True story with changed names:
Tom and Nancy Morgan, along with their 16-year old daughter, Ruby, joined a Unitarian Universalist church where they felt welcome…where they all felt welcome. That was important, because Ruby has Down syndrome and often felt unwelcome, even in other churches. Several members showed special warmth to Ruby, and no one seemed to avoid her.
I was a member there, and I’m not as good as I’d like to be at showing warmth to people with characteristics I find strange. I didn’t make an effort to reach out to Ruby, but I treated her as naturally as I treat other children. Ruby was shy, especially at first. It took her time to be comfortable around new people. I got friendly with Tom and Nancy, who quickly became great assets to the church community. I was surprised when they told me how much more welcoming our church was to Ruby than other churches they had attended. It didn’t seem to me that we were acting remarkably.
I sometimes do a cookie meditation with the children. (I guess I ought to explain that in my next blog post.) I checked with Nancy first about the best way to include Ruby in what I was planning. Nancy, surprised, thanked me, explaining that “no one ever pays attention to Ruby.” They don’t see her. I knew she didn’t mean literally “no one,” but I got a glimpse at her frustration as a loving mother.
Ruby participated in religious education for a few years and then, like other young adults, began sitting with her parents through the worship services instead. Very few of us could understand Ruby’s speech, but as she got more comfortable it was clear that she understood us and our worship as well as our social activities. She grew into her early 20s as a member of our community.
One day as I was drafting a sermon, I was searching for the right words to describe church members’ responsibility to do the hard work of building their own belief system, and I wasn’t comfortable with the word “responsibility.” We UUs like to see ourselves as inclusive, but that word seemed to exclude anyone without the intellectual capacity to form a belief system. I wondered about Ruby, who had become an integral part of our church community. A few years back, our membership chair had made an effort to get our youth, as they graduated high school, to sign the membership book. Had she asked Ruby? Was Ruby a member?
The Membership Committee had a new chair now, a compassionate and nurturing woman, and I asked her one day if Ruby Morgan was a member. “We don’t have anyone by that name,” she said.
“Of course we do. You know her.”
“No, I have records of everyone who attends, and we have no one by that name.”
“You have to know her. She is Tom and Nancy Morgan’s daughter, the young woman with Down syndrome.”
The light bulb clicked. The membership chair realized who I was talking about. She is a caring soul who never intentionally would have excluded Ruby from her mental list of “people” who attend the church, but unconsciously she failed to see Ruby as a young woman and a “person” who counts.
I learned that the previous membership chair, also a compassionate woman, had never asked Ruby to sign the membership book, as she had other recent high-school grads. Even Tom and Nancy had not thought about Ruby’s becoming a member until a week or two before I discussed it with them.
The story has a happy ending, with a path to membership for Ruby, and it taught many of us about being blind to those with differences — even in a warm, accepting church community.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine