According to The American Journal of Medical Genetics, 99 percent of those living with Down syndrome say they’re happy; 97 percent say they like who they are; and 99 percent agree with the statement, “I love my family.”
According to one writer, these statistics identify those living with Down syndrome as “the happiest people in the world.”
One of my greatest privileges is being pastor to a church with many children and adults who have special needs. Due in large part to the incredible leadership of a woman named Gigi Sanders, our church has chosen to invest resources and special attention into this community. I firmly believe the greatest beneficiaries of this relationship aren’t the people among us who have special needs, but those of us who get to be in their company.
I think of Katie who has Down syndrome. She has the biggest smile and gives the longest and strongest hugs. I think of how she lights up when I tell her she’s beautiful and how she sweetly reminds me I need to tell her she’s beautiful on those rare occasions when I forget. I think of how she hands me pictures that she has drawn—pictures that represent her profoundly simple, yet simply profound, interpretations of my sermons.
I think of Cade, who also has Down syndrome. The last time I saw Cade, I was visiting with his parents as he arrived home from a day at school. It was very clear that Cade was a young man on a mission, as he stripped off his shirt, located his iPad and earbuds, and headed up the stairs to his bedroom. Within seconds, Cade’s voice was heard bellowing all through the house his favorite songs by the Wiggles. He sang with gusto, from the top of his lungs, with zero signs of insecurity or of self-consciousness or of having a single care in the world. There was something special about Cade’s no-filter, shame-free, man on a mission, bellowing the Wiggles approach to life. His demeanor became a fresh reminder to me of how God welcomes and delights in us . . . and in me. Rather than a timid, calculated, sophisticated posture in our relating to him, God wants us to come to him “naked and unashamed” through Jesus—with freedom, bold confidence, conviction, and loud singing. Anything less than this represents an amnesia about how deeply, and how recklessly, God loves us.
I also think of William, who has Down syndrome and autism. William’s parents are stretched fully and are on constant call working together to care for his needs. Yet they never stop telling us the ways that God reveals himself to them through William. Amid days that can feel like a non-stop, full-court press, William will surprise them in wonderful ways. Not long ago, William got a hold of his father’s cell phone and began texting random people on his father’s contact list. Each text William sent contained two simple words, and nothing more: Love you.
For the remainder of the evening and into the next day, his father received responses to the “Love you” text from family, friends, professional colleagues (awkward!), and also a handful of mild acquaintances (more awkward!). Some responses were affectionate and, as you might imagine, others quite humorous. Yet each of these exchanges was triggered by a spontaneous, non-discriminating love note, delivered via the thumbs of a teenage boy with Down syndrome, autism, and an endearingly unique sense of humor.
Sometimes God shows up in the most unexpected ways.
If not for William, people in our church would know Jesus less. If not for William, I, too, would know Jesus less. William wears his ball cap backwards, and his sunglasses indoors. He is consistently energetic, often funny, sometimes impulsive, and usually really fast. If you look away for even a minute he may have disappeared to another room. He laughs at my jokes and gives me high fives, and he smiles ear to ear whenever our eyes make brief contact. William, like Katie, insists on giving me hugs—but in his case, only side hugs that last for a half-second. But he never fails to give me that hug. Maybe it’s because William, with full and childlike awareness, belongs. And, knowing that he belongs, William has a simple yet deeply profound way of helping others belong, too. Though he’s unable to clearly articulate his thoughts in words, he hands out bulletins at church, passes the offering plate, and dances happy to hymns and worship songs. As he does all of these things—as he lives honest and true—he brings me back to the truth. He brings me back to grace. William reminds me of the “Love you” that comes to me every moment, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways, from Jesus. He shows me a kind of kingdom that I wouldn’t be able to see without him in my life.
Oh, how we need the William’s and Cade’s and Katie’s of the world to help us see the world, help us see God, and help us see reality, through their eyes.
It may be that these beautifully broken friends represent the very perspective that we need in the sometimes-difficult journey of making our peace with God.
Because we are all disabled.
And we all have special needs.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Scott Sauls’s new book, Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear (Tyndale House, 2016).