The metaphor of the church as a hospital is so popular in the neo-Protestant milieu that it seems to highlight the hypocrisy of those attending church services even more. That’s what I used to believe until one day when I witnessed the opposite with my very own eyes.

The story has the touch of a cliché: it’s about a man whose attire didn’t conform to the place’s dress code, and whose overall appearance lacked any surface-level charm. Only I knew that beneath the washed-out denim jacket that reeked of cigarettes and closed spaces, he had donned the only pair of elegant trousers he owned, once belonging to his father. His face bore the darkened hue of prolonged illness, and an occasional cough revealed that his suffering extended far beyond a simple cold. Slightly hunched and outwardly sceptical, he actually walked open-heartedly into a place where he was stepping for the first time, at my invitation: an Adventist church that had congregated in an old auditorium dating back to the Ceaușescu era, for a concert.

One of the most acclaimed and dignified youth choirs of the church was performing. The hall was buzzing with excitement, and a colourful blend of voices could already be heard from the foyer, suggesting that the place was already filled. Yet before we could enter, I spotted a girl I hadn’t seen in a long time. I greeted her, even though I was convinced she would have preferred to ignore us. But as we approached, she warmly smiled and extended her hand to him, saying, “Christiana, nice to meet you.” We entered and settled in the back. Amidst the typical hustle and bustle of grand events, three friends spotted me and came over one by one to exchange a few words. They were cheerful, radiant, and friendly to my guest, as if he were their visitor too. It made my heart warm. During the concert, a baby sat on her mother’s lap in the seat in front of us, gazing wide-eyed at my guest, who made funny faces at the child. The mother, curious about the source of the giggles, turned around and shared a knowing laugh. She then allowed them to continue their playful exchange.

This was not what I expected. I armed myself to the teeth with my own hospitality, planning to compensate for any awkward gestures that might occur. “Who cares? You’re with me. Listen to this beautiful music!” I had repeated to myself, convincing myself first that the unfriendliness of others wouldn’t hurt me too much. I had invited him for the music and hoped that some inspired verse would bring him at least a bit of solace in his trials. I didn’t expect to share the same grove of hope with him, but that’s exactly what happened.

The flowers of kindness

A bothersome cough prevented my friend from staying until the end, but before leaving, he told me that he had liked the smiling faces. He remembered them as warmer than the solemn speech of a pastor who seemed obliged to be there and whose pretentiousness had made us both laugh. I liked the smiling faces too. I liked their naturalness and the ease with which they blossomed in our brief conversations, like daffodils bringing Spring to everything around them.

That experience made me resonate with the testimony of a woman from across the ocean. She shared in an editorial published in Christianity Today how surprised and moved she was during her first visit to a church with her husband and Mischa, their cognitively disabled son. They were embraced, not just physically but through words, by the people there.

Like me, Jennifer Brown Jones expected that the uniqueness of her family would push the churchgoers out of their comfort zones and perhaps even cause them to withdraw. During a prayer session, Mischa, bored with the proceedings, began to make noise and then shouted, “No, I not quiet!” His father quickly picked him up and attempted to quietly exit the church. “It wasn’t quiet,” Jennifer recounted. “I have no idea what the worship leader was praying, but my own desperate cry had become almost rote: ‘Lord, I can’t do this. Help. I’m so tired. I don’t remember not being tired. I can’t do this.’”

She was convinced she would never return to that church out of embarrassment. However, just as she was about to apologise to the people around her whom Mischa had disturbed, she was met with a smile. “I know you’re doing your best. And so is he,” a woman told her. “Don’t worry,” others reassured her. “What, they’re not judging me?” Jennifer recalled thinking in those moments. “Then, a person I had met that day came up to me, put their hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘Is there anything we can do to make it easier for both him and you?’ I teared up. No one had ever asked me that before without being paid,” the mother wrote.

The small gestures

One year later, not only had Jennifer and her family continued attending the same church, but they were also actively involved there, including Mischa. Consistently building relationships within the community of believers helped them discover new ways in which God works through the people around us. Jennifer acknowledged that “building relationships is not enough. The church is not a social club. It is a community of people who (…) transmit and relive Jesus’s life of giving and sacrifice.”

However, the image of Christ today is being reconstructed from small pieces, from the significant gestures we experience in relationships. “As we took steps to support others in the community, sometimes at our own sacrifice, we could see how God works,” she says. For example, she shared that one evening, when they went to what was supposed to be a small Bible study group, their group members had a surprise for them: “They told us they would take care of Mischa, and we could go out for dinner.” Mischa became an “official member” of the team that welcomes those who come to church, greeting them and giving them the program. “All these gestures may seem small,” Jennifer said, “but their sum is much greater than each gesture on its own.” 

In reality, these small acts of kindness and compassion aren’t a sacrifice on the part of those who perform them because they bring them joy and even unexpected and valuable lessons.

“When you live with someone with different abilities, you need to give up focusing and relying solely on yourself. We need to cultivate the disposition to understand different people, to empathise with them, and to sacrifice for them. It’s a life that confronts us with our own pains and the poverty of our spirit, with our impatience, our self-absorption, our anger, and our inadequacy. In a life alongside a person with intellectual disabilities, you discover that you are the weak link. And the one who is supposed to be ‘disabled’ is your teacher. It’s precisely where we acknowledge our weakness, need, and limits that we find and get to know Jesus,” the young mother says.

Mischa also contributes to the community’s life to the best of his abilities, and the kindness with which he seeks the good of those around him is a sermon in itself. Jennifer recalled an occasion when a lady visiting their church came in holding a dandelion. “She was beaming,” Jennifer recounted, “and she told me that a very nice little boy was outside and he made her feel very welcome because he gave her a little flower and a big smile. Yes, it was my son. The one who still has outbursts when he hears music or prayers in church.”

“We do not carry our burdens alone; we all share the joys and sorrows.” This was the lesson about the church that Jennifer drew from her rich experience of spiritual insights. Jennifer Brown Jones is, in fact, a keen student of these lessons. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student in Christian Theology and an Old Testament professor at McMaster Divinity College.

church child

The Ark of Vanier

“Spirituality of love through small things” is also what the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen observed within the L’Arche community, founded in France by Jean Vanier. Vanier, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 90, was born into a wealthy and prestigious family in Canada. He had started a promising career in the navy but withdrew into practical monasticism, building a community dedicated to serving people with disabilities. Through L’Arche, Vanier wanted to show his church that disability, vulnerability, and weakness have the potential to bring us closer to each other and to Christ.

In the L’Arche community, church service was not, from the beginning, unilateral. And this reciprocity is one of the most renowned aspects of worship in a church open to anyone, with or without disabilities, as conveyed by L’Arche.

Relationships require reciprocity, and this is possible even when one party has some form of limitation. “Within the community, Vanier discovered how human weakness and vulnerability help us develop a real connection among ourselves. Community members with intellectual disabilities taught him through their unwavering openness. Through their perseverance in being open to him: with their needs, joys, loves, and pain,” wrote Christianity Today in a tribute to Vanier. In L’Arche, everyone was invited to share their gifts with fellow believers and thus participate in the transmission of the Gospel. It served as a testament to the fact that our differences prove how much we need each other and enrich us instead of separating us. Bethany McKinney Fox, a Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, said: “Through his words and life, Vanier proclaimed that we are all the same: fragile and wounded, and that is precisely what makes us beautiful and capable of forming connections with others.”

A few months before he passed away, Vanier posted a short video on the L’Arche page where he shared what he considered to be 10 important rules for life. “Accept the reality of your body” is the first one. It’s just as valuable to those who lack no abilities as it is to those with disabilities.

“Talk about your emotions and difficulties. Take time in a relationship to ask, ‘How are you?’ Put your phone down. Be present. Ask people what their story is. Be aware of your own story. Stop making judgments. Listen to your deepest desire and follow it. Remember that one day, you will die.”

Friends of time

Jean Vanier spoke appreciatively of theologian John Swinton’s research on the interaction between religion and disability. In Becoming Friends of Time, Swinton invites readers to reconsider how they relate to the hyper-accelerated pace of today’s developed societies. He suggests that if we were to slow down even a bit, we might find a worthy place in our lives for those who can’t keep up.

“God’s time is slow,” Swinton says. It is slow, “patient, and kind and welcomes friendship; it is a way of being in the fullness of time that is not determined by productivity, success, or linear movements toward personal goals. It is a way of love, a way of the heart.” It might sound philosophical, but Swinton provides subtle and practical examples.

His book primarily deals with elderly individuals suffering from dementia. By applying his insights to this type of disability, the theologian effectively conveys the confusion and alienation that a person must feel when they realise that the speed at which everything around them operates excludes them.

Swinton argues that the pace of our conversations follows unwritten conventions, and those who don’t adhere to them are subtly left out. We all perceive nuances and messages that come from the rapidity of our communication without anyone teaching us. Therefore, when we engage in conversation, we have preset expectations about the exchange of ideas. When these expectations are not met, such as when the other person struggles to find their words or speaks more slowly, we begin to feel frustrated. The familiarity of this reaction is what makes Swinton all the more eloquent when he asserts that the reverse is also true. How frustrating and isolating must it be for a person who can’t express their thoughts and feelings at the conventional speed, even though they are there!

The depth of these ideas is inherently motivating for those who seek to derive methods from their religious principles to accommodate those with different abilities than their own. It’s true that many still have much to learn, such as not staring at someone in a wheelchair or not exchanging pitying glances with others in the presence of someone with a visible disability or illness. But, everything in its time. As long as before us lies such a vast horizon of learning possibilities and ways to express friendship, it’s better not to waste our time lamenting what isn’t but to start learning and being.

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.