Since being home, I am coming off of a couple days at one of my old jobs. It’s a reflection of the past and anticipation of the year to come. Just joyful. So happy to be part of this position.
“Yes, yes, and it was also my very first kiss!”
The last syllable landed like water on a frying pan.
Keeling over on the couch, face completely scrunched, he erupted in the most infectious kind of laugh. He was both proud and flustered. There was no way he could spare that detail. It was his very first date, and apparently… it had gone really well.
He took her to the movies, reluctantly with his parents, whom he had begged to sit in the row furthest back while they took the front. That night he returned to his bedroom with songs in the air and butterflies in his belly. It was a really good night.
And there I was, just basking in his glory. Like the hand-cupped over the mouth, falling back in the chair, tears streaming type of glory. While we hooted and hollered, I whispered to myself,
“I miss this”
My friend is actually someone I am a personal care attendant (PCA) for, but the difference is more or less technical. He is thirty-eight years old and has Down’s syndrome. He works as a custodian and still lives with his parents.
For the past few years I have been privileged to work part-time with folks like him. It sounds patronizing and rehearsed, but truth be told I have learned more about Christ from them than they have from me.
But there was a time, when I first entered into this position, that I held a heavy dose of pity on them.
And a nagging sense of injustice.
There was no fault to be given to anyone, but seriously, how is having an extra chromosome fair? How are inhibited motor skills, frequent health scares and lack of independence fair? Someone has to be blamed, right?
This question didn’t drift back into the recesses of my mind. It planted a seed and took hold. I came to the conclusion that I only had God to blame. He is the all-powerful creator, right?
And then I heard about my buddy’s date. Then another guy handed me a story he wrote, with me as the main character. And then another girl cried over the loss of her grandmother, an event that happened years ago, but still left her heart broken. And then another guy confronted me about how another PCA and I were getting a little too lost in personal conversations and he was feeling pretty left out. Another showed up one night at our cooking class eyes swollen from weeping because his cat had died that day. It startled the rest of our crew, who jumped up and scrambled over to him. They held him close, not minding the hot tears that fell.
It was in these moments that I started to sense something new. I felt a sacred spiritual presence pouring through the eyes of my special needs friends. It was a new kind of special spirituality. Like holiness that was tangible. Looking into the eyes of those cast aside as ugly, without potential, unremarkable, and to be pitied, I felt less than.
It’s not just the cultural assumptions of them, many of which are far from true- I have seen too many triumphs to ever surmise that they are anything but not full of potential. Too many toothy grins to say they aren’t beautiful. Yes, they are different, but also the same… maybe in some ways better.
Emotional health in today’s society is on life support. We place guards on our hearts that hold the bite of a feral dog by his trashcan. Vulnerability, honesty, authenticity and tears are always regarded as weakness by us. People get close and we bite.
But these guys, they buck the system.
They don’t give in to the same guardian reflexes that we do. They don’t bottle things up. They aren’t afraid to cry. They are relentless in their affection. If they like you, they’ll tell you. If you hurt them, they’ll tell you. They tend to sense danger before we do and they hold us accountable when we fall short.
Some hold tough, have a rough exterior, but those are the ones that I have found to be the most perceptive of the other. They may not say much, but don’t be surprised to find them quietly scrubbing at the sink washing everyone else’s plates.
There are others that express a glee that catches like the sunrise falling upon everyone else in the room, moving spirits only upward. And there are those quiet ones that give windows to wisdom leaving you longing for words.
If you walk into these people’s lives, everything you thought you knew changes.
In one my favorite passages from Brennan Manning, he relays the story of a priest and a young couple in his church. Every Sunday morning the couple would sneak into the back row with their Down’s syndrome baby, afraid of being seen with, what they felt, was something second hand.
I will never forget the witness of an Episcopal priest named Tom Minifie several years ago in St. Luke’s Church in Seattle, Washington. He spotted a high-profile couple sitting in the last pew with their one-year-old Down’s syndrome child. It was clear from the parents’ demeanor that the little one embarrassed them. They hid in the rear of the church, perhaps planning a hasty exist once the worship service had concluded.
On their way out the door, Tom intercepted them and said, “Come into my office.” Once seated, Tom took the Down’s baby in his arms and rocked him gently. Looking into the baby’s face, he began to sob. “Do you have any idea of the gift that God has given you in this child?” he asked.
Sensing confusion and even concern in the parents, he explained his reaction:
“Two years ago my three-year-old daughter, Sylvia, died with Down’s syndrome. We have four other children, so we know the blessing that kids can be. Yet the most precious gift we’ve ever received in our entire lives has been Sylvia. In her uninhibited expression of affection, she revealed to us the face of God as no other human being ever has. Did you know that several Native American tribes attribute divinity to Down’s children because in their utter simplicity they’re a transparent window into the Great Spirit? Treasure this child, for he will lead you into the heart of God.”
From that day forward the parents began to brag about their little one.” (Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust, Emphasis mine)
So is God to blame? Absolutely.
And we are all better because of it.