Who is caring for the least of these? In conversations with actual professional caregivers I discussed this issue. Many are single men and women who were hired in the early days of the institutionalized group home. Many are chain smokers, divorced, and many are homosexuals. “I have a partner” the young man told me. “Politicians tell me I’m not qualified to be a caregiver because of that, but I have been caring for the mentally retarded for a lot of years!”
He has wondered about those politicians and about the hypocrisy. “I have been there taking care of people that the politicians and the church wouldn’t think of taking care of. They say they’re pro-life. If they are why do they cut the benefits for the programs for the disabled?” The caregiver (we’ll call him Sawyer), seems sincere and is candid about his grievance but in some ways his bitterness seems misguided. Not to say that his points aren’t valid in many cases. “It is important to protect babies, but what about the ones who are here now and need the help? Who else really cares?
It’s hard not to feel a twinge of guilt for the reality of the church being absent in the care for the “intellectually impaired.” All the ethical and moral issues that face our culture from homosexual rights, pro life issues, and separation of church and state, were combined in Sawyer’s Kitchen that Sunday afternoon. The answers are not all clear-cut and easy. Each of us has to face our own level of hypocrisy and in as I leaned against the counter, I was facing mine. The two men that Sawyer was taking care of are past middle age yet have the mental capacity of between 3 and 5. Sawyer provides care from bathing, to medication, food, and entertainment. He is a surrogate hybrid of daddy, brother, and friend with a healthy dose of authentic caregiver. The pay is lousy and the hours are long, and cuts in city, state, and federal funds are always discussed and implemented. “I don’t know how long I can do this,” Sawyer says.
He is a compassionate and intelligent man, on a mission who is easily hurt by snap judgments and protective of his charges from the abuse the world doles out on mentally retarded citizens. “I don’t bring up religion because I have seen the hurt that the church has caused in the past.” Sawyer discusses a time period when he was working at The Ridge Home and took residents to a local church. “The impression they gave the residents is that if they were baptized that they would be healed. They really believed that and when it didn’t happen-they were extremely disappointed.”
Although it is hard to imagine the misunderstanding that the caregiver and residents experienced, it points to a fundamental training area in ministry from the church. Obviously good will intentions in providing spiritual care were most likely present during this time, theological concepts and denominational differences are another matter. The confusion for a venerable mentally retarded person is obviously a sad commentary in outreach intentional or not.
In the early 1990’s a movement of men, mobilized involvement in the church. It was established by a college football coach, Bill McCartney in Boulder, Colorado. McCartney envisioned stadiums filled with men worshiping and praying to God. Promise Keepers was criticized by the world as chauvinistic and hailed by the church to bring men back to leadership. Stadiums were filled, many were saved, and men in leadership became attainable again. Promise Keepers was a resounding success inspiring a new look at evangelicalism and Para-Church ministry. However there are aspects of the movement that lack completion. A major hole in the ministry is a vision that McCartney rolled out in 1993. He saw that stadium events like retreats create highs for the moment that without follow-up are short-lived. He called for “squads” of small groups within the local church that would hold each other accountable, meet regularly, and mobilize within the community. While the idea was revolutionary at the time the organization had a difficult time coordinating it with the mission. Resources were lacking, training was suspect, and it was difficult to mobilize and break into a local group.
Quite often small groups with a big mission feel like throwing a pebble into a large pond. It ripples but the waves have minimal impact on anything near or far. In meeting individual needs the church has overwhelmed its Pastoral staff with more burdens and not too much support. And while the church may be concerned about the practical care for the “least of these” the ripple barely reaches the parking lot.
That is why McCartney’s vision in 1993 is both prophetic and should be revisited. Many churches are realizing that within and beyond the walls there are “squads” that will take up the slack and follow through in meeting the needs of our communities. The successful church has small groups that are experiencing life together and with gifts and talents that are made to reach the community. The small group becomes a far reaching extension of the church. While the small group movement may seem “internalized” to specific Bible study, each member has the ability to be launched out in a specific ministry. That looks like a variety of meeting different needs, from visitation, addictions, medical, or care giving, feeding the hungry, reaching the imprisoned, to caring for special needs children or adults.
As I walk the halls of the house that Sawyer runs, it’s easy to see a man dedicated to caring for mentally retarded adults. He is also a man who faces pressures of a lifestyle choice and his choice to live that life. Yet when I listen to his story and it comes down to whom he really is, being used and being the hands and feet of Jesus on a daily basis-I’m overwhelmed that Sawyer runs rings around the church. Yet Sawyer is a sinner like you and I and it may bother us that many caregivers are from lifestyles that we question. Yet these are the people who for the most part go through the rigors and thankless jobs of getting certified, scrutinized with home inspections, and the hassle of applying for the funds, services, and quality of life for the people who are too often discarded by our culture.
And his words echo through the halls of his home and follow us as we drive away: “Where is the church?” And as we pull out from the curb that Sunday afternoon we pray for the squads to help people like Sawyer, and the residents he sacrificially cares for. We see them waive from the rear view mirror. When we get home we talk about what we witnessed and question who, what, where, and why? In order to really practice what we preach the answers are no further than who we see in our bathroom mirror.