Then I saw him: a young, Amish guy helping with some of the auction items. He had an energy and spirit that carried a subtle but impressionable lift to the whole hall. Every once and a while he would pass someone, giving them a smile or a playful pat on the arm. I found myself sometimes following him around the room, hoping that he would stop and say hi to me (I feeling much too shy and apprehensive to approach him). Seeing him there made me feel more at ease, more like I was at home.
For, you see, he had Down’s Syndrome. And thus many of the relationships that I had formed in L’Arche which have been so transformational for me became present: Gord, Carol, Tom, John, Janet, and many more.
While it is certainly dangerous to oversimplify the person with a developmental disability as the “perpetually happy person”, the life-giving presence of the person with Down’s Syndrome that I experienced in L’Arche cannot be overstated. There were times when I wondered whether community life could fruitfully happen without them.
So then why, I might ask, are fewer people with Down’s Syndrome being born? The numbers tell a sobering story: of those choosing to have pre-natal genetic testing, approximately 90% terminate the pregnancy if Down Syndrome is detected. It is almost as if our culture has put a large bull’s eye around those born with Trisomy 21, and decided that these lives are not worth living. While in the past we may have euthanized people with disabilities because of their defects (i.e. “eugenics”), now we can “prevent” their lives for their own “benefit”. (Sophistry knows no bounds.)
But I wonder if this truly explains our need to eliminate people with Down Syndrome from society. What if, instead, it is all in their face? For while I see the face of this young man at the auction and I think of home and life, it seems that our culture looks at his face and can only see abnormality.
There is something so profound about encountering the radical bodily difference of a person with a developmental disability that it can awaken a great deal of fear. For not only do they reason and act strangely to us, but they even look so utterly different than what a human body is “supposed” to be. The presence of the person with a developmental disability threatens culture with their “disruptive” body (theologian Elizabeth Stuart); to avoid social contagion we must prevent, eliminate or manage the strangeness of their abnormality.
While this may be the response of a society obsessed with physical conformity and a marketable beauty, we as a church must respond differently. If we take the Christian belief that everyone is made in the “image and likeness” of God seriously, it seems that we must dedicate ourselves to practices that approach difference not with fear but with hospitality. The restless Spirit of God that Jesus breathes upon us challenges us to continually shatter any idols that we make of a “normalcy” that brings destruction for others.
What kind of good news would it be to the person with a developmental disability if our prayer upon encountering them was not, “I am sure glad I am not like that,” but “Blessed are You, God, ruler of the world, who has created different forms within creation” (Rabbinic prayer)? What if instead of seeing that Amish young man’s face we found not disappointment but welcome and thanksgiving?
With those eyes the world will become a place where the “sparks” of God are alive everywhere and in everyone. In every face we will recognize family; in every body we will find our home.
Jason Greig wrote this article while serving as Anabaptist Disabilities Network's Student Associate.