I just returned from a week at Camp GLOW, which is a retreat/camp for adults with intellectual disabilities run by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. This is my second year as a companion for the participants of the camp, and each year I’ve witnessed God working in beautiful ways through the people I meet and the experiences that we share. I’ve come away from the camp both years struck by how clearly God communicates to me through the people that I encounter at the camp, and saddened by how stigma and stereotypes prevent so many from opening themselves up to learning from people with intellectual disabilities.
I think that it’s deeply unfortunate when we write off entire groups of people as having nothing to offer us, as being somehow “less than” ourselves, because God often uses these individuals to communicate to us in very personal ways. People with intellectual disabilities are just one group among many, including the poor, the mentally ill, the dying, the elderly, and more, who we often unintentionally (or intentionally) brush to the fringes of society.
Jean Vanier, a writer, philosopher, and founder of L’Arche (a network of communities where people with and without disabilities reside), compared the competitive nature of society to a ladder, in which everyone is scrambling to reach the top, to gain power and society’s notion of “success.” In such a society, the vulnerable members are left at the bottom of the ladder, where their voices cannot be heard by those at the top. We live in a very individualistic society, which has both benefits and drawbacks. When we allow the hunger for individual success and power to drive us up to the top of the ladder, we are creating a gulf of separation between ourselves and those who are for whatever reason unable to climb the ladder. In doing so, we are distancing ourselves from God, who, as we can see through the life of Christ, consistently chooses to dwell with the least powerful, most stigmatized, and most vulnerable members of society.
To experience God most fully, we must place ourselves in His presence. Jesus never chose to break bread and spend time with the popular or the powerful—He surrounded Himself with the people who were downtrodden, disregarded, and pushed aside. And so if we desire to experience God, this is where we must go. This requires us to dismount the ladder, and deny our desire for power and success.
We must forgo a lifestyle that follows the trajectory of a straight line leading upward and transform it into a circle, which doesn’t necessarily lead us to the top, but which encompasses, surrounds, and includes. We must make the conscious decision to lead a life that draws in the very people who are rejected by society—we must love them, listen to them, and allow them into our hearts. In order to experience God fully, we must experience them fully, which requires us not only to let them into our hearts, but also to be willing to enter into theirs. But we cannot do this while we simultaneously strive for power, because in this struggle, we will move in the opposite direction of those who are not given the places of power or prestige in our world.
At Camp GLOW, the people that I met were not necessarily rich or powerful or inhabiting prestigious positions or well-known by many, and while they didn’t fit the very narrow definition of what society considers “successful,” they empowered me to come face to face with God in a way that a competitive, straight-to-the-top, success-driven lifestyle never could. While striving for power offers me height, these people at the bottom of the proverbial ladder, regarded by so many as weak, worthless, and powerless, offer me depth.
As much as I hate to admit it, there is a part of me, as I suspect there is a part in many of us, that desires to be the best, to outcompete everyone else. But as long as I allow the part of myself that desires to be better than everyone else dominate, I will never have the opportunity to dwell with the people forced to the fringes, because the desire to be the best is draining: it requires constant competition, constant struggle, and constant energy. We must allow our desire for God to overpower our desire for all else. Once we deny our need for success and choose to come face to face with those who have been outcast, we will find ourselves face to face with the object of the true desire of our hearts; we will finally escape the exhaustion of competition and rest in the presence of God.