Saturday, September 4, 2010

I am Thankful for Special People in the Family of God

I am currently team teaching a course, Ministry with Special Needs Children and Their Families, with Marcy Williams Webb. Marcy is the primary teacher; I assist. I recruited Marcy several years ago to help me develop this course. She has a Masters degree from our seminary and a Masters degree in clinical psychology from Wheaton College and she worked for many years at the Church of God Home for Children as a counselor/therapist. She also has a doctorate from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

I was moved to create the course after meeting a family here in Cleveland. The father had been the church clerk of a local congregation for many years. The daughter, not yet twenty, was a severe diabetic who had both legs amputated. The mother had terminal cancer. They had not set foot in a church in over three years. I met them through a member of New Covenant, Brenda Hughes, who met with them weekly for a Bible study and prayer.

They had dropped out of church shortly after the daughter’s surgery. On her first Sunday back in church her father had wheeled her down to the front of the church and parked her to one side, out of the way. She spent her whole life in that church and loved it. For years she had sat on the front row. When they arrived the next Sunday the pastor met them at the front door, drew the father aside and pointed to an area near the rear of the sanctuary where they had prepared a place for the wheelchair. Some members had requested she be placed near the back. They were not comfortable seeing the young woman without legs down front; it interfered with their worship. The family left their home church that day and never returned.

I contrasted their experience with the church of my childhood, a church with an honored place up front for a severely handicapped young woman. In 2008 I wrote about her and so I copy that essay here as a expression of thanksgiving for the church of my childhood.

When I was young Gerri Bethune was the most special person at our church, the Springfield Church of God.

When we got to church early I watched the adults move around greeting one another, hoping they would shake my hand, and waiting for Gerri to arrive. Gerri was different from everyone. She had short dark hair; all the other women had longer hair. Some wore it in a tight bun on the back or top of their heads; some had it piled high on top, and some let it hang down on their shoulders. But Gerri’s was short, barely hanging over her collar.

Gerri was different because she sat in a wheel chair. I could hear the men talking as two of them carried her in her chair up the stairs. Sometimes her father would lift her out of the chair and carry her in his arms, letting someone else carry the chair.

Once she was on the sanctuary level, people began to gather around her. The women would hug her, some giving her a kiss on the cheek. The men would grasp her hand in both of theirs. Slowly her father would roll her down the aisle, people talking as they went.

She was always brought to the front of the sanctuary on the left hand side next to the wall, just below the platform. Before the service began almost everyone would walk down front to say hello to Gerri. She was clearly the most special person in church; everyone wanted to talk with her. Everyone loved her.

When I was very young, I was afraid of Gerri. I believe she had cerebral palsy. Back then I didn’t know those words or what they mean. What I did know was that I could not understand her when she talked. Her words were garbled and she would squeal often. Her hands and arms would move in all directions when she tried to talk. She was different in ways I didn’t understand.

I asked my mother why Gerri was different, and she said she had been dropped on her head when she was a baby. I don’t know if mom didn’t understand cerebral palsy or if she was trying to motivate me to be more careful when I played. I was afraid something would happen and I would become like Gerri. At the same time I wanted everyone to love me the way they loved Gerri.

I now know Gerri was loved deeply because God’s hand was on her. She knew God and she loved deeply. She was happy to see everyone. She was a joyful presence in the house of the Lord. She gave more to the people than they could ever give to her.

I am thankful for the Springfield Church of God. I am thankful for Gerri Bethune. Together they taught me God’s love is not based on how we look or what we can give. God’s love is a work of grace; in God’s presence the greatest gifts often come through the weakest among us. There is a special place for everybody in the family of God.

Cleveland, Tennessee
September 4, 2010


Anonymous said...

I am glad we grew up at Springfield COG. I miss the saints that were so important in developing our understanding of who God is.

Iris said...

Gerry Bethune is on the far side of 60 now. Sis Bethune is in her 90's. I have remained good friends with Cheryl, the youngest sibling. The best way to communicate with Gerry was to ask her questions. She could answer yes or no by her facial and body expressions. She would squeal and flail when the spirit moved in he services. She certainly loved church and all the people ... and we all loved her.