My Lord has called upon me to share my thesis proposal with all of you. Perhaps, in your own journey to be loved and valued something of which I share will reach you at your point of deepest need. The Enemy has put all kinds of obstacles in my pathway to stop the writing of this thesis. In the mighty name of Jesus Christ I say the darkness will not win. Light will. The light of Christ that can shine within every heart. For those who do not profess belief in God, even in you there is a light within. You can call it what you will, but in my faith concept I believe that light to be God.
Two people with Down Syndrome are on a bus in Toronto. They share a smile with all who come on the bus. Everyone except a few young children accept this open gift of hearts filled with love. They through their smile ask us all the question. Do you love me? The children do not mean to hate. I am sure they did not wake up in the morning saying, “Let’s see how many people I can hate today.” Yet, they had to be taught that hate from somewhere.
At some point after those children were born they were schooled in the university of hate, of a burning, corrosive and poisonous judgement of others who do not look and act like them. We could quickly say it was because of a poor example from their parents. We could say it was peer pressure. We could even blame the media saying they should have more positive life-affirming programming.
The truth is not black and white. It is not merely one reason alone that caused this embryo of prejudice to grow into a monster. All the reasons and even those we are not aware of took these innocent children, these blessings from God, and made them into haters.
I look into the eyes of those children casting a stare of anger at them. I should not be angry at them though, but moreover at the reasons for how they became cold within those young beating hearts to those who are different.
Some cult groups would say they chose to be that way. They picked the body they were to have. Nonsense. Garbage. Cruel. If we believe in the Latin that we are the imageo Deo, we are made in the image of God, then these children with Down Syndrome are not an accident. They did not seek to be born this way. They are fearfully and wonderfully made. Listen to the song of David with your heart. Every psalm he wrote was a hymn of thanks to God — a living portrayal of his battle with his carnal and spiritual self.
David calls out to God in recognition of his blessedness. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:14, NIV UK).
In my thesis I will be examining that whole concept of the blessedness. This is a healing word often used by Henri Nouwen, who was a chaplain at L’Arche. Henri loved to tell everyone they were the blessed children of God. He would even where permission was given lay his hands on them and say, “You are a blessed child of God.”
Jean Vanier, who started L’Arche in the tiny village of Trosly-Breuil , near Paris, loves talking about belonging, being in community and recognizing that we all can give the gift of love to one another. I will examine the concept of belonging, what it means to be human, and how this ties in with being the blessed children of God.
I will be doing a comparative analysis of the thoughts of Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey on the concept of pain being a blessing. I will use their thoughts about this concept in their book The Gift of Pain. I will also be using the thoughts of these authors in their books Fearfully and Wonderfully Made and In His Image.
It is difficult for contemporary Western thinking to accept the concept of pain as a gift. Dr. Paul Brand, who worked with those with leprosy would tell you for someone with this debilitating and life-threatening condition pain would be a gift. They would do anything to be able to feel pain. The leprosy has destroyed their nerves to the point they can put their hand on an open flame or a stove element and not even feel it. I know that is not an easy image to deal with, but it is the sad journey of those with leprosy, who are too poor to afford treatment for their condition.
But you rightly ask how does the concept of pain as a gift relate to those with developmental challenges at L’Arche Richmond Hill? How would pain be a gift for them? I believe the answer lies within their child-like, warm, loving and giving hearts. They find it more difficult to understand why they get jeered at. To be fully aware of the darkness of others would serve to protect them from harm. Even I with a very rare neurodegenerative disorder called oliviopontocereballar ataxia have felt the sting of ill-thought comments. A nurse at a church I attended after a long period of me being ill with a nasty bug and coming back to church offered her indignation and her disgust, that I should have the blatant audacity to show up in a wheelchair. Surely, she concluded I must be one of those malingerers who needed to be brought into line, who needed to be scolded, who needed her righteous indignation.
What I needed was her love. What I longed for with every fabric of my being, with all the passion deep within my soul was to be told she missed me. Welcome back. But when I needed love I got rejected. A friend I trusted told me that is why I did not make it through my ministerial training as a young man. I was lazy. He even went to some of my closest friends and said, “You need to stop helping Kevin. He’s just lazy.”
This friend perhaps thinking he would shock me into getting out of my wheelchair and push through having two auto immune disorders said as he looked at me with disgust, “You didn’t make it through your pastoral training because you are the lazy person people say you are.”
To add insult to injury the nurse comes pronouncing her holy judgement over me as she shouts at me in the foyer of the church where everyone can hear, “When are you going to get out of that wheelchair?”
Reflecting on that time the Lord got me thinking about how those at L’Arche Richmond Hill and everywhere are painted with the brush of liability. You are a nothing. You are a burden to society. You are a piece of garbage. For those who hold such a negative opinion of those with physical and/or developmental challenges they would be like Ebeneezer Scrooge in a the Charles Dickens book A Christmas Carol when Scrooge said to the local businessmen seeking a donation for the poor, “Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses? Better off that they die and “decrease the surplus population.”
The video below shows how out of ignorance hurtful and destructive attitudes existed in the 1960s towards those with developmental challenges.
Notice the words that denoted the way society was describing those with developmental challenges — mongoloid, retarded, and handicapped. Even in our modern civilized culture many of us still use language towards all those with physical and developmentally challenged that needs to change. We are not disabled or handicapped. We have challenges, but then again so do those with hidden challenges, those with mental illness.
A caseworker with the Canadian Mental Health Association says they are seeking to stop putting labels on the clients they serve. Instead of clients they are the people they work with on their issues. We need to get beyond the labelling, the categorizing of people. Let us instead call all of them wonderful creations of God. Let us embrace the gifts they have to offer us of themselves, their own God-given uniqueness.
There is far too much judgement going on of those who simply have challenges they seek to overcome. The residents of L’Arche Richmond Hill are some of the most loving people it is my profound life-changing blessing to know. In the times I have been in retreat at L’Arche I have seen that beautiful word “blessed” being lived out as they and the assistants who help them with tasks of daily living such as bathing and eating, never judge them for who they are. The members of L’Arche live out what community and blessedness really mean. They recognize that each is a blessing to the other. They all understand that none of them have yet been perfected in love. It is a daily consecration, a daily coming to God for His strength and wisdom. They seek to shine the God light within them in spite of their imperfections in their character.
The core members of L’Arche Richmond Hill are anything but a liability. One young man mops a floor at a Tim Horton’s. My heart is given a warmth that the bitterness of a winter day cannot defeat. As his eyes meet mine he smiles. He is proud of his work. I would even dare to say the quality of his work even exceeds that of some able-bodied people who think that working at McDonald’s or a Tim Horton’s is a menial task. Yet, this young man’s face shines as he empties a garbage container.
The store manager is so proud of him. He smiles as he sees the young man at work. He says to me, “If only all of my employees were as hard-working and dedicated as this young man.” I smile back and say, “It is plain to see he loves his work.”
Imagine that concept for a moment. This young man in a minimum wage job is happy and even elated to be working at Tim Horton’s. He is an example for all of us to emulate.
L’Arche Richmond Hill has a wood shop where those who like to work there make things like rulers, which are then sold to local businesses. The items made help support the work of L’Arche. The core member employees are paid an hourly wage, which helps them to feel more independent.
L’Arche Richmond Hill has a craft shop. An instructor teaches core members to make things like candles. These items are sold to customers who come in.
I enjoy the blessing of apple crisp made by core members for $5.00. They use the funds from having sales of baked goods to support operational costs.
I will spend a yet to be determined period of time living at the L’Arche Richmond Hill retreat centre called the Cedars. There will be interviews with both core members and staff. Those interviews in which I seek to answer how the core members of L’Arche Richmond Hill go from the societal perception of liability to blessing, will form a core part of my thesis.
I propose when this thesis is completed it is also published online, so that the edifying message it has for the Church, society and those who have life challenges to overcome will be encouraged. It is my earnest prayer that those reading this thesis will take the message into their hearts that they are not a mistake. They are perfect in the eyes of God. They will always be a blessing to those willing to be taught that their challenges do not define them. They as all of us with our own challenges can be overcomers.
Thoughts from the Beatitudes of the blessedness will be explored. The Greek context of key words in the Beatitudes will be examined as they apply to the blessed, the pure in heart and other words contained in this beautiful life-giving and spirit-filled passage of Holy Scripture.
I will seek with God’s help to enter into the world of the core members– to play, laugh, cry, and engage in their expression of liturgical worship.
Thoughts from the book Human Disability and Service for God will be explored. I will focus on the important concept of inclusion for those with developmental challenges as it pertains to the core members of L’Arche. Far more churches need to be including those with physical and developmental challenges as part of their worship and even in ministry work.
The young man at Tim Horton’s smiles at me as he hands me a piece of bread at holy communion to represent the Eucharist, literally meaning the identification that this is Christ’s body. As I take the bread into my mouth I smile back. No, Lord. I know he is not a liability. He is a blessing.
Dr. Johannes Malherbe, please pray for me as I engage in this Kingdom task. The Enemy has sought in so many ways as my health has been attacked, as I have had to fight one life brush fire after the other, that this thesis will be stopped dead in its tracks, but the Enemy will not win. God will.
I believe this journey will be an important gift to the Church and society. I am under no illusion that this thesis, which I would be honoured and filled with joy to have published by South African Theological Seminary, will in itself effect all the changes in attitude which need to occur not only in the Church, but in society as well. Only God can change a cold heart. Only the Lord can remove the spiritual blindness in people’s eyes.
I will need the prayerful support of the staff as I undertake this journey of faith, of those things yet not seen or experienced. It will take me to some difficult places, but I believe with all of my heart that this thesis is not just for the Church and society, but me as well. The Lord wants me fully healed from the destructive power of hate-filled words, ignorance, abuse and judgement that has been spoken over me.
My Lord gives me an image of Christ’s two open hands. In his hands is His cup of love. As I drink that cup filled also with suffering there is an inner healing that comes over me. The Lord says to my wounded heart, “You are not an accident. You are not a mistake. I had you experience all of that horrible abuse so that having been healed from it, you will emerge as a victorious healer of others.”
Brother, let us join hands together in prayer as I undertake this journey in which the core members of L’Arche Richmond Hill and the staff will teach me about the blessedness that is L’Arche. In that journey I know I will be taught by my Lord that I am a blessed child of God too, as is Reuben, Kevin, Leschenne, Dave Woods, Dr. Mark Pretorius and all the staff and students of South African Theological Seminary.
The peace and blessedness of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all.