“…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” –Matthew 25:40 “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” –Matthew 19:14
I’ve been finding myself drawn towards and praying for the disabled people in our community more and more lately. We just returned from six weeks in America a few days ago and have been venturing out, as our jet lag allows, reconnecting with people we know and missed.
On our first full afternoon back the three of us went out to a particularly seedy little street in our neighborhood where we have several friends. I saw a woman we know, “Jack”, who is a few years younger than me and is disabled – unable to speak and with compromised motor functions. She lives on that corner with her mom in a makeshift “squat” (temporary tiny street home) on the sidewalk. I have seen her mother yelling at her abusively and am pretty certain she is being “rented out” by her mom as well. I walked through the small group of hustling women clustered nearby her to say hello and greet her by name, which brought forth one of her beautiful smiles. Immediately a woman I don’t know stepped in front of me very distressed and tried to explain in English that this girl can’t speak and doesn’t understand and essentially that I shouldn’t waste my time. I responded in Thai that we are friends and I have known her for a long time now. Before I could return my attention to Jack, a drunk Thai man standing there broke in, also in halting English, to proposition me, pointing towards the slum/brothel we were standing in front of. Keep in mind I was holding my toddler, have a very visibly pregnant belly and my husband was standing behind me. I politely declined and went back to trying to communicate with Jack, which was pretty impossible at this point. The man turned to Iven to ask him if he was interested in any of the ladies there.
As we walked away we both were feeling absolutely gross; Iven summed up the essence of our sadness, “We were trying to say hello to our friend Jack, and we were essentially told that she wasn’t even human and that hurts, as it should.” Yesterday afternoon Izayla and I were out together and bumped in to a man I would like to say we know well, given his limitations. It is true I don’t know his name and he doesn’t know ours, but we are friends. He is deaf and fairly severely physically disabled, rendering his limbs and face contorted enough that though he is able to walk with a severe limp, it is impossible to ignore his deformities and no one would ever describe him as a classically “attractive” person. He saw us walking up and rushed over with a giant smile on his grossly twisted face. I am unable to communicate to him why it has been so long since he saw us or where we went, but we do as best we can with smiles and rudimentary hand gestures. He is our friend, we are his, and he knows it. I pray for these friends often, and I woke up early this morning with Jack heavy on my heart. Neighbors like these have so little value or identity ascribed to them – so little hope of life becoming better. I know that many disabled people in the States experience similar stigmatization and prejudice, but I think it is all the much more so here on our streets, in this Buddhist context where people believe you very much deserve whatever difficulties you were dealt.
It has been a number of years since I have read anything by Henri Nouwen, but I was reflecting this morning on his depth of insight into the Kingdom of God, and intimacy with Jesus. He spent years of his life living in community with disabled adults. I expect there were probably critics who said he was wasting his brilliant theological mind and gifts of communication by spending so much of his time with disabled people who had such limited abilities in the traditional sense. I know God didn’t see it that way. What does hope look for for these neighbors of ours? For the dozens of homeless deaf people in our community, so many of whom were thrown out by their parents and never received an education or even learned sign language? Though theoretically disabled people in Thailand are entitled to truly free medical care and a meager-but-something $15 a month to live on, so many of them were never registered at birth (thus not being able to prove they are Thai citizens) or have their registrations in some other province and are unable to receive any benefits. It is pretty hopeless in the worldly sense.
We believe God can and may very well choose to heal our neighbors from physical and mental disabilities, and we continuously pray that He does so. Even withstanding that, though, I do think that Scripture tells us clearly that there are special gifts given to those who are thrown away by their communities. Jesus speaks boldly about his identifying personally with people who have no worldly value. Their physical lives are so much more painful and sorrowful than was God’s original desire and intention when He created them, but I think they are privy to an intimacy and sweetness with Jesus that you and I “normal” people will never know. I see the twisted but unquenchable smile of the man we greeted yesterday and I wonder what love letters Jesus has read to him in his dreams. I greet Jack on the street as she is surrounded by other women available for “sale”, am disgusted by the fact that she truly has no ability to get out of that situation, and I know that Jesus is so very near to her in that place of pain and deep injustice. I trust our good God to be faithful in their lives even more than in my own family, but I don’t know that any of us will ever be able to see that on this side of heaven.