Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Community

Pauline was a member of the church I pastored. I don't know if she ever officially joined but she was as much a member as anyone else. This church was her family and she loved us. She would tell us that almost every Sunday. She lived right next door to the church in a room of a house with other social misfits. Pauline was not "normal" and neither were her housemates. There was a Down Syndrome young man and assorted other persons who did not readily fit in anywhere else. It was a good place to live. A woman who came to our church was the director. Her husband was paralyzed himself after several strokes, one while driving his car. He was hard to understand and I couldn't always make sense of what he was saying but he liked baseball and sometimes we watched the Yankees together in the summer. Later, she and her husband adopted two special needs children from India. They were adopted by the church family, too.

Pauline was institutionalized until she was about 70. Her parents had abandoned her to the institution when she was a child believing she was retarded. She told us her father was a rabbi in New York City. Pauline was not retarded but being institutionalized for so long retarded her social skills. She didn't have any. When she was younger she had frequent seizures during which she fell flat on her face. Most of the bones in her face had been broken and then had healed on their own. Her nose was squished in, her mouth was askew and opened widely, showing a toothless grin and showering you with spit as she talked. After church, you were likely to be the recipient of a huge, slobbery kiss along with an enthusiastic bear hug. I love you, she would shout. She was not shy in the least. She always stood up at the church's prayer time with a testimony or a need for prayer. During the service from her front row seat, she could be heard chomping on her gums (not gum, but gums). She liked to wear dresses and dance around like a little girl. We were her family. Most of the people in town knew her and she would run errands for businesses to earn a little spending money.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving the church put on a turkey dinner with all the trimmings for the people who lived next door. At that time, we would each take a name of a person who had listed what they wanted for Christmas. The usual items were things like kleenex, writing paper, a pen, toothbrush and maybe slippers or cologne. The young man with Down Syndrome loved matchbox cars so that was on his list year after year. On the Sunday before Christmas the people of the home next door to the church would invite us over for Christmas punch, and cookies; we would sing some carols together and then we would hand out the gifts. It was a time filled with laughter and much joy.

In a few years, the home was sold to another company that manages those kinds of homes. The director was let go and a new supervisor was brought in. Policies were reviewed and new ones put in place. The home was brought up to state standards which meant our informal gatherings with the home came to an end. Pauline and a couple other residents still attended the church until she died a few years later.

I thought of Pauline today as I read a book about the L'Arche communities for the mentally and physically disabled, and the work of Jean Vanier who said "a fundamental text for L'Arche is I Corinthians 12, which is about the body of Christ, the church, and Paul says that those parts of the body that are the weakest and least presentable are the most necessary to the body and should be honored. Often the parts that are weakest and least presentable are the ones we hide away in institutions or try to get rid of (Vanier says that in France where he lives within a few years there will be no more children with Down Syndrome because they will all have been aborted.)

Pauline could become jealous and angry if she did not get her own way. She was like a child in many ways. But she was a child of God's, deeply loved and valued by her heavenly Father, and a member of the body of Christ, who reminded all of us we were too.

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