Today's story is shared by Karen Jackson, founder and executive director of Faith Inclusion Network based in South Hampton Roads, Virginia. FIN is dedicated to helping faith communities develop inclusive ministries for people with disabilities and helping families affected by disability to find welcoming and accessible places to worship. Karen is also the mother of three children, one who has autism. Thank you, Karen, for your advocacy, passion and humility that helps us see the heart of God.
It was a busy day. Like most, really. But I had some lessons to learn. With two weeks left before our big Gifts of the Heart Celebration for Faith Inclusion Network, I had been busy working on event details while balancing the other parts of my work and home life. On my “to-do” list this day: stopping by a small local church to drop off some event fliers and touch base with their FIN contact.
At my visit to this same church last year, I was warmly welcomed into the church building and learned all about the many accommodations they have for persons with disabilities. I had actually just stopped in on a whim, not knowing anyone or even calling ahead. But God seemed to be saying “Stop” one day as I drove by and so I did.
Unfortunately, this was a new year and the reception was disappointing. The gentleman I had spoken with a year earlier was no longer there. Feeling unwelcome and discouraged, I walked briskly back to my car in the cold air.
Just then, I spotted someone across the street that I recognized from my own church. I didn’t know his name but had seen him regularly attending Mass for years. He was an older gentleman, with somewhat disheveled clothing. He was significantly bent over and walked with painfully slow steps. He was pushing worn-out walker down the bumpy sidewalk trying to carry two shopping bags filled with groceries. In church, he barely made eye contact and always seemed like he wanted to be left alone. Most people did leave him alone. I certainly did.
Before I could even call out, “hello,” he recognized me and asked if I could help him. Glad to be of assistance, I scooted quickly across the street and grabbed his bags. We began to make small talk.
In our short chat I learned his first name and that he was walking from the bus stop. He thought it might be going to snow today. I said “Really?” and he replied with the question, “Do you get the weather station on your television?” I explained that I had just been at work. He responded, “It is great that you have a job”. (Lesson #1)
We made it to his apartment and I offered to bring the bags to his door, assuming it was right inside. I realized, as we made it into the foyer area, that he had already brought two bags from the bus stop. This was his second trip down the long stretch of sidewalk. It must have taken him at least 30 minutes or more for the first trip. (Lesson #2)
I got all four bags to his door, which ended up being on the second floor with no elevator. I would have helped him up the stairs but he said he had to lock the outside door first. Reluctantly, I bid him goodbye and went out the door, across the street and back to my car.
No longer disappointed or discouraged, I realized that God had a much different plan than what I expected when I set out to check off one of the items on my “to do” list that day. God gave me the opportunity to get to know someone I should have approached at church long ago — the opportunity to help in a small way to ease someone’s burden, the opportunity to step outside my own life experience and see life through someone else’ s eyes. (Lessons #3,4,5)
I have long known that God has given me a passion for advocating for persons with disabilities in faith communities. He has placed books, people, and experiences in my path for the past six years while I learn about faith and disability ministry. I have been getting on-the-job training as the Director of Faith Inclusion Network and Parish Advocate at my church. On this particular day, however, the reality that I still have many, many lessons to learn, was driven straight into my heart.
I thank God for teaching me and guiding me, understanding my disappointments in ministry and providing important learning experiences. I am grateful He would use my “to do” list to put me in just the right place at just the right time. I'm also comforted by a faith that recognizes “lessons learned."