I was standing at the playground, kids running and yelling all around, but all I could see was the fear in the eyes of the girl standing in front of me. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at my little friend with Down syndrome whom I was serving that morning at church. My friend just wanted to sit on the tire swing with the other kids, but as she got on, the other kids jumped off and just stared at her. I had to keep my emotions in check when explaining to them that my little friend just wanted to play with them, but it was as if they didn’t hear anything I was saying. Some looked away. Others looked at the ground, stealing glances at her. It didn’t matter what I said, no one was going to sit with my little friend on the tire swing. The other kids just watched as I swung her around, as if we were there to put on a show.
I stood there, pushing my dear little friend on the tire swing and wrestled with so many emotions. I was angry at the kids for isolating her just because she looked and acted differently. I judged the kids’ parents for not teaching them that God made us all unique, and that He loves us all the same. I was crushed for my little friend, who only wanted to have fun with her classmates. How could these kids not see the beauty and joy my friend possessed?
I knew that what happened at the playground that morning was not the first time my friend had been treated that way, and it wouldn’t be the last. I started to realize the immensity of my role in helping educate my church on what it means to be created equal in the sight of God. If I don’t help the kids at my church see the treasures that we all are in the sight of God, then I have no right to get angry at their indifference for people that don’t look or act like they do. I had to take as much responsibility for that moment in the playground as those kids and their parents.
But how do you change a culture of a church to accept those things they may not understand? With love. So simple, right? Some may think that’s a cop-out answer, but I believe God’s unconditional love for us can overflow to other people, creating a ripple effect of change. It recalibrates my own heart to see others through God’s eyes and produces opportunities to act in grace and mercy instead of anger and self-righteous condemnation. Love also calls us to action. It made me develop a plan for educating the different classes in our children’s ministry on what a disability is. I pray that in time, as the kids learn about how God created us all differently, they’ll see the beauty in our differences and no longer fear them.
Rachel Roleder serves as the Manager of the Cause 4 Life, Global Missions and Internships Department at Joni and Friends. Rachel enjoys learning more of God’s design for His church as she leads teams of interns on disability ministry outreaches all over the world.