Early each weekday morning, a group of adults makes its way from the group home on 8th street to their place of employment.  You have probably seen them.  They stick together and help each other make the trek.  Each has their own mental challenges that can make life difficult.  The old words used to describe them would have been “retarded” or “handicapped.”  I don’t like using them.  They are negative, limiting words. 

Through the years, a bit of clarity has come through the haze of trying to understand how to respond to those who have a diminished mental, and perhaps physical, capacity. 

The strongest advice to be given is to spend time with people who are mentally challenged!  The tendency is to do just the opposite.  Perhaps it isn’t because we don’t care, but because we just don’t know what to do. 

At Camp—During my years as a Christian camp director, we had a week each summer for young people who were mentally and physically challenged.  We called the program, “Special Week.”  That is  what the week was, very special.  Each year, this harried and tired camp director would put aside regular duties and become a teacher during that week.  I wouldn’t trade that week for all the other weeks of the camp season. 

A girl, deaf from birth, learned to play “Jesus Loves Me” on the piano.  Imagine, she had never heard a sound.  Her smile was  radiant as she played for everyone.  A young man rode a horse for the first time.  He had never walked without braces and crutches, and then with much difficulty.  His face was full of wonder as he felt the power of the horse’s movement under him.  Everyone learned the books of the New Testament in order.  Some said it couldn’t be done. 

Effective teaching required a lot of repetition.  Patience was imperative!  We used the camp environment to enhance the ability to grasp Bible lessons.  I taught a class about Jesus calming the storm.  We sat by the camp lake and talked about the water, the boat tied up at the dock, and the storms that would come once in awhile.  What a joy!  Another class measured and marked the size of Noah’s ark on the ball field. 

The most compelling aspect of the group was their strong desire to offer their unconditional love.  At times it was overwhelming.  Those kids were truly special.  They had Christ’s spirit in them.  They were hungry for acceptance and for someone to love. 

An E-mail—A friend sent this e-mail.  I think it captures the special moments God gives when we try to understand those who struggle in life because of mental and physical difficulties.  It is written by Dr. Edwin Leap and titled, “At First Glance.” (Adapted)

“Vacationing near a mountain lake in Tennessee, I watched as a woman began the walk from her cabin to the pool where my children and I were playing.  From a distance, I wasn’t sure if she was old or young.  She appeared heavy, wore a large hat and walked with a slightly awkward gait.  It became clear as she drew closer she had been born with Down Syndrome.  She was probably in her late 20’s or early 30’s.  She did not carry herself with grace or elegance. 

“I was a little anxious.  No family or friends accompanied her.  She placed her towel on a lounge chair, sat down and faced the clear water.  I wondered if she understood the danger and depth of the pool as she sat relaxed near the deep end.  My triple engines of worry, fatherhood, and medical degree began to make me anxious. 

“She moved to the edge of the pool, and I fidgeted.  Was she even supposed to be there?  Was someone looking for her, concerned she might come to harm? 

“I quietly wondered these things as she slid into the water and began to glide across the pool with even, silent strokes I have always desired but never accomplished.  I don’t believe my jaw dropped, but I’m sure my eyes widened.  I laughed to myself.  She had spent years swimming; for all I knew she may have been a Special Olympian. 

“We believe falsely, that imperfect lives are malformations and mutations that should have never occurred. I saw in that young woman how easily I could be wrong and how wonderful it was to see the truth.  I have no idea of God’s destiny for her.  I suspect her quality of life is wonderful, if her swimming was any indication.  And she lives, so God must have something in store for her. 

Our Response—“God is under no obligation to explain these things to me. All I know is that in a few laps across the pool, that young woman showed me that every life has more value than I can ever begin to see, and more wonder and potential than I can imagine.” 

Amen, amen.