The post of a Facebook friend brought back an old memory.
Here and there in this last week, in the aftermath of Steubenville, mothers have been discussing their approach to raising children – especially sons, and especially with reference to encouraging their children’s instinct for kindness.
My friend linked to this article, which I read with interest. It’s excellent, right on the money.
As I read it, I stopped on a couple of sentences that especially caught my attention. Thinking about the responses of her own little son, the writer asks:
“Would he have hurt for the girl in Steubenville? Would he have felt her fear, and said something?”
And she speaks about the courage it sometimes takes to go against the crowd in showing kindness.
I am entirely with her in all she says, but it also sent my thoughts down a different track. “Would he have felt her fear?” she asks. But the girl who was raped at Steubenville was out cold – completely unconscious, dead drunk; that’s what started the whole sequence of events. Part of the problem was that she felt nothing and showed no fear (if I’ve understood correctly). She was just inert.
This raises a different question. Asking “Would he have felt her fear?” is about the kind of empathy triggered by emotional sensitivity – reading the signals of how someone is feeling and responding appropriately. That is certainly apposite to this whole discussion; but what about when a person cannot communicate? I think that gives us a special responsibility – and this is what triggered my memory from long ago.
I used to be a Methodist minister for a number of years, and at one time I pastored a chapel congregation that included a substantial number of adults with severe learning disabilities.
They attended worship faithfully, and after a while I brought to our church council the suggestion that they be invited into membership.
I came to Methodism from the Roman Catholic church (not out of a change of ideology, just happenstance), so I assumed there’d be no problem with my suggestion. Among Catholics, people with learning disabilities are often treated with especial tenderness, seen as Christ in the midst, because of their innocence. As a teenager I’d worked alongside nuns caring for people with epilepsy and a comprehensive spectrum of disability, and joined with them in pilgrimage to Lourdes, so I was used to their attitudes. I remember in the intercessions during Mass in the huge basilica at Lourdes, and again in the open-air Mass in Rosary Square, the haunting words quoted from the gospels, pleading before Jesus, “Seigneur, celui qui tu aime est malade . . .” (Lord, the one whom you love is sick . . .). The paralysed, the palsied, the twisted, the lame, the dying; in their wheel-chairs and on their wheeled beds they were given the most favoured places. Everyone in Lourdes makes way for the sick; they are those whom the Lord loves, His special care. And I assumed it would be the same in the Methodist church – the same tacit understanding would be in place.
But of course Protestantism is quite different, because where Catholicism emphasises the Sacraments, Protestantism places emphasis on the Word. In Catholicism the Word is Jesus; in Protestantism the Word is the Bible - making words a really big deal.
The overwhelming majority of my church council rejected my suggestion, and their concern focused on the issue of our disabled worshippers’ inability to articulate faith. They couldn't say what they believed, and in many cases couldn't understand the creeds and stated doctrines. Some of those I wanted to invite into membership showed no recognisable signs of cognitive process – they crawled, they grunted, they dribbled and rocked, they could not speak at all. But I (and their carers) felt sure they were capable of making their preferences felt; they were brought to church because they liked it, they wanted to come.
At the church council, some offered the opinion that making them members of the church was unimportant because they were not intellectually capable of knowing what that meant – so it didn’t matter if they were members or not. I took a different view. I felt it mattered precisely because they didn’t know. The onus lay with us therefore to see that they had this thing they didn’t know to reach out for, much as they were cooked for and fed because they couldn’t do it for themselves.
I spent six months teaching on the subject of “everybody’s church” and what it means to belong. I compiled a folder of all those applying for membership, in alphabetical order so those with learning disabilities were not segregated into a separate group.
I prepared their case, pointing out that on Easter morning when we had 8am worship followed by a breakfast then 10.15 worship, they had risen at 4am to be ready in time for the 8am worship, and they stayed to both services (most people only came to one) as well as the breakfast. When they went on holiday they sent us postcards. They joined in everything that was going on. And through their ministry among us, their key-workers were also attending worship and coming to care passionately about whether they were allowed into membership.
Six months later, when the church council met again, I brought my request once more; and this time all except one voted in favour. They were brought into membership, their key-workers kneeling beside the wheelchairs, to speak for those who had no speech.
During that time I was what is called a “probationer minister” in Methodism. I had pastoral charge and a dispensation to celebrate the eucharist, but was not yet ordained.
Methodist ordinations happen once a year at the annual Conference, in whichever city it is held that year (it moves around). Because there are so many people to be ordained, tickets are limited for the venue. I was ordained in Bloomsbury, as the Conference was in London that year (in a Baptist church lent us for the occasion). As the big day drew near I was surprised to discover that our disabled members had plans to hire a bus and travel up from the south coast for the occasion. When I learned this, I broke the news to my family and personal friends that not they but the disabled folk would be getting my tickets.
The service was long, and it culminated in the Eucharist. We received communion alongside our allotted guests, in alphabetical order. My name being Wilcock, I was the last to go up.
After a two-hour journey into London, after getting lost and hurrying in late to church with no time for supper, after sitting through a long preaching service and lengthy ordination ceremony and everyone else going up to receive communion, finally – last of all, at about ten o'clock at night, well past their bed time – I and my group came forward. Tired, hungry, incontinence pads soaking through, after waiting and waiting, they crawled or were led or wheeled up to the rail; and there together we received our communion. It was one of the most precious moments of my life, the chance to make clear what I believe about the Kingdom of God – that it is for everybody, no one left out.
So what I believe about Steubenville is that the fact the girl who was raped could not speak, did not know what was going on, didn’t make it matter less what was done to her, it made it matter more. In her unconscious, oblivious condition she relied utterly on her friends for dignity, for compassion, for good care. Their response to her was the same response I met at my church council – if she doesn’t know any better, what does it matter what we do?
People need educating, don’t they?