Rejection and Grace

Why the Church Needs People Who Have Intellectual Disabilities

by Bethany Keener

Illustration by Terri Scott

Charles Clark marched into a class where Rev. Tim Malone was teaching and declared that he was there because he was going to get confirmed.

“I am not proud to say it, but I remember thinking cynically, Yeah, sure you are. And how is that going to work?” recalls Rev. Malone, who pastors at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia.

He was disturbed by the brashness of this older man who has an intellectual disability—until, on the next Sunday morning he offered Clark communion. With his voice cracking, Clark called Rev. Malone’s name and began to sob.

“As I gave him the host with tears streaming down my own face I prayed, God, what is wrong with me? Here is a man with an intellectual disability who at this moment seems to know more and is more connected with what is going on [at the table] than I am.”

This was the opening of a door to grace in Rev. Malone’s life, and the life of the entire congregation.

It was also the opening of the door to a relationship with L’Arche Greater Washington, DC. L’Arche, which means the ark in French, was founded more than 50 years ago by Jean Vanier. Today, in more than 145 L’Arche communities across the United States and around the world, people with and without intellectual disabilities live, work, play, and pray together much like a family.

Clark began attending St. Mary’s soon after coming to live at L’Arche. He had previously lived in a group home where his desire to attend church—and be on time—was not consistently honored. Without someone to drive him to church, he was stuck at home.

At L’Arche, each person is encouraged to deepen his or her faith life, based on his or her own tradition. That means both times of prayer, reflection, and worship within the L’Arche home and engaging in an established congregation in the broader community.

Through his encounters with Clark and others at L’Arche, Rev. Malone began to understand what Vanier meant when he wrote, “L’Arche communities reveal the paradox presented by weakness and poverty. That which we reject and push aside can become a means of grace, unity, freedom, and peace.”

Indeed, people who have intellectual disabilities often are rejected and pushed aside—even feared—because of their sometimes unconventional social habits, physical appearance, and different ways of communicating.

It is this rejection and the sting of loneliness that Vanier recognized in the hearts of people who were institutionalized in the 1960s. His words, written just 18 days after he invited two men to move out of an institution and into a home with him, still ring true today:

L’Arche is convinced that if [people with intellectual disabilities] are unable to find their stability in modern society, which is becoming more and more complicated with its bureaucracy and techniques, they can find true human and spiritual growth in a family-like environment. L’Arche wants to create homes where life is focused on service to those who are the poorest of the poor in this twentieth century. L’Arche does not want to be a center where those who have been rejected are simply kept or cared for; it wants to be a place where they can truly grow and develop according to their specific qualities and capacities. … It believes that if those who [have disabilities] cannot be educated or work in the same way as others do, they are nevertheless open to spiritual values. Their very poverty is a predisposition to receive the graces of love that Jesus has promised them.

“We’re all broken,” Rev. Malone said. “Church is the one place where we should be able to be broken, but we’re all trying to hide behind our nice suits.”

People who have intellectual disabilities, however, often cannot hide their vulnerabilities. They can call others into genuine relationship because the guise of power and success simply do not exist. Their authenticity creates a space where people can meet in what Vanier calls “a communion of hearts, which is the to-and-fro of love” and “leads us from closedness to openness, from illusion of superiority to vulnerability and humility.”

By welcoming those who still remain on the margins of society to be part of our houses of worship, congregations can experience a new kind of freedom, one that allows us to be the face of Christ to each other in our brokenness. The expressions of worship may be unconventional—a spontaneous reading of Scripture, a surprise guest in the choir, or a voice that is always one beat ahead or behind—but those who are open just might find grace.

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities defines intellectual disability as a “disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18.” Causes of this type of disability include genetic conditions, complications during pregnancy and birth, and diseases or toxic exposure.

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