[First posted in September 2012 on www.deepeningcommunity.ca]
My friend Jody, who has Down syndrome, took his place on the stage last night in front of an appreciative crowd. His parents had tuned his guitar in a unique way, so that he could strum it without fretting any chords and still sound more or less melodious. He sang with gusto his all-time favorite: “This Little Light of Mine.” And he shone. When he was done, he worked the room, tackling a throng of adoring fans with hugs and high-fives.
Jody graduated from high school in May at the age of 21. The commencement ceremony for him and a dozen of his friends was an extraordinary event. It began with all the graduating students making their way down the long aisle one at a time to take their seats on the stage. One pushed his friend in a wheelchair. Another struggled behind a walker, stepping slowly and with determination, a broad smile filling her face, while the audience of families and friends cheered her on.
Every student was given the opportunity to make a short speech on that momentous day. Most gave thanks to their parents and teachers. One young man tried to hand his diploma back to the principal, but all the others received them with beaming pride. Jody held his up right in front of his face while the cameras clicked away.
Jody is now enrolled in Open Hearts, an arts program for “differently abled” adults. Last night was the annual fundraising talent show and silent auction. A local brewery opened up its space, and more than fifty restaurants, bakeries, and caterers donated delectables for an abundant feast.
Art work by the students was for sale. I purchased a bright painting labeled in large letters “Hallelujah Hula Hoop Jesus.” I had never before imagined such a colorful Jesus, with a hula hoop around his waist as sparkly as the halo over his head, pronouncing a blessing and gyrating under a flock of birds and a streaming sun. It will be a wedding gift for a couple of friends—a creative reminder of the close connection between holiness and joy.
The talent acts were beautifully diverse—from xylophone versions of “The Farmer in the Dell” and “Here Comes the Bride” to a “Freak Out” disco dance. One group of young women sang a moving rendition of Carole King’s “Beautiful”: “You got to get up every morning with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart. Then people gonna treat you better, and you’ll find, yes you will, that you’re beautiful as you feel…”
I imagine that the particular challenges facing these friends and the treatment they have sometimes endured means it isn’t easy to wake up every day smiling. But last night I envied their joyful abandon on the stage. Their freedom invited the rest of us—most of us strangers to one another when we arrived—into communal applause and conversation and break-out moments of dancing. All the love in our hearts was flowing all over the place.
“Welcome to the funraiser!” shouted one of the students through the microphone just before intermission. “I hope you’re having fun!” Indeed we were.