I’m just finishing Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, a little book with short essays by Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, and the theologian Stanley Hauerwas. I recommend it, though Hauerwas’s second essay is a bit dense; he is a theologian, after all - and a good one.
In one essay, Jean Vanier writes:
…it is a revelation for people with disabilities if you say to them, "There is meaning to your life." We are not just doing good to them as professionals. That is important, but it's not just about that. It's about revealing to them that they have value. They have something to say to our society.
Recently I have begun to think about people with disabilities here. On Ash Wednesday I met two young people with Down Syndrome in a community. Both were functioning well, loved by their mother.
But yesterday, at a meeting of Celebrators of the Word in the parish, I saw something that touched me.
The Celebrators of the Word are the men and women who lead Sunday Celebrations of the Word in the rural villages, since it is impossible for a priest to say Mass in 47 villages on a weekend – though Padre German often presides at 5 or 6 between noon Saturday and Sunday night.
There was a wide range of celebrators – from some teenagers just beginning to people who have been doing it since the early 1980s.
|Gathering of celebrators|
Most of the people have had little formal education and some struggle with reading publicly. There are a few who cannot read or write. Often they get one of their children to read the Sunday scriptures to them to help them prepare.
As part of the meeting Padre German had them doing an extended and a little complicated exercise.
After writing their names and basic information, he had them draw something on the back of the sheet of paper. Then in groups they were to take a part of their drawing and combine it with others. Then they got together to explain their drawings. (The activity was more complicated, but I’ll leave that out for now.)
|one of the drawings|
When we all got together he had several people explain their part. One of them could not read or write – but had been a celebrator for several years.
Padre asked him to show his drawing. He replied that he was illiterate and didn’t draw anything.
Padre then took a sheet of paper, taped it to the wall and asked him to draw what he wanted to draw. Slowly he was able to draw a house, with a tile roof, door, and window.
He then identified that the door was the most important part of the drawing for him. Through the door, comes Christ.
As I reflected on this, after reading Vanier today, I realized that he was given a voice; he was given an opportunity to discover his capabilities.
Padre didn’t leave him with the sad tale of not being able to write – or even draw. He challenged him, lovingly, and help accompany him on the path to recognize that he could do something new.
The man didn’t have what we usually call disabilities. But illiteracy is in some ways a disability that renders people feeling useless.
It is a disability that is so often caused by a failure of society to respond to the needs of people.
On Ash Wednesday in Debajiados, I talked with a few young people and asked them how much they had studied in school. I was surprised to find teenagers adna twenty-year old who could not read or write. Probing a little, I found out that did not have a school in their village until four years ago. Thus there are many people who cannot read or write in Debajiados.
But there was one 16 year old young man who was going to school, starting this year in first grade.