By anybody's standards, she is beautiful: those big, brilliant eyes with their long lashes, those fine features: that thick cap of glossy black hair, turning under at the ends. It seems almost unfair that she's also such a nice person. At 13, she seems going on for 20. She's bright, thoughtful and lively, with a real gift for art, and she's a worker.

These gifts are just as well, because where her arms and legs should be there are only stumps--stumps that she uses with an adroitness that dazzled me as I watched her. She writes, draws, and uses a computer by wedging the appropriate instrument between stump and jawbone. Watching her move from floor to sofa to wheelchair is like watching an expert gymnast. When I tried to help her cook lunch, the only aid she wanted from me was to reach her a saucepan from a bottom cupboard. She could have got the saucepan herself, but it would have taken a little longer.

Watching her, I realized for the first time that the phrase "differently abled" (in place of "disabled") isn't just politically correct: it expresses an underlying truth. My kids can do things that Minda can't: play the guitar, for example, or run up and down a flight of stairs. But I'd double-dare them to put a meal together without using their hands. And her handwriting is a LOT neater than theirs.

She can do an astonishing number of things, but I'm sure there are some things that she can't manage (doorknobs, maybe?) Stairs are a problem when she's in her wheelchair: that's obvious. I wasn't with her long enough to get a full picture of her life, so I don't know how far her adaptations and accommodations go, and where the borders are beyond which she has to be given help.

Church has, I gather, been somewhat problematic of late: a few people don't want to deal with someone who's so obviously different --and there is no way that she can screen her differences from the world or melt into any crowd at all. These folks resent the fact that she does need help, I gather; they begrudge the bits of time or effort it takes to include her and meet her needs. There have been complaints about Minda's "special treatment." And so she's not going to church at the moment.

I don't know the other side of the story, and without it, I am a little hesitant to go too ballistic, but I am (I hope) permitted to froth ever-so-gently at the mouth. I find it incomprehensible that any Christian who took the Gospel at all seriously could fail to see what's wrong with this picture. My own church choir has a member who is speech-and-hearing impaired; her hearing has improved drastically since she had a cochlear implant, but she still relies on her husband (one of our tenors) to put the spoken word into sign language for her. So she sits with him and he signs the sermon for her--and she signs the anthem for the rest of us, and that is her singing, and it's something the rest of us can't do. She has her proper choir uniform and her music folder, and she is entirely a member of the group. Nobody sees anything odd in this either; it was pure common sense to include her in.

Of course it takes a little adaptability and the willingness to work at things, but taking steps to include the "differently abled" is pure garden-variety Gospel common sense. It's clear, as I watched Minda working on her spaghetti-dishing technique, that figuring out how to do something can be frustrating, but also that it can be intriguing--like working through a puzzle to a satisfying conclusion. This sort of work is profoundly creative, and as in all creativity, it has its joy: "Got it!"

What's hard for people to realize is that including the "differently abled" isn't something that we do for their sake, but for our own. We need to be taught humility: I needed to learn that Minda can manage to get lunch on her own, and that my job is to step humbly back and let her get on with it instead of crashing in with my big klutzy hands and feet. We need to learn something about "gifts differing"--how what we see as disability or deformity or wrongness can, in fact, bloom into to other gifts that we don't have. We have to learn respect for others, and especially respect for those who we wouldn't automatically look up to. We need to look beyond the obvious to the soul in the other, and to see that soul as beautiful and beloved. We need to learn that the Gospel message--the message that those who seem wounded are, in fact blessed--is true.

Even more, we need to learn the importance of Matthew 25.31-46: that we will be judged by God on the basis of how we treat others, and especially the others who need a little help from us. We need to learn that that instruction is meant to be put into practice, on a day-to-day entirely practical level--and that by practicing what we preach, we grow our own souls.

I remember the legend of St. Christopher, the Christ-bearer: the (probably apochrypal) giant who, after his conversion, "devoted his life to carrying travelers across a river. One day a small child asked to be transported, and in the middle of the river the child became so heavy that Christopher staggered under the burden, complained of the weight, and was told that he had borne upon his back the world and Him who created it." (EB online).

The stupid thing is that so often, helping someone across the river means only taking on such a trivial burden, and yet we're reluctant to do so. We don't like to have to put ourselves out for others, and (more importantly) we don't like having to feel guilty about our own comparative ease and comfort. "Much wants more", as the saying says: those who already have too much, want more, not less; those who are most at ease are less likely to feel compassion for others than those who have really suffered and know what it feels like.

Looking after someone with a disability makes us aware of our own much easier lives, and that means instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we should be moved to real compassion--the willingness to share suffering, which is what com-passion is. But wallowing in self-pity is so much more selfishly attractive than sharing another's suffering.... It gets worse: if we claim to be Christians, we can't be honest with ourselves about our own selfishness--because that would make us feel bad about ourselves, and who wants that? So we neatly convert our selfishness into dislike, lying to ourselves all the while about what we're really up to, and we scapegoat any Mindas we encounter. "Minda makes me uncomfortable: Minda should therefore go away, so that I can be comfortable again." (We do this to our own poor a whole lot.)

But Christ calls upon us, not to scapegoat the Mindas or to try to push them out the door, but to bear them up--to be Mindaphers. I can imagine a whole team of Mindaphers, called to the blessed vocation of giving Minda whatever help she needs (WHEN SHE WANTS IT, and otherwise BUTT OUT and let her do it!) Being a Mindapher could be a real joy--because Minda herself is a real joy. It seems so sad that people, in their unwisdom and selfish pride, deprive themselves of that joy.

When we bear each other, we bear Christ; when we walk with those who lack our advantages, we walk with God. When we turn our backs on wealth to keep the poor company, we are only doing what the Gospel says; and when, like the rich young man, we can't find the courage to do that, we make Christ weep. It's all so obvious: there is it in the Gospel, pure, plain and simple. Why is it so very hard for us to grasp?

All poor men and humble,
All lame men who stumble,
Come haste ye, and be not afraid.
For Jesus our treasure,
Whose love passes measure,
In lowly poor manger is laid.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 08 Dec 2001
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