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Disability Awareness Sunday:
Reflections by Residents of the Friendship House

Jill VandeZande
Former M.Div. student, Western Theological Seminary

Jill has cerebral palsy (CP).

A hearing loss is in itself a disability, and it often goes along with other disabilities as well. My loss is not a separate disability; up to two-thirds of people with CP have some type of hearing loss.

1 Kings 19 recounts the story of Elijah's depression after his victory on Mt. Carmel. God senses that Elijah needs the assurance that he still cares, so God decides to pass by Elijah.

The Lord said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave (1 Kings 19:11-13, NIV).

Three things strike me here. First, God knew and understood how isolated Elijah felt, and he satisfied that need by coming near to him. Having a disability is very often--in fact I would say most of the time--lonely. However, God assures us that we are never alone.

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Second, God is not present in anything big and mighty, but in the sound of a faint whisper. Therefore, God uses the quiet things of this world to speak instead of the noisy things. God speaks through weak, disabled people just as surely as he speak and acts through the able-bodied. This type of communication can even be more effective because then others know that we are able not of our own strength, but because of what God does through us. He then rightly receives the glory.

Third, because God speaks and acts so quietly, it is necessary for all of us to put on our spiritual hearing aids. Those of us who have hearing loss know how much our mechanical ears compensate for what our bodies don't do, and our spiritual aids are even more important. We need to make sure that we are amplifying the voice of God by spending regular time in devotion, praise, and prayer. If we are not wearing our spiritual hearing aids, we risk missing the voice of God.

Jessica Braunschweig
Former M.Div. student, Western Theological Seminary

The Friendship House has been the beginning of a journey that I didn't even know how to "pack for," didn't really have a clue as to what "gear" I'd be needing. I wasn't even sure about the weather, just hoping that I would be able to weather whatever the experience of living with a group of young adults with special needs would give me. Throughout these past few months, my eyes have been opened to the wounds these friends have, to the identity they've been branded with, and to the need and interest they have in others--and to my joy of being unconditionally loved, accepted, hugged, and greeted with a smile from them. In all the many people I've come to know, I feel the most capable of being loved in the presence of these friends, because they loved me from day one.

It's normal to have knocks at our apartment door at all hours of the day and night, to have random hugs wrapping you up from behind, to have jokes announced and art projects brought home to be proudly displayed above our kitchen table. We're like a little family, not without squabbles, but not without love. Friendship House is just that--and just as all friendships go, it's filled with life lessons in learning everyday and in realizing that we're placed here on earth to live with--commune with--those around us, no matter how different from us they are or how the world views them. I am struck with Jean Vanier's description in From Brokenness to Community:

It took time for me to discover that Marie-Jo's [a mentally handicapped woman in his community] cry for communion was revealing my own poverty and my own wounds. Once you have realized that, either you run away or else you have to come to terms with it, with the help of brothers and sisters in community and with the help of God. The love and support of community gives you the certitude you are loved just as you are, with all your wounds, and that you can grow through all that. People may come to our communities because they want to serve the poor; they will only stay once they have discovered that they themselves are the poor (20).

Too often, the mentally handicapped are viewed, and thus discarded, as the poor, the wounded. However, already in my time with them I'm seeing less of their brokenness and more of mine. I do not see them as if they are wearing a "special needs" sign strapped around their neck. But in our moments of learning how to take out the trash, teaching how to follow a schedule, or even trying to agree upon a moderate volume for the radio while everyone is trying to sleep, I'm more aware of my need for Christ's compassion to more greatly shine in me, for his patience to take root more deeply in my life, and for the brokenness of my life to slowly, steadily be pieced together and thus portray a little more joy, a lot more faith in Christ, and more capacity to love all those around me. In coming to the Friendship House, I have become more aware of my need for change rather than seeing the needs of the friends, because we are all so much more than our wounds. And, therefore, it's in the Wounded Healer himself that I, along with the friends, can take refuge. I like to think the Friendship House is a tangible refuge where we can hang our hats, but never our assumptions (at least not for too long), because our lives and thoughts, day by day, are constantly (and hopefully) being changed with each step in the journey. I'm privileged to be part of it.

Elizabeth Knappe
Former student, Hope College

Living in the Friendship House is an amazing opportunity. I am a special education major at Hope College so this experience is right up my alley. I love talking with and interacting with everyone that lives here, especially our "special friends." This is a chance for me to learn how to live with others not like myself and assist them with daily living tasks. The responsibilities I have are much less than I was expecting. As a person living in this house, I am asked to be friends with everyone and invite my "special friends" to go places with me like Meijer, the Hope library, or even JP's Coffee Shop. This semester I also have had many evenings where I have just hung out with them here in the house. Some activities we enjoy doing are watching a lot of DVDs, playing Twister, or even just talking about our day. I have really enjoyed my time here at the Friendship House and do not want to leave in May.

Timothy Haines
Former student, Hope College

I went into this experience not quite sure what to expect. Looking back on the last few months, I have learned so much. Seth has been like a brother. Through him, God is teaching me patience and how to love with a big heart. It has been a great three months.

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