Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Matthew 18:21-22 (NIV)
If you know me at all, you know that I have a daughter who is proud to tell anyone and everyone, that she has Down syndrome. That she is a young woman with Down syndrome. She doesn't lack for self-esteem. And she doesn't lack for compassion, or empathy, or friendliness, or helpfulness, and sometimes, just, plain stubbornness. Which can sometimes make me crazy. But that's not the sum total of who she is.
She's the girl who texted the wrong Uncle Jerry (my sister's husband) to tell him happy birthday - because she saw my happy birthday message to MY Uncle Jerry on Facebook (her great-uncle -- thus, the confusion). She's the one who tells my husband about his birthday present within five minutes of telling me that it's a secret. She just can't keep good news to herself. She's the one who showed me a series of texts to my sister:
My daughter: love you
My sister: I love you, too! So much!
My daughter: love you now let me work
So, this picture caught my eye, and I just HAD to click on the MORE. I had to read the whole story.
Well, it wasn't a story, really, it was a letter. The letter was to a young woman, quite pretty, a news reporter in fact. Apparently this news reporter described President Obama as a 'retard' in a tweet, and the letter was written in response.
True story. It actually happened in 2012, during the Presidential debates.
For me, hearing the word 'retard' feels like a punch in the stomach. It wasn't too awfully long ago when my daughter was in fifth grade at the school where I was teaching. Fifth grade. My classroom sat beside her classroom - two portables along the fire road behind the main school building, right next to the playground. We used to call them our little cabins in the woods. Our classes had recess together, the teachers taking turns to monitor.
One day, during my partner's turn at recess, a couple of girls from her class came to see me. Upset and fidgety, they told me about an on-going incident involving my daughter and one of the boys from my class. Apparently he had told my daughter that his name was JackAss. My daughter is really good with names. Just last weekend she kept all 38 of our relatives straight during our visit to Indiana. It's one of her superpowers. So this boy told her this name and then proceeded to follow her around the playground asking her his name. When she said what he told her, he laughed at her, and called her a retard.
I could barely thank the girls for letting me know what was going on.
I. Was. Furious.
Did you know that God can calm a storm? Thankfully, I said a little prayer before calling the boy to me - to hear his side.
Long story short, my classes, from that time on, were educated on the word 'retard'. They were educated about it's history -- how it used to be used to describe the mental capabilities of people with delayed cognitive abilities -- how it had slowly evolved into an insult -- how using that word as an insult, meant that they considered people like my daughter to be insults.
Not too long ago, I wrote an article about the word, very much like my classroom lecture. You are welcome to read it on page 10 of the July, 2014 Christian Journal.
But now this true story. This beautiful, grace-filled letter by a young man with Down syndrome. I don't know if he had help - the writing is leagues beyond anything my daughter is capable of. The forgiveness may be leagues beyond anything I feel I'm capable of.
See, he asks the pretty reporter why she uses 'retard' as an insult. He explains that, as a man with Down syndrome, he struggles to break public perception that intellectual disability means being dumb or shallow. Then he gives examples of the kinds of people she could have possibly meant to link to President Obama by calling him retarded. The people he describes are victims who rose above the bullying they received in school, or people who have to consider what they say, people who don't jump on the quick-comeback-snarky-soundbite bandwagon. He asks if she is perhaps linking President Obama to people with intellectual disabilities who live in low-rent housing, with state-provided health care who STILL, in the midst of poverty, manage to see life as a precious gift.
I've seen these people, friends of my daughter's, friends of mine. They participate in Special Olympics, supporting each other with encouragement and enthusiasm. They worship at churches and help with missions. They participate in meetings about living conditions, and jobs; they show up and sometimes even speak up at rallies and forums. They work. They play. They argue. They gossip. They forgive.
That's what made me cry when I read this letter. The young man was very clear and concise about how the word 'retarded' is used as an insult. He was very clear and concise about the link between a population of people and that insult. If you don't read the whole letter - then here are the final seven sentences...
After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV. I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash. Well, Ms ___, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much. Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.
A friend you haven't made yet,
John Franklin Stephens
Global Messenger Special Olympics Virginia
... A friend you haven't made yet....
"YET..." This is hope. This is forgiveness.