In the December 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic, the cover story is “Real Presence — What Catholics with developmental disabilities bring to the table.” On the inside of the magazine, there is a photo of a teenager with Down Syndrome leading the processional and carrying the processional cross. To me, it is a beautiful photo and brings back both memories and lessons.
In the late 1970s I was a graduate student at East Tennessee State University and had a part-time job as a graduate assistant. My task was to administer various tests — which meant that someone came to a room, I handed them a test, sat there while they took it, and received it from them when they were finished. The work was easy but incredibly boring. I wanted out.
I read that the WACARCA League House in Johnson City, Tenn., was looking for a part-time director. The House, sponsored by a local group working with the Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC), was the home of eight to 12 mentally retarded (the term used in those days) adult women. The ladies lived in the house full-time and were assisted by a house mother and several para-professionals. Having a social work degree, I thought I might qualify.
After an interview process, I got the job and became WACARCA House’s first male director. The day came when I was to meet the residents and the staff. The residents were lined up and I went down the line, introduced myself, and met them one by one.
The last in line was Donna, about 32 at the time, who was tall, and had an easy smile, although she also sported a temper when crossed. Near the end of our conversation, Donna said, “Mr. Epps, can I ask you a question?”
“Certainly, Donna,” I replied. “What’s the question?”
“Mr. Epps, have you been baptized?”
“I said, “Why yes, Donna, have you?”
“Yes, I have, “she replied, “and I go to church too. Do you go to church, Mr. Epps?”
“I do, Donna, every Sunday.”
Then Donna said, “Mr. Epps, you know what? You know what? People tell me that there are things I can’t do and I guess that is true. But there’s one thing I can do really, really well. You know what that is, Mr. Epps?”
“No, I don’t, Donna. What can you do really, really well?”
Donna then pointed to the center of her chest and said, “Mr. Epps, I can love Jesus with all my heart.”
I was silent as my throat tightened and a film came across my eyes. I patted Donna on the arm, smiled, and excused myself. I went to my new office, locked the door, and cried like a baby. I had a feeling that I was about to learn some very valuable lessons.
Next year, when we won the ARC Group Home of the Year in the state of Tennessee, I sent Donna to the podium to receive the award.
Later, in Colorado, where I was serving on the staff of a church, a few people complained about the two mentally handicapped adults that they said disrupted the service in this church that housed 1,000 each Sunday. I was given the task of dealing with the “problem.”
With the Departments of Outreach, College, Youth, Bus Ministry, and Sunday School working together, we devised a program that brought over 100 of the community’s retarded citizens together each Sunday for a special service in the church’s gym. Like Donna, they worshipped “Jesus with all their heart.” It was a joy and a privilege to be part of that service.
There are 2.5 million people in the United States with developmental disabilities. It is inconceivable to me that the Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven,” would not want the Church to embrace these who have so much to give. I have discovered that, when given an opportunity and some oversight and training, these citizens of God’s Kingdom can do a great deal.
I have discovered that these boys, girls, men, and women bring a sweetness and a guilelessness that is refreshing and honest. Are there problems? Sometimes. Are there things that they might not be able to do? Perhaps, but not as many as we might think.
But there’s one thing that I have learned that they can do really, really well. They can love Jesus with all their hearts. And that is only a part of what they bring to the table.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]