I grew up in a house with many, many bookshelves…filled with many different kinds of books. Stories of places around the world, amazing discoveries, animals, inventions, and my favorite…people. Many different kinds of people. One of those stories stands out in my mind…a chapter book called ‘Meet My Friends’. There was a picture on the front of a girl in a wheelchair, and it was written by a lady named Joni Eareckson Tada. Each page introduced me to people, kids just like me in lots of ways, but who faced life with physical disabilities. I was intrigued by the stories of these kids, and the courage they had. And I learned that the author also had a wheelchair…and a lot of courage, just like the kids she was writing about. I also learned that she cared a lot about other people who had similar challenges, and had started an organization to do everything she could to help them. It was called ‘Joni and Friends’. www.joniandfriends.org
Years later, in 2011, I met my friend Chantal at the first Joni and Friends Family Retreat ever held in Canada. She had the happiest smile, most joyful laugh, and most infectious enthusiasm of anyone I had ever met. She and I both had the privilege of spending the week with 9 amazing families…singing, creating, playing, swimming, praying, dancing, eating ice cream sundaes, sharing God’s Word, and laughing together. Each of these families who were with us for the five days of camp had been touched by disability, and as we spent time with their children and listened to their stories, I knew these families needed every moment of joy, rest and refreshment they could get on this reprieve from daily life.
And wherever there was a need for a word of encouragement, a listening ear, a comforting hug, or a good dose of humour, my friend Chantal was there. She was also at the front of the chapel sharing her testimony of God’s faithfulness throughout her life…Mc’ing the talent show…leading the singing around the campfire…and joining the crazy tube rides across the lake! You could find her wheeling from one end of camp to the other to make sure everyone was taken care of…oh did I mention she has a wheelchair? Like one of the characters I had met so long ago through the pages of Joni’s book, Chantal faces life with a physical disability called Cerebral Palsy. But she also faces life with courage, hope, and and joy. Deep joy.
That week at the Family Retreat at Elim Lodge near Peterborough Ontario, I saw glimpses of what it really means to love and be loved unconditionally. As I watched the staff signing with their buddies so they wouldn’t miss out on the fun, wheeling their chairs down the camp road, cheering on their creativity in the craft room, slip n sliding down the hill together, or feeding them in the dining hall, I saw so much love. As I watched parents making the transition to camp as gentle as possible for their children, celebrating and supporting them in the talent show, calming their anxious little ones with a hugs or a soothing toy, caring for their complex medical needs, heading off for an often-interrupted night’s sleep I saw love. Deep love. Love that was constantly overcoming disappointments, fears, inconveniences, exhaustion…love that was ‘bearing all things…enduring all things.’
As I watched the children on Thursday evening one by one get up on the stage to share their talents with us, I didn’t see perfection…but I saw beauty. Beauty in a created dance, music played on the piano, a drama enacted, a song sung…I didn’t see limitations…but I saw a celebration of abilities. My friend Chantal shared a quote recently that struck a chord with me ‘Love is showing someone the beauty that God sees in them, when they can’t see it themselves.‘ As I am sitting here writing, I am sad that I cannot be part of the Retreat this summer. But I am so thankful for the 3 weeks I have been able to spend with these incredible families…and I know that our time together has changed me. I am also thinking about my friend Chantal who is probably wheeling down the camp road right now, sharing God’s love, and showing someone just how beautiful they are to Him.
And I am thinking too, about my friend Giannina from Lima Peru, who is probably doing the same right now. She doesn’t have a wheelchair like Chantal, but she loves to help her fellow Peruvians who need wheelchairs, but cannot afford them. I met Giannina in 2012 when I joined a team from Joni and Friends called ‘Wheels For The World’. She and a few others from Corazones Unidos http://www.corazonesunidosperu.org/ met us for the flight from Lima to Huanuco, a little mountain village where we would partner with a church in bringing wheelchairs, assistive equipment, and medical care to the people of the village.
People that I would meet, and talk to, and listen to their stories. Their stories were not in the pages of a book…these people were unknown, isolated, ostracized. But again here in Huanuco Peru…I saw love. So much love. I saw lines of people being equipped with canes and walkers to steady their feet on the rough mountain terrain, I saw therapists and mechanics skillfully working together to bring comfort and relief through wheelchairs suited as much as possible for their needs. I saw Giannina and her team of Peruvians talking with the people, sharing the story of Joni and Friends, and why we had come. Telling them how Joni understood the pain and challenge of disability…and the despair familiar to so many of them …and yet she how she had found Hope and the Love of God to hold onto even in the pain. And telling them that was why we had come…because they were loved, deeply and unconditionally by a God who understood their suffering.
I met Melvin…who sobbed his way into the church, and his Grandma who lovingly cares for him each day. He was too big for her to carry, so spent his days lying on a mat in the house…but she found a way to bring him 3 hours to the church, and was so happy to see him being fitted for a comfortable pediatric wheelchair, with straps to hold his little torso up, and a comfortable cushion between his knees.
I met Rosa who had broken her hip 10 years earlier. She was too afraid to go to the hospital because of the lack of good medical care, so she hasn’t been able to walk since. But as Rosa posed for a picture in her new wheelchair, her smile spread across her face. She said joyfully ‘It’s magnificent!…When you are in a wheel chair your life changes.’ But she continued, ‘Thanks be to God for the Love of God…if you don’t have faith you don’t have anything.’
I met Wilfreda, crippled by Rheumatoid Arthritis, and her 16 year old daughter who had dropped out of 5th grade to tend to all her mother’s needs. I watched as Wilfreda was fitted with cushions padding her wheelchair to relieve her pain, and given a Bible to read her very own Love letter from her Heavenly Father.
I met Anita, the tiniest patient we fitted for a chair that week, but with a story that could fill many pages. The size of a 3 or 4 year old due to malnutrion and being starved in the hospital…this 11 year old is now the youngest sister to 9 girls in a Childrens Home, and loved and adored by each one. I met her one of her caregivers, who had fought for little Anita’s life, and carried her to the church to be fitted for a chair.
I met Rita who had been carrying her mother on her back in a ‘manta’ and because of the strain had damaged some of her internal organs. She was a widow at 35, supporting her three children on her own, and paying for medication for her mother’s conditions. But as I listened to her story Rita shared that she had become a believer in Jesus a few years back. She prayed for him to take away her wounds and heal her. But today, she said, she understood that He chose not to take away her pain, but to relieve the burden that had caused her physical suffering. She said God was teaching her strength and unselfishness, and begged ‘Please pray for us,”.
As I write these words, I am humbled by the memories of such pain and physical suffering…and the courage and fortitude of the people of Huanuco. And I am humbled by the memory of the love that I saw…in Melvin’s Grandma, Rita, Wilfreda, Anita’s caregivers, the therapists, Peruvian translators, the Pastor and his wife who continue to welcome these ones to their church. I am convicted at the sound of Rita’s voice asking us to pray for them…and how quickly I forgot her plea. And I am profoundly grateful for Rosa’s reminder…’Thanks be to God for the Love of God.’
As I think about my friends Chantal and Giannina, the families I met at the Family Retreat, and the people whose stories I heard in Huanuco Peru, there are so many questions. Why there is so much suffering in the world…why there are families that bear such heavy burdens. Why so many in Peru will never receive the gift of mobility, why so many families will feel isolated because of their special needs. And I know that we will have many questions in this life left unanswered. And yet as I think about my time with each of those I have met through Joni and Friends, I know that I have seen the Love of God in a clearer way. I have seen a Love that reaches into the darkness and isolation of a Peruvian hut and offers healing and acceptance, that reaches into the darkness and despair of our hearts and offers Hope and Forgiveness. A love that gives me Hope, even when I face the darkness and limitations of my own heart, because it leads me to the Source, Jesus, whose arms are open wide.
‘There is no fear in love…perfect love casts out fear.’ 1 John 4:18
“I gave up my all, I gave everything,
To show my great love for you.
My Father’s love, and a Home above,
A life of perfect communion.
I was broken for you in body, and spirit,
I walked through this life filled with pain.
I felt the pain of rejection, of misunderstanding,
Of honor not given my Name.
My own Father forsook me,
In my greatest need,
So I could bear all your burdens,
So I could speak, through your tears and despair,
My Child, I have heard, and I LOVE YOU.