A SMILE AS BIG AS THE MOON
By DANNY MINTON
My wife, Kathy, and I sat down and watched a movie late one night entitled, “A Smile as Big as the Moon.” It was a true story about a coach who was also a special education teacher and his class of special needs children. The class was a variety of kids, Tourette syndrome, autism, ADHD, Downs’s syndrome and other learning disabilities. Their class was stuck in the far corner of the building in a room with no windows and out of the way of the normal flow of the school.
The times that they did interact with the mainstream students, they were often made fun of and teased. They were treated with disrespect, unkindness and rudely by some of those who judged them on their disabilities. Their lives were often filled with frustration and anger over being bullied and treated ill because they were not like everyone else.
In the story, the coach works with the kids and makes it possible for them to be the first group of special education students to attend Space Camp in Alabama, a camp usually for kids who excel academically. Their teacher/coach challenged them to prepare, and they spent a year, studying, exercising and preparing for camp.
The coach had to convince the camp that these kids deserved a chance to experience what others could. He had to convince the principal and school board that these kids, who had been rowdy on outings in the past, deserved the chance to go. He had to convince the class that they could achieve their goal.
He also had to convince those around them, the teachers, the students, the camp that these kids, with all their disabilities deserved to have the same opportunities as everyone else. They wanted to feel “normal.” They didn’t want to be called names and labeled as dumb or stupid. They did not choose to be the way they were. It wasn’t something they wanted, but it was something they had to live with and could only achieve their goals with the support of those around them. Sorry, I won’t tell you the ending, you’ll have to buy or rent the movie. But you can guess it turns out good, or it wouldn’t be a movie!
When I look at people in a church, I see all kinds of folks. Most have lots of friends and are involved with groups and activities. Most “fit in” to the normal routines of church life and have little or no problem blending in to “church life.” It’s fun, and they look forward to coming. Unfortunately, there are those who struggle to fit in. They are not included in small groups or asked over for dinner. They are bypassed in the hallways and talked about behind their backs. They in some way are not like everyone else. Maybe they are not as clean. Maybe they act differently. Maybe they come across too strongly wanting to have someone to talk to. Maybe they look different. But again, maybe they just want to feel and be normal like “everyone else.”
I once knew some parents who took their handicapped son to another congregation, because their son didn’t fit in and to them at least, no one answered their call for help. I knew another young lady that left and went somewhere else because she felt more accepted and cared about. I read where a congregation asked a local group home not to bring their mentally disabled residents to church because it bothered other folks. I’ve talked with parents who were asked to go somewhere else because their child was causing problems.
I’ve seen people be hurt by careless words, unfriendly stares and uncaring hearts. I’ve seen people go from congregation to congregation looking for a place where people care. People who are different often move from church to church looking for acceptance. There are places they are met with apathy, places where they are made to feel unwelcome and places that they are ignored. In the end, they are simply looking for a place to feel loved in spite of their shortcomings. Everyone wants to be loved.
As we look out among us, we see them, we know who they are, we recognize them by name or as we pass them in the hall. Some label them the “unlovable” or “hard to love.” In reality, if we are to be like Jesus, we will come to understand and realize that no one, no matter who they are, how they act or what they look like is “unlovable.”
Jesus gave us the example of what to do with the people the world labels as “unlovable.” His answer? Love them! He spent time with the lowly people of his time. He talked to beggars, he ate with sinners, he walked along the road with hated tax collectors and stood up for prostitutes and the poor.
The challenge we face is to be like Jesus. To care for those who are different and let them know that they mean as much to God and us as everyone else. To ensure them that they are important people in God’s kingdom, find places for them to fit in and encourage all members to include and encourage those on the edges who just want to be like everyone else.
Danny Minton is Pastoral Minister and Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ