Last week a fifteen year old boy, a student at Mary Rice Centre for the disabled in Kibera, Peter Akoyo, died in his home from an epileptic seizure just the day after participating in the crazy Olympics with the other children. All visitors had noticed how he was a big brother to the smaller, more handicapped children and was always ready to attend to their toiletry needs. His dream to start a vocational training course tragically remained unfulfilled.
So what does the life of an intellectually disabled child have to tell us? What do we say about the significance of all the handicapped children at the Mary Rice Centre in Kibera run by Christian Brothers? What can we learn from the children who for years had remained hidden from view, perhaps because of the shame attached to parents or children or both, for suffering from a weakness inherited at birth?
A quite remarkable Catholic man, John Vanier, who founded communities of ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’ people living together says that even more than having compassion for the needy, we are called to enter into friendship.
Vanier and Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers and father of Mary Rice, insist that to love people is not first of all to do things for them but to reveal something to them. It is to reveal that they have a value, that they are beautiful and precious. This incredible spiritual insight suggests that we can only do this by first recognising the weakness and helplessness within ourselves.
In order to know our compassionate God, we learn how to be weak ourselves. Edmund and Vanier insist that it is the poor who can minister to us and help us to accept our poverty. Both tell us that we must necessarily move beyond the effort to “do good”, and move to a place of humility where we can allow the poor and disabled to do good to us.
They invite us to walk with the needy and especially the disabled as friends, as companions because we need them. We need them so that like Jesus we suffer the pain of others’ suffering and are moved to discover our reserves of compassion. To live in our need of the ‘weak’ is to know deep communion with God and the world.
Edmund and Vanier remind us gently that it’s the people with disabilities who are changing the rest of us. In a gathering at of the disabled at Mary Rice Centre there is a presence of God, a gentleness, a peacefulness, a kindness. This is a little place in the kingdom of God. There’s joy. There’s happiness. There’s prayerfulness, as a group of visiting Australians found out, when one of the Mary Rice children anointed them and gave them a blessing, a moving experience indeed.
St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians says that those parts of the body that are the weakest and the least presentable are necessary to the body and should be honored. This means that we need people with disabilities to be the church. No one, poor or disabled, can remain separate. Pope Francis wants a poor church for the poor, a church that is bruised, hurting and dirty” because it is out on the streets.” Do you recognise that this was what Jesus of Nazareth was?!
Edmund Rice, a wealthy business man before founding the Brothers,was transformed by the weakness of his disabled child, Mary. He discovered reserves of compassion that led him to commit his life totally to the transformation of the deprived, abused street children of his day, to reveal their goodness to themselves. All of us live in a culture that believes we are transformed by power. And the tension between weakness and power is in us all.
So, where do you want to find the living Christ – in the weakness of the little ones, the poor, simple children, the intellectually disabled or the ever conflictual, power seeking political leaders? Where are you finding your way to the poor, vulnerable Jesus of Nazareth? What a paradoxical God- one found in weakness not power! Does this image of God attract you?
by PETER COLE