I am the fourth child born to parents who thought they stopped after the third. Mark, twenty-one months older than me, was born with multiple developmental complications. My parents assumed it would be all-consuming to care for him and the older two (my sister, Sharon, and brother Dave). Then I came along. There was more than enough love to go around.
Mark was born with mild cerebral palsy, vision issues, and weak leg muscles necessitating braces for most of his childhood. He underwent six childhood corrective surgeries related to his eyes and feet, not to mention one for intestinal stenosis.
However, the most challenging child-development issue was not physical but intellectual. In the cruel playground language of the time, Mark was a “retard.” His intellectual capacity is limited, roughly that of an eight-year-old. There is some ability around concrete matters, but reasoning is not a capability he has ever really possessed.
In many ways, we experienced role reversal, he becoming like my little brother: he was the bat boy on my Little League team; I stood up for him on the school yard; he wanted to tag along wherever I’d go. We’d squabble like all siblings, but we shared a deep bond.
Mark had an almost savant ability. He loved baseball cards. By rote, he could memorize every statistic on the back side of every card every year. You could pick any of his thousands of cards, cover up a player’s entire face except for an eye or a nose, and he could both identify the player and recite all of the backside information. It became an important source of his esteem.
Mark played a role in my coming to faith. As a high-school student I devoured the four Gospels when I was first learning about Jesus. On page after page I saw this amazing Jesus I knew so little about compassionately reach out to those on the margins. One thing that drew me to Jesus was knowing Jesus was drawn to my brother. Indeed, Mark opened his heart to Jesus soon after I did. He delighted at being welcomed 5by the youth and young adult groups of Marin Covenant Church.
But life got increasingly complicated for Mark. He graduated out of our school district where he had been socially promoted all the way through high school, meaning daily routine was gone. One by one siblings left home to pursue college and eventually families of their own. So did members of the youth group. Slowly but inexorably the world where Mark had been able to get by began to dissolve.
At some level he sabotaged every effort to construct a new functional world. He ran away from every group home. He would start at a sheltered workshop, only for us to receive the inevitable call that it just wasn’t working out.
He became increasingly reclusive and psychologically vulnerable. I fear Mark would be among the homeless mentally ill, that is, if he could even survive on the streets. He’s my brother, and I love him dearly as does my whole family, who works caringly to make life work for him. But we know he is hard for others to love.
And so here are six tips to create a greater sense of welcome and value as God places someone with developmental challenges in your path.
- If you are passing in a public setting, smile and nod your head in acknowledgment. The typical response extremes are to stare or to avoid. Eye contact and a friendly smile make the world more welcoming.
- Use even a casual passing as a prompter to pray for that person and their caregivers.
- In conversation, avoid the typical, “How ya doin’?” Instead, ask for an opinion, which honors their perspective.
- Know their interest area. Mark is fanatical about our favorite college football team, a perennial loser. All I need to ask is, “How about them lousy Golden Bears?” to kick-start a conversation.
- Offer respite. It is both encouraging to caregivers and something for your acquaintance to anticipate. It need not be a long time, nor elaborate. And silence is ok because the gift is presence.
- Send something in the mail. The postbox is usually empty. A note, a card, a gift will be treasured.
The genius of Jesus was to provide comfort to those who make others uncomfortable. God uses Mark and others to reveal our hearts to ourselves. Like the One we follow, may we provide welcome to those who so often feel unwelcome.