Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Not Everyone with Down Syndrome is Suffering

I caught an article in my Twitter feed called "Not Everyone with Down Syndrome is Suffering" and felt it had a place here on my blog as we educate ourselves and others about people with disabilities. As I mentioned in my Mother's Day post, my sister has disabilities and it has forever changed me in how I understand family dynamics when there is a disabled person in the home. It doesn't mean I don't ever get frustrated or bitter (trust me, in my sinful and broken heart I have failed SO many times on that front), but it does mean that God has given my family an opportunity to be a witness to a world that  doesn't understand and can often times be rather cruel about being different. 

The full title of the article is News Flash: Not Everyone With Down Syndrome is Suffering. The author discusses how much the media describe children with special needs as "suffering" like some knee-jerk, euphemistic response to their condition.      
"Whether with benign or malicious intentions, many people discriminate by looking at people with Down syndrome categorically, before recognizing them as individuals. They assume that all people with Down syndrome look alike, or all people with Down syndrome are sweet, stubborn, angels, or drains on society. I suspect that these biases arise due to the physical characteristics that visually connect individuals with Down syndrome combined with ignorance about the potential for meaningful lives among individuals with intellectual disabilities."
This article also rang true with me because of my neighbors. They are retired missionaries and have a son with Down Syndrome who is in his 40's. When we first moved in, they told us he walked to the store where he bagged groceries. Currently, he goes bowling every week and to many other community meetings. He's a huge part of their family and it is evidenced by their love and care for him and their desire for him to have the same opportunities as others.  

This could also be said of a couple in our church who have a son with Down Syndrome in his 20's. Their son participates EVERY year in a mission trip where he serves OTHERS through service projects. He supports missions in our church and comes enthusiastically to events and services. "Suffering" (in the sense in which the media use it) would not be in a description of this man's life. He and his family are an encouragement and testament to Christian values that honor all life as sacred.

In no way am I (nor is the author) trying to romanticize disability; I know there are days that are hard, unbearable, and embarrassing. It's good to be honest about that! But I think her point was that it's too easy to see a burden before you see an individual. The best example I can think of is that 80 to 90 percent of babies diagnosed with Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) abort their babies. However, the video I put at the top of this post should give you hope and make you cry.             

The last part of the article could probably sum up these two families' (my neighbor and the author of the article) thoughts: 

"Jesus' ministry was marked by an ability to see individuals. In Mark 5, he wasn't content to heal the bleeding woman, but rather insisted upon looking her in the eye and restoring her sense of belonging. He calls her "daughter." Jesus almost always heals through physical touch, through personal connection. Whether addressing Zaccheus or the woman at the well or Nicodemus or the thief on the cross, Jesus refuses to address them according to their social or religious groups (tax collector, adulteress, Pharisee, criminal) but instead insists upon seeing them as a particular person."   
I pray that we all (that certainly includes me) can cultivate an attitude in our homes that encourages seeing people as God does. That's really being pro-life. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Talkin' 'Bout My Education: Cultural Identity, Part 3

This is Part 3 of how our trip up North gave me a cultural education. If you're just joining in this series, you can go here for Part 1 and Part 2.   
  • Blessing #6 - A hometown friend of Justin's in his early 20's who works for a major PR firm in New York City. He said that his clients especially are prone to hedge their bets on the fickle nature of our culture. What sells and motivates people to buy is of utmost importance even if that means abandoning any kind of moral sense. It struck me as interesting how being a national business owner located in Chattanooga is so different than being a national business owner in New York City. There is a real sense of "selling your soul" for success permeating the city, whereas here even the "movers and shakers" are often reluctant to put family and values on the back burner. Our friend faces a lot of challenges, but it is very encouraging to see someone working in a cultural hub who is striving to also be a witness.           
  • Blessing #7 - The Telugu Christian Fellowship conference is why Justin and I were able to visit other donors in the first place. The organizer of the event, Dr. Chigurupati, is a board member of Justin's organization, and asked that his passion for ministry to other Indians have a presence at the 20th anniversary of the conference. Normally it's lower key, but for the anniversary they wanted to get a familiar Indian speaker, Ravi Zacharias. Obviously a man of Dr. Zacharias's notoriety drew in quite the crowd--around 4,000 or so, I'd guess. I saw so many exquisite saris and punjabis; the brilliance of colors and attention to detail really put Western fashion to shame. For what I thought was mainly a conference for Indian-Americans, there was such a diversity of race. We heard so many fantastic accents when people would ask us about mission work. Since most of the mission work done is through national workers (i.e. not American missionaries sent out), it was a privilege to get to share about how God was working among their specific people group.          
          I made a short video so you could get a taste of this annual conference: 

    • Blessing #8 - My husband. Both of us really like to roadtrip. We have some of our best and most honest conversations while we take long treks. We'll talk about our family goals, the state of the union,  the state of the church, and if I'm real lucky he'll tell me what's cookin' in his head for his Great American Novel someday :) I am never more thankful for my best friend than when we get some alone time to clear our heads. I am hoping our love for roadtrippin' will translate into some amazing family vacations with our kids and grandkids someday!             
    So what are the takeaways from this educational roadtrip? 

    • This trip was not all about me. Looking back, that was most of my problem to begin with--selfishness and a lack of faith that God could bring anything good out of going to New York. I now have so many positive sights and sounds to share with people!     
    • New York City does NOT speak for the rest of the state. Our entertainment culture makes us believe nothing exists outside the boroughs of the Big Apple, but it's just not so. We met suburbanites and even talked with some folks on the hotel shuttle who were music teachers and live near Welch's grape vineyards in the rural upstate. I think every state gets pegged unfairly like this. I would hate for all Tennesseans to be defined by one city or region because Tennessee really is SO diverse. Although Chattanooga is quite a wonderful mix, I must say.     
    See where holding onto stereotypes gets you?  This is so crass...
    • Being a Christian in New York or New Jersey is NOT some badge of honor like it is in the South. Down here, being a deacon in your church looks good in the community (which could lead us into another big discussion about "lookin' good" on the outside). In many places, your church affiliation is your street cred. In the North, your church affiliation can be tantamount to being a closed-minded bigot. In other words, if you're in the North and you claim to be a Christian, there are no fringe benefits and you're opening yourself up to a lot of unwarranted criticism and misconceptions. The Christians we met all had very different stories and were testaments to solid biblical faith and being invested in their communities as loving (not Bible-thumping) neighbors. Many of them told us that they had lived in that area their whole lives and never had any desire to leave, but in the past few years have they seen things start to get much more hostile (particularly with the media).        
    • I really liked that so many families were "doing life" outdoors. It was 96 degrees outside and it never seemed to deter them. Kids seemed so at ease on the streets of Brooklyn and, unlike here in Tennessee, they seemed to have a purpose in their activities. Here when kids loiter, they always look suspicious. I kind of like experiencing the closeness that having virtually no land requires of you. Down here we have quarter-acre lots with fences (physical and emotional) up everywhere. When you eat at restaurants up there, you're sitting about 5 inches from the next customer. That rarely happens down here, but I kind of got used to speed eating with strangers. I think my temperament is just naturally drawn to neighborliness :)    
    • Being at the conference was honestly like getting a glimpse of heaven; I was getting to see many tongues, tribes, and nations worship the Lord together. Race was not the important thing-- being bonded in Christ was. That is not something I often get to experience here at home. There is much less of a xenophobic attitude up North that is really, really refreshing. I loved being surrounded by the melting pot and a general lack of racial tension. For example, our last morning at the hotel we ate breakfast in the restaurant with all Asians who were enjoying their rice porridge with pickled ginger and scallions. Seeing the evocative 9/11 memorial, with names from all sorts of languages and ethnicity etched side-by-side, was a perfect example of our heritage.
    One of the two pools at the 9/11 memorial

    • When you tell God no, He makes you wrestle. After I told everyone I didn't want to go to New York, I actually had to step out in faith. God showed me His creation was so much bigger than I wanted to give Him credit for. He showed me how people can THRIVE and build community in a culture that doesn't want their beliefs there. He showed me how generous His people are and how they live life with their hands open for giving and for service. 
    To conclude, I was a fool to think my cautious, fearful attitude toward a different way of life wouldn't eventually be seen by my children. Now I can more accurately show them that no place is perfect, but to go and experience new territory makes you see what you're missing and what you can live without.

    Friday, July 5, 2013

    Talkin' 'Bout My Education: Cultural Identity, Part 2

    In Part 1, I explained my apprehension about going up North for a week. In this post, I explain how Christians I had never met before helped me turn my worrying into an unexpected blessing. 

    Justin with Dr. Chigurupati, the organizer of the Telugu Christian Fellowship conference  
    • Blessing #1 - A 76 year old Lebanese man who walked us ALL over Brooklyn without a bit of trouble. He had the tiniest apartment I'd ever seen (i.e. could have been an IKEA poster child) and said he'd been hit with hard times financially, but he has been giving to the mission organization faithfully for over 50 years. This man has no family left (never married, no children) and has given a lot of what he has left to various charities. He treated us to an AMAZING (and very authentic) Greek restaurant and shared much about his life and his sincere faith in Christ. He reminded Justin a lot of his own grandfather who influenced his life very much. 
    • Blessing #2 - A man in his mid-40's who came to Christ in a psychiatric hospital. He was raised an atheist and he said his denying the existence of God is what landed him in the hospital in his 20's. He said once he embraced Christ, everything changed. He started writing articles for Christian publications that go worldwide. Through his day job, he is able to reach out to those in the aviation industry who are desperate for spiritual stability. A unique ministry as aviation folks have jobs that demand a nomadic existence--no place to set down roots like most people with steady desk jobs.    
    • Blessing #3 - A savvy, yet humble businessman in his mid 30's who, in a few short years, has given more money to support child sponsorships than I will ever see in my lifetime. When we initially thanked him for his support he kindly corrected us that the Lord was providing, not him. We knew his wife was dying of cancer and that he and his 4 children were probably going to be without her very soon (After we got back we found out she passed away a few days after our meeting). When we asked him how we could pray for him he simply asked (in addition to prayer for his wife) that we pray his business ventures would do well so he could support more children so they would be able to clearly hear the Gospel and know the tangible love of Christ. For a man in his 30's to have that kind of vision and that kind of absolute faith in the sovereignty of God, you come away feeling very, very humbled. I know his children (and all the sponsored kids he may never get a chance to meet) are extremely blessed by their parents' testimony of how this life is not about how much STUFF you can accumulate to make you happy and comfortable.                       
    • Blessing # 4 - A former missions pastor about age 60 who started his own ministry 6 years ago as a way to get churches on Long Island interested and active in missions. His accent was the most spot-on New York I heard the whole time on our trip; he could go toe to toe with James Gandolfini. I told him I loved his accent and he said with total deadpan, "What accent?" :) I was so impressed with not only his theology, but his philosophy on missions. He said that he and those from his church do not go to a foreign country and take over a project because they're American and have money. He said they work alongside the people and have the natives take charge so they have ownership in the project. They don't carry that patriarchal baggage that can be so common in American missions. What a solid church!             
    The New York chicken parmigiana the pastor treated me to at Chef's!  
    By this point, I've been talking to my parents twice a day (who tell me the kids are having a total blast and have behaved exceptionally well) and I am seriously wondering why in the heck I worried so much about being pegged as an uncultured, religious redneck and that my kids were going to die in a car crash. Justin and I got the usual "You both don't sound like you've grown up in the South" from just about everyone. Maybe we've both got a broadcasting career if we can sound a little more Mid-Western?  

    Come back for Part 3 tomorrow where I explain the rest of the trip, highlight the Telugu Christian Fellowship Conference, and give my final thoughts and takeaways.    

    Thursday, July 4, 2013

    Talking 'Bout My Education: Cultural Identity, Part 1

    Here's the first part of my own cultural education when Justin and I visited the Northern U.S. this past week. 

    Justin and I just got back from a wild adventure that involved an 13 hour roadtrip one way in one day. We visited ministry partners (read -- faithful donors) for Justin's work and represented his work at a conference for Telugu speaking Indians in the NJ/NY area.

    Sounds like a pretty out-of-the-box thing to do, eh? Well, for me it is. For Justin it is not. He always has the travel bug itching under his skin. He would go to a foreign country or state once a month if he could. Me, on the other hand...well I can be very set in my ways. I like the comforts and convenience of home. To be honest, I wasn't too thrilled about going on a trip where my Christian faith would be mocked by the culture and my independence would be threatened by public transportation. Justin and I have gone on lots of trips together all over the U.S., but there was something about New York that made me feel extra unsafe and like I was headed into unfriendly waters. Even though I cherish every road trip I get to take with Justin, the stay-at-home mom in me didn't want to leave our girls for 8 days (even if they were with my amazing parents!). 

    However, some questions kept gnawing at me. How can I expect my kids to learn about other cultures if I am not willing to experience some of the hard ones myself? Where in the Bible does God promise me a comfortable life where my faith wouldn't have to be mercilessly challenged by the culture? No matter how much I was dragging my feet, I knew deep down that I had to see, taste, smell, feel, and hear New York. 

    At first, all I could see were the differences between the North and South. For instance in New York City:
    • Smoking is alive and well (not trendy here anymore!)
    • Because of limited space, most public bathrooms are for both men and women (ew!)
    • Muscle shirts are not just a fad from the 80's
    • Being white and a native English speaker can quickly put you in minority status (actually kind of cool)
    • Your transportation is completely out of your control and delays and/or crowding happens every day on the subway 
    • The cost of renting is ASTRONOMICAL and UNFATHOMABLE compared to TN
    • The pace of life is so sped up; I feel sorry for the elderly!
    • Because everything is so rushed, you get the "fend for yourself" vibe -- you might as well forget the Southern pleasantries 
    • I can't speak for all of Tennessee, but in our city, you would not see our most famous building lit up with a rainbow for the overturn of DOMA.  
    The Empire State Building was lit up with a rainbow for DOMA being overturned 
    Yet, for all the things that made me uncomfortable or downright worried, I realized that my apprehensions had to take a backseat to my commitment to lifelong learning. Which also means being open to what God wants to teach me when I feel uneasy. By the end of the trip, I really was glad I was able to get outside of my Southern comfort for a week.

    Come back for Part 2 tomorrow where I describe the people of The Empire State and The Garden State. Let's just say God has a funny way of breaking down our stereotypes and humbling us when we try to limit Him.