybe it was random, just a coincidence. But I choose to believe that God was smiling down on it.

[For more information about L'Arche all over the world, click here. For information about L'Arche in the United States, try here.]

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

All the Body of Christ

March is National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.

When I was in the 6th grade, my dad took a call as the Program Pastor at Martin Luther Homes (MLH) in Beatrice, Nebraska. That meant that he served as a chaplain to this residential facility for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Until that point, I had not really had much contact with people with disabilities. So when we attended my dad's installation service, it was an interesting experience. My dad sat up front, so my mom, 2 brothers and I chose a pew more towards the back. I remember my brothers and I were pretty strategic in where and how we sat, so that we were on the end of a pew followed by my mom so that if anyone sat next to us they would sit beside her.

The residents of MLH ranged from profoundly disabled to mildly disabled. There were residents in their 60's and 70's all the way down to Gary, who was close to my age. So it was quite the crowd that joined us for worship that day. It was noisy, with a lot of talking and laughter, some shouts and yelps (some voluntary, a lot involuntary), and everyone seemed to be very aware and interested in the group of people (us) who were visiting.

They loved to sing, too. When it came time to sing there were always a few that wanted to get up and help lead the singing. I remember Rose, a woman in her 60's, would always want to get up and conduct. She'd stand up front in the chapel, a big grin on her face, and her arms waving back and forth as people sang. It wasn't the best singing I'd ever heard, but it was some of the most heartfelt. My dad would later say, "The Bible doesn't say you need to sing well, it just says 'make a joyful noise,' and they certainly do!"

After the service, the staff wanted us to stand and greet people as a family. Reluctantly, my brothers and I agreed. We stood there and shook hands for a little while until Lori came through the line. Shaking hands was not good enough for Lori. With the biggest smile on her face, and an excited laugh, she came with open arms and wanted hugs. She embraced my dad, first. Then she gave my mom a big hug. I was next in line, so she wrapped her arms around me, too. Then she turned for my brothers, but they had quickly run away to the safety of my dad's office.

The years that my dad served, and loved, the people of MLH, were pretty formative for me. I'd often spend time in his office, just hanging out. My dad's assistant led the chapel bell choir, and using a color code she'd lead the bell choir in playing hymns and songs. They would often travel to area churches to play, and I remember traveling on a bus with them on a few different occasions.

There was one resident, I think his name was Phillip, who when he met my dad for the first time said, in his gravelly voice, "Nice to meet you, Pastor Weber." No matter how much my dad would correct him and say, "No, Phillip. It's Pastor Lepper," and no matter how many times Phillip would say, "Oh yeah!" he'd always come back and say, "Hello, Pastor Weber!" Until the day when my dad bet Phillip a can of Coke that he couldn't get his name right for a week. From that moment on Phillip never got my dad's name wrong!

My dad was the pastor at MLH for four years and loved it so much he would have stayed there longer (the reason why we left is another story, probably not suitable for a blog). In those four years, I spent a lot of time with him in his office. In that time I began to get to know a lot of the residents. By taking the time to get to know them, I was able to see past their disabilities and to see what great and fun and amazing people they could be.

Since that time, I have had many opportunities to get to know and love numerous people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through these relationships I have been greatly blessed and I have been able to learn a few things. I don't claim to know everything there is to know about living with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I don't know if anyone could ever learn all there is to know. But I have been fortunate enough to learn some things, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to share them with you.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not incomplete. They are not any less of a person than anyone else. They are not missing or lacking something. Granted, something happened that caused them to develop differently, but they are fully human. They are still perfect and wonderful and amazing exactly as they are, exactly how God created them.

Along those same lines, we are ALL created in the image of God. In the book of Genesis, when it says that God created humankind in God's image, it doesn't just apply to people who look and act and think like you, but ALL people. This applies to everyone, even if they have cerebral palsy or autism or Down Syndrome or anything else. Just because they have disabilities does not make them any less in the image of God, they just show us the image of God from a different angle.

Disabilities do not define who a person is. When my brothers and I first visited MLH, we saw what was "wrong" with the people there. When we would look at them, we'd see things like Doug walked with crutches or Phillip had some facial and hand deformities or Lori couldn't talk and was prone to squeal loudly when excited. But when I took the time to get to know them, I learned that Doug was a very caring and compassionate young man, Phillip had a fun sense of humor, and Lori had more love in her heart than anyone I've ever met. I would have never learned those things if I had let their disabilities be a barrier to getting to know them.

It's also not a one way street. When we see people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, we can often view it as a one way relationship. They are the ones receiving care and therapy and education and we are the ones who have to provide that for them. But when we allow ourselves to be in relationship with them, we quickly learn that they are not the only ones receiving these things, and we are not the only ones providing them. In fact, more often than not, they give far more than they receive.

There is a wide variety of intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some affect a person's physical development and some only affect their cognitive development. Many times you can't even tell by looking at someone if they have a disability or not. But regardless of these things, they are all children of God. They are all created and known and loved by the same God who created and knows and loves each one of us. They are just as much a part of the Body of Christ as anyone else and they deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect and compassion and love.

So, although March is a month set aside to be mindful and aware of intellectual and developmental disabilities, my prayer is that we all would be just as mindful and aware all year long - mindful about how we treat and often discriminate against people with disabilities, aware that they are a part of our communities, and open to how we might reach out to them and more fully include them as our brothers and sisters.