By PPL Board Member, Rev. Craig Kephart
Louisiana author and father Chad Judice recalls a November meeting with a family named Fortier, whose testimony powerfully impacted his own household. At the time, Ashley and Chad Judice were expecting a son whose prenatal medical diagnosis showed hydrocephalus. They had received the doctors’ testing results earlier that fall, experiencing all the anguish and sadness that could be expected. The young couple had cried and hugged, studied the medical reports and absorbed the foreboding statistics. Spina bifida was a likely outcome. Ashley’s own professional experience in the medical field routinely immersed her in the pain of worst-case scenarios. Hope was in short supply.
But their encounter with Peter and Karen Fortier later that same season reinforced the Judices’ trust in God and bolstered their faltering faith. “Forget the statistics.” Karen challenged Chad and Ashley. “Your child is not a statistic. He is a person. Only God knows what his limitations will or will not be.” Karen Fortier knew whereof she was speaking. Karen and Peter’s son, Hunter, had been born with spina bifida many years before. Their journey with Hunter in the decades that followed included nearly three dozen surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy. That year though, Hunter would graduate from the University of Texas and continue what had become a very normal life. (Waiting for Eli: A Father’s Journey from Fear to Faith; 2010, Acadian House)
Passionate ministry in the special needs community so often exhibits that same certainty of God’s powerful, individualized love for each particular person.
Each summer at our Christian camp in the Pennsylvania mountains I see college-age staff committed to the unique ministry tasks of shepherding special needs campers. These campers’ actions and interactions are different from most of us. Their habits are unique; nothing about their routine is routine. These campers have expressions that are notably louder or quieter. Their pace is slower and their table manners are distinctive. Their appreciation for the momentary far surpasses the rest of us.
But each camper also has a name. She or he has a personal life story, and so receives a particular, personal camp counselor whose focus that week is intent upon caring for that one camper’s experience, providing for him or her an opportunity to grow in Christ Jesus. He or she and his or her individual special needs are at the center of the camp program’s focus that week, and the camp staff does its best to meet all those special needs.
And that particularizing, individualizing love makes an impact.
Many of these MinTEC (Ministry to Exceptional Campers) campers return summer after summer, eager for swimming and campfires and dining hall singing, for all the usual sights and sounds and fun of summer camp. But more, they are excited to return to more of the personal, loving attention that the camp provides. College students serving as camp counselors also testify how their MinTEC days enriched their own summer camp experience with meaning as they lived alongside a special needs camper day-by-day for a week.
Friends of Jesus
This same Gospel compulsion to love the individual has been changing lives for all the ages since Jesus walked the earth engaging the hurting and healing the sick. Such love was foundational to the life of the early church, and it is central to the calling and mission of Presbyterians Protecting Life. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus asked rhetorically as he taught his disciples about principles and priorities. “And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. … Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” PPL celebrates all sorts of ministries where Christians display God's special love for the individual person, whether that person be the aged resident of a care community, the special needs adult living in a group home, the college student searching the meaning of life’s questions, or the unborn boy or girl still being formed in a mother’s womb.
One urban congregation makes space, provides volunteers, and serves supper for over forty special needs adults who gather every Wednesday as “Friends of Jesus.” They come from group living situations all around the city and region, to a place where Bible stories on a flannel board and the simple theology of Sunday School songs punctuate the joy filled atmosphere and energetic fellowship that is a highlight of each participant’s week. Hugs are everywhere and the singing continues right on out into the vans that return these “Friends of Jesus” to their various residences.
More than thirty years have passed since a Christian author re-worked a popular book’s title and reminded the Church, “Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Sunday School”. In a short article he pointed to the fundamental simplicity of baseline Christianity. It neither denies the complexity of life issues and decisions that we face, nor forgets the grounding, stabilizing, and guiding truths that the faith teaches us.
“In Sunday School I found out that most of the questions the teacher asked could be answered with one of two words: Jesus or God. Later on in life I was taught that a good teacher asks questions that require mental evaluation and cannot be answered with a simple response. But is that really true? What is so wrong with living life on a level that believes most of the problems of life have one of two answers: Jesus or God? Would it be that bad? Can you imagine a group of adults who lived each day genuinely acting as if and believing that God was the only answer to life’s problems? We might be tempted to call them simpletons, yet who wouldn’t secretly admire their singular belief?” (Kent R. Wilson, Discipleship Journal, 52:1989)
Singular belief and simple faith
The singular belief and simple faith that sustained Chad and Ashley Judice through a fearsome pregnancy have carried them on into young Eli’s life. Their days have been filled with special needs: ambulance trips and hospital hallways, emergency room visits and sudden surgeries. But the love of God expressed by other Christians has been a balm, liberally applied, that has ministered to their family’s challenging situation. (See Eli’s Reach; 2012: Acadian House)
So often that is how God does life changing work. One person expresses divine love to another.
Presbyterians Protecting Life lifts up the simplicity of Christ Jesus’ life-affirming Gospel, and gently calls to Reformed and Presbyterian Christians everywhere to become champions of life at every stage. Perhaps your own unique, individual calling involves a special needs person, family, or care community within your own sphere of influence.