“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Monday, June 26, 2006

Swearing at the people

About a year ago, I was just coming out of a Mexican restaurant with my family when I heard this guy standing by the restaurant's dumpster, swearing loudly at people passing by. His language was such that you could tell that he was someone with mental illness. I went over to him and asked him gently, "What's the matter?" Through a lot of jibberish sprinkled with references to me as "Officer" he related that he could really use a pack of cigarettes. I told him to wait there a minute as I went across the parking lot to a convenience store where I bought the cigarettes and came back to him with them. He was very grateful, saying over and over, "Thank you officer!" I left him by saying, "Please don't swear at the people. Please say after me, 'I won't swear at the people.'" After several more "Thank you officer" I left him sadly.

I have often thought about that interaction. The fact that he was standing by the dumpster like so much human garbage. That he called me "Officer" perhaps because most of the people he interacted with in the community were police officers responding to a complaint. The fact that he interacted with people by swearing at them, perhaps out of frustration with people. Interestingly, he placed himself where there would be people as he obviously wanted some human contact if only to be told to stop swearing or to get the cigarettes he ultimately got for me. What a difficult life he appeared to be living. And as I always ask myself in these types of situations, I wondered "Where is the church?"

Why did I not feel uncomfortable with the man when many others might? True I am a large man, but I think my lack of fear is more related to the fact that I have spoken to many people like that man before. I have experience with people like him. I definately did not get that experience at church which is a problem. I mean Jesus went out of his way to talk to people like that man (see the Gereseen demoniac story). But I don't see people like him at my church, or pretty much any church for that matter. From a strictly humanistic perspective, imagine the good it would do for a man like the one I met to find himself in a church where people loved him and talked to him and listened to him.

One of my favorite people in my life was my wife's grandfather, Russel Searer. He was a kind gentle man who loved God deeply,and had a great wit. Toward the end of his life, however, he developed alzheimer's disease. I think it would embarass his wife that I would sit and talk with him whenever we were together. He would repeat things over and over and over and over. He would talk about nonsensical things. I enjoyed being with him because I knew I was learning about people like him; I had a professional interest. But I also knew that I was in a very small way contributing to his self esteem, his feeling that someone loved and cared for him. That was very important to me. That is the kind of ministry that the church should be about. If I am present with people like Russel, I protect him from those who would do evil to him. By spending my "valuable time" I say that I think he has value to me and ultimately value as a human being. I choose to be with him. I want to be with him.

It seems the church doesn't want to be with people with mental illness unless a person's mental illness is under control to the point that it is hardly recognizable. It doesn't want to be with mentally retarded people, and I am not sure why. If we spent time with them, they wouldn't be the crazy person outside of Walgreens, they would be a person who has been rejected by society but who God says he loves as much as he loves you or me.

When will we as individuals and the church reflect this aspect of the character of God?


Monday, June 12, 2006

Disability awareness Sunday

This past Sunday, my church held what was called "Disability awareness Sunday" which largely highlighted two ministries of our church. The one is called the Light and Power Company, with is a group that includes adults with developmental disabilities, and the other is called King's Kids which helps to integrate children with various disabilities into the regular programs of the church.

The service started with worship/music. Four individuals with cognitive disabilities assisted in leading the singing. Our worship director had provided them with cds with the songs they would be singing, and they all apeared to have listened to them as they were singing along with the band and having a great time. Next up was a video I did with my video expert extrodinaire and son, Josh (http://punkvideoguys.org) which was interviews and some video of people just living their lives. I hope to have a link to the video from this website eventually. After the video was an interview with three people from our group. I always like th ask the question in front of a group, "Do you have a disability?" as the answers really open people's eyes. Typically the response is "I don't know." I then comment that people without disabilities often think that disability is the defining characteristice of a a person with disability's life when they may not even recognize that they have a disability.
After the interview, there was more singing and then a faith story shared by the parents of a great young guy who attends our church who also has cerebral palsy. They told of their life in Virginia at the birth of their son. Basically, they were pretty much rejected by their church and after much searching at the churches in the city where they lived in Virginia, they found that the churches were basically discriminatory against children with disabilities. Ultimately, through the wife's mother, they came to California, specifically because of our church and it's desire to include all the people in God's family. Our pastor then did a great job going through sections of Romans 15. It was interesting and he made some great connections with disability ministry.

The highlight for me, however, was the second service of the morning (we have 3 every Sunday morning). During the second service there must have been 35-40 people with mental retardation in attendance in an audience of perhaps 600. There was something about that gathering which gave you the feeling that that was the way church was supposed to be. Some folks were a little noisy, not bad, and perhaps there was a little more activity than usual, but the fact that so many were there was cool. There were actually about 10 people with severe mental retardation in attendance. I wondered to one of the pastors whether that had ever happened before at our church (I am sure it hadn't). It was great.

I also was aware of how the presence of all the folks with disabilities kinda softened people, from the pastors to those in the congregation. The pastor had several moments where he was overcome by emotion during the services. Congregational members responded to the the over the top desire to shake hands that some people evidence and were patient with noise and atypical church behavior. It was awesome. The church would be changed if that type of attencance occurred every week.