“Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends, live at peace with everyone…” (Romans 12: 10-13)
As I held Lucas* in my arms, talking softly – while swaying his frail body back and forth through the water, his eyes never left mine. Those blue eyes smiled each and every time I spoke to him, especially when I called him handsome. His father always commented how wonderful I was with him, yet the biggest compliment I received was from a fellow volunteer who always noted that Lucas and I could be related – we both had the same striking blue eyes and long lashes! I was 16 at the time. I look back and realize, that these sessions at the hydrotherapy pool in the local hospital where I volunteered were pivotal in determining my future – both who I would become professionally and personally. Lucas taught me a little about patience and a lot about love.
It was as a university student that a program called Best Buddies (www.bestbuddies.org) introduced me to a young woman who became a very good friend of mine. When summer came that year, I was without a place to live. This friend opened up her home to me, offering me extremely low rent in exchange for some help with tasks of daily living – Alayne taught me hospitality.
Five years later I was providing respite for a family with two young children. Many memories of our summer together are tucked inside my heart, but a few moments stand out above the rest. The first, when I injured my foot – all wrapped and taped I showed up to provide respite. This normally consisted of running around the splash pad, climbing at the park, and dancing and singing to Taylor Swift! This day, these two little ones, having been warned to: “be careful of Erin’s foot”, suggested that we play quiet games, colour, and watch a movie. On a very basic level they mourned with one who was mourning. A few months later, this family attended my wedding and my two loves were intrigued with all that was going on – dancing up a storm and routinely wanting to plant kisses on my cheeks. Rejoicing with those who rejoice.
I was recently involved in writing a dialogue paper on the topic of congregational learning and the inclusion of individuals with disabilities and dementia in the church. As my colleague and I discussed, contemplated and researched this topic, the moments mentioned above – along with many others – kept coming to mind. These interactions did not take place in academic settings, nor were they meant to be teaching opportunities. I cannot say that I was profoundly struck by theological insight and inquiry in those moments years ago, and yet, they have shaped me.
In my endeavors to learn and be enriched, I cannot discount the experience I gain from being in relationship with others. I can acquire knowledge, capacity, and skills from academic study and reading and yet it has been when I have engaged in community and established friendships with people with exceptional needs that I have gained the most.
Lucas was medically fragile, non-verbal and had no capacity to move on his own.
Alayne has Down Syndrome.
And my two little friends, both have been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum.
These ‘distinguishing characteristics’ are simply not critical when it comes to relationship; practicing hospitality, rejoicing and mourning with others, and exhibiting joy and love. What can any person learn from a person with a disability? Perhaps the possibilities are endless when we, the able-bodied move into a place of having the capacity to see beyond disability.
*Name changed for confidentiality
Erin Huber is completing her Masters in Theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, with a particular interest in theology, disability, and the church. She is currently doing a supervised experience in ministry under the supervision of Neil Cudney at Christian Horizons. In her personal and professional life, she has had an abundance of experiences and interactions working, living and being in a relationship with children and adults with exceptionalities. Presently, Erin works as the Coordinator of Volunteer Services at The Darling Home for Kids – a respite, residential and hospice Home for children who are medically fragile and/or technology dependent.