Editor's Note; Cyril has gone to sleep in Jesus since Olwen wrote this article. We all look forward to the day Jesus personally calls him to everlasting life, without the sadness of this world.
The one thing that parents of a mentally handicapped person dread is the very real possibility of dying before their child. "What will happen to my son/daughter when I go?" is the spoken cry from the heart. Several years ago I witnessed the anguish of a parent of a handicapped child. I was shaking hands at the door of one of our North England churches when an elderly gentleman stopped to talk with me. I knew he had an adult son who has some learning difficulties. His son was standing close behind him. As that dear gentleman bared his anxieties with me, he broke down in tears. "What will happen to him when I go?" he sobbed. My heart ached for him. I am especially sensitive to those who have handicapped children because my brother has Down's Syndrome. I have witnessed first hand the fears of my own parents as they contemplated what would happen to my brother once they became older and were unable to care for him. When my mother died, my father took over her role as primary caretaker for my brother. Dad, at 78 years of age, took on the washing, ironing, bathing, shopping, cooking and cleaning. He also faithfully took my brother, Cyril, to my Mum's church on Sabbaths and his own church on Sundays. He did a magnificent job and Cyril became very attached to him. However, I knew that because of his age and failing health, the day would come when Dad would no longer be able to care for Cyril.
There came the time when Dad began to fear he would die and Cyril would be in a situation he did not know how to handle. Unfortunately, I lived 120 miles away and was a Bible Worker in the largest church in North England; I was of little help because of distance. Soon my dad's fears became increasingly overwhelming. I began getting phone calls in the middle of the night. "Can you come?" my dad would ask. I knew the time had come for Cryil to become my responsibility. In November 1992, my husband and I took Cyril into our home and Dad died the following February after hospital operations and nursing home care.
What a challenge that was. Our own two boys had just left home and started their own careers; we felt as if we were starting all over again! We now had the physical, mental and spiritual responsibility of a 50-year-old man with learning difficulties. Cyril had never been away from home without Mum and Dad and they had never let him go to a Center or club designed for persons like him. He had lived such a sheltered life. His outings consisted of going to and from church and spending a holiday with my parents at my house.
When we welcomed Cyril into our family, we were aware of his health problems. He was an epileptic and he had a damaged heart from two bouts of rheumatic fever. He also had had three eye operations. When we took him to the doctor for a physical checkup, we also discovered he had a hole in the heart. Despite all the trauma we gradually sorted out his needs. He was so happy when we i-nrolled him in an Adult Day Center for those with learning difficulties. He thinks he goes to college! He has learned how to share, socialize and cooperate with others. He has attended classes in horse riding, swimming, cooking and bowling.
Having Cyril at church made me realize that there were others at my church with learning difficulties. Consequently, I pondered more about the dilemma of the church's handicapped members. Our church catered to the elderly, the deaf, the children, the youth, the singles and the women, but we didn't do anything for this small but very faithful group who always attended church with their parents or caretakers. These special members sat through endless services with such patience and dignity yet nothing w as being done for them. I decided to form a class for these special members. The class meets on Sabbath afternoons once a month. We call it the "Special Class" because I believe these dear souls are as dear to God as they are to their parents.
At our special class we have lots of fun! We have a little orchestra. Cyril, Mark and Arnold play mouth organs; Carol plays a tambourine; Cleveland and Calvin play recorders; and I play the piano. They blow and bang and though they seldom get the notes right, they are getting the time and rhythm right. We start together and we finish together and in between we make a joyful noise unto the Lord! We put together Bible jigsaw puzzles, paint pictures, take quizzes, cut and glue paper activities, create plaster work and have a Bible story or "doctrine" lesson. I love my class and the members love the class. On Sabbath mornings, my class members come up to me and just "look" at me. I know "the look!" It says, "Are we having our class or not?" If I say, "No, not today" (because sometimes I do have other duties as a Bible Worker), the look of reproach and disappointment almost makes me change my plans! If I say, "Yes, we are meeting today," my class members leave church as happy as can be and return Sabbath afternoon ready for class.
My class consists of some very special people. Cyril, my brother, is the oldest of the group and the only one with Down's Syndrome. Twenty-two year-old Mark loves to sing hymns. His favorite is "At the Name of Jesus." His hymnal has a hole on that page because he opens the book so often to that song! Cleveland is a big man and so attached to his mother. He was brain damaged by a whooping cough injection at the age of two. He does not have very good health but comes when he can. If we say "Let us have a prayer, " he shuts his eyes and says the prayer in his own special way. Calvin is our only member who has a job. He has a special knack for putting puzzles together. He lives with his sisters since his mother's death. He is so faithful; he is hoping for baptism soon. Singing is Arnold favorite pastime. He throws his head back and sings at the top of his voice. In church it nearly "puts others off key," but I am sure his singing is better to the Lord than the best trained voices of any polished choir. Arnold has lived in an institution for a long time but with the new legislation to bring people with learning difficulties into the community, he now lives in a hostel and can shop and come to church on the bus by himself. Carol is our only lady. She lives with her mother and aunt. She is an example of faith and faithfulness. She loves church and loves Jesus.
People with I earning difficulties are often misunderstood and excluded from so much. I can vouch that they have so much to offer a church and society. Sympathy is not enough—we need to open up a ministry to any who are disabled so they can become participating members of the family of God. Disabilities and handicaps are part of a broken and sinful world. God never intended it to be this way. I have found that when humans see weakness, God sees an opportunity to show His love and grace. I also see that those who are the furthest from human ideas of perfection are the closest to God and show the character and love of God far better than those who consider themselves whole and complete. Again, how many human beings have beauty, perfect intelligence, absolute perfection in Christ? None of us! Christ and Christ-likeness can be found also in a broken and imperfect mind and body.
In my little class, I have found pure happiness in the simplest things: applause at another's success or achievement, the look of contentment and peace on the faces of the class members, observation of the faith of a little child. But isn't that what Jesus meant when he said, "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein" (Mark 10:15).
If you have an interest in this sort of ministry, there is help available. There are several Christian groups who have programs designed to minister to the disabled and to people with learning difficulties. There are hostels and places that provide day care for the disabled. (Parents and care-takers do need breaks sometimes!) Most of these places are founded and run on Christian ideals. There are homes for those disabled people who have lost their parents through death.
Finding suitable material for use with my special class has proven to be difficult. These people are not children but all material suitable for their mental age range is childish. My class members turn up their noses if they consider an activity or picture babyish! They have their pride and they know whether something is designed for a little child! I have made a lot of material myself and have learned to adapt to the needs of my special class. I have received great encouragement from my church members and pastors.
Not everyone can adapt to the needs of people with learning difficulties. A great deal of patience is needed as well as tolerance and firmness. However the gratitude from parents, care-takers and the class members themselves is gratifying. Taking the time and opportunity to teach Christian principles to these lovely people is time well spent. Seeing their joyful faces is a reward in itself.*