When I was in high school, and a devout Christian, I was a counselor at a Christian camp one summer. One night, after evening prayers with the campers in their cabins, one of the other counselors came to staff area, terrible excited: a little boy with Down’s Syndrome in his cabin had prayed the Salvation Prayer and invited Jesus into his heart. It wasn’t my first experience with disability and religion. A couple of adults with intellectual disabilities went to my church. But it was the first time in my evangelical Christian life that I’d ever really thought about people with intellectual disabilities consciously deciding to become Christians.
We all thought that this boy praying the Salvation Prayer was miraculous. Somehow the message we’d been trying to get across all week through daily worship services and in-cabin devotions had reached this boy with a disability and now he was definitely going to go to Heaven. It was something to celebrate!
I got a little more cynical about the experience as I grew up. Like many things about Christianity, I wasn’t sure what to think about disability and religion, and especially about that experience at camp.
Becoming Cynical About Disability and Religion
It had been quite late in the camp session when that boy prayed the Salvation Prayer. Many kids around him had done so during the session and gotten a lot of positive attention attention for it. It was very easy to tell that it was an easy way to please the counselors and staff. And, because of his disability, the young boy got even more positive attention from everybody than the other kids did. I wondered, in the cynicism and anger that threatened to overwhelm me when I first left Christianity, if we’d asked him to do it again that session, how easy it would have been to get him to do it again.
And I was angry. I felt like we’d taken advantage of a kid who hadn’t fully understood what kind of commitment he was making. If that was the standard relationship between disability and religion, I wanted nothing to do with it.
I’m a lot more mellow now about disability and religion. I ask questions that, because of where I was, I don’t think I could have asked. Now I not only can ask them, but I want to. And now I ask myself about that summer experience: Could that boy have understood enough to make what we’d consider an informed decision about becoming saved?
Or, more importantly: Did he understand at least as well as the other kids?
I think he was eight. That age sticks in my mind, at least. I was seven when I first prayed the Salvation Prayer. I only did it because my friend in Sunday School was doing it, and I was totally confused when it was over. I asked the Sunday School teacher, “Will Jesus be in my heart by bedtime?”
She laughed and said, “He’s in there already, dear!”
“Oh,” I said. I remember being totally unsure as to whether I should be excited or not. I really didn’t understand what I’d just agreed to.
Maybe none of the kids who prayed the Salvation Prayer understood that summer. Maybe they did – maybe, at age seven, I was the odd man out because I didn’t get it.
I just assumed that the kid with Down’s Syndrome didn’t get it. I let that become part of some major bitterness toward Christianity that stayed with me a long time. Even if he didn’t get it, I’ve definitely seen evidence that kids with intellectual disabilities, just like the rest of us, have a sense of God that evolves with age.
Talking About Disability and Religion
A few teenagers with intellectual disabilities that I worked with really surprised me with how much they’d thought about religion and spirituality. One of them wanted to talk about the DaVinci Code movie with me, and about how he thought that his parents didn’t want him to watch it because they were scared that he wouldn’t want to be a Christian anymore.
“Are *you* scared that’s going to happen?” I asked him.
He wasn’t. But he wanted to know more about different religions. He was curious about them.
Another young woman wasn’t sure that she wanted to go to the church her parents went to when she moved away from home, and wasn’t sure how to talk to her parents about it. We talked about some things some ways that she could have that conversation with her parents, and how she could explore other churches if she wanted to. I was surprised by the amount of thought that she’d obviously put into why she wanted to take these steps in her life and how important it was to her, spiritually, that she make her parents understand why she was feeling this way.
And I’ve always known some adults with intellectual disabilities for whom participation in a church and church life is very important – and others for whom it just isn’t. Just like people without disabilities. As someone who is still very fascinated with why religion and/or spirituality comes to play the role it does in peoples’ lives…I just think it’s interesting.
When these conversations come up, it’s like a smack in the head: Don’t make assumptions, particularly about disability and religion. Figuring out what I believed and why took me about six years after I graduated from high school, and nearly knocked me off the rails a couple of times. It was an integral part of my struggle to figure out who I am. Why wouldn’t there be people with intellectual disabilities that go through the same thing?
More About Disability and Religion…
I’ve never talked with anyone with autism about God and disability and religion but I recently heard a radio program called “Tapestry” about how some people with autism view God that was really fascinating. It was what got me thinking about all of this. I’ll talk about it more tomorrow.