One of my favorite passages of the Bible comes out of Genesis 18. In the story, three traveling men were standing outside of Abraham’s tent and instead of being freaked out, being defensive, or getting ready to throw down like many of us would, Abraham invites them into his tent and offers them something to eat so they can continue their journey stronger. While the food is being made, the men deliver a message to Abraham and his wife Sarah that within a year, they would return and she would have a child.
What I love about this story is that they’re a group of people who are strangers to Abraham and Sarah, and instead of turning them away because they don’t know what to do with them, they welcome them in. And, in welcoming them, they receive a joyous message.
For nearly the past five years, I have worked at a group home with four mentally handicapped men. When I go out in public with these men, they are often met with strange looks, or straight-up avoidance. Mentally handicapped people are often the “strangers” of society. When you go out in public, people don’t know how to interact with them. The language of our society has not helped with this, because people assume that mentally handicapped people are not “normal.” Becoming a friend to the mentally handicapped has become one of the greatest and most gratifying experiences of my life. They have provided me with a much closer image of what it means to be a Christian, because they embody to me what it look likes to be a Christian (something I’ll explain throughout the week). My conviction is that while mentally handicapped people might suffer to some extent, people around them suffer even more because they don’t know what to do with them. People suffer because they don’t know how to love and care for someone who is not like them. Anyone who knows someone who is near death knows this feeling. You suffer in not knowing what to do; it is an utterly powerless feeling.
(Excuse the word retarded, this book was written a while back before this word was frowned upon.)
Stanley Hauerwas discusses this reality in his book Suffering Presence,
“We thus persist in our assumption that the retarded suffer from being retarded not because we are unsympathetic with them but because we are not sure how to be sympathetic with them. We fear that the very imagination which is the source of our sympathy on which our fellow-feeling is founded, is not shared by them. To lack such an important resource, we suspect, means they are fatally flawed, for one thus lacks the ability to be the subject of sympathy. We see to prevent retardation not because we are inhumane but because we fear the retarded lack the means of giving and receiving sympathy, and thus we cannot imagine how they feel. Exactly because we are unsure they have the capacity to suffer as we suffer, we seek to avoid their presence in order to avoid the limits of our own sympathy.”
Until human beings are able to endure this suffering presence long enough, they will never be able to find the extraordinary gift that mentally handicapped people are to society. The people I know who have fallen in love with mentally handicapped people are able to see the extraordinary beauty in their ability to be fully human. And, because this has changed the way I see human beings and relationships, becoming friends with the disabled has forever changed the way I think the way Church should be. For me, every morning has become a church service, in which I am experiencing community in a way that is vulnerable and loving.