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.