Sunday, 13 July 2014

On Faith and Intellectually Disabled People: Jesus Saves

I was coming out of an odd space, spiritually, going into my AVM surgery.

I was raised in the Anglican church, which has historically been relatively liberal as the Christian denominations go. However, the congregation in which I spent my teenage years had decidedly Pentecostal leanings - very un-Anglican, where the joke used to go that when people ask "Are you saved?" we're genuinely confused and ask, "From what?"

I liked my church, however, and threw myself wholeheartedly into being involvement in its activities. The truly kind and way above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty support of the youth group leader was one of the main things that pulled me through the eating disorder that I developed when I started high school.  I remember many good times with the youth group, the server's guild, the drama society, and the choir. But doubt really began to take hold in my last year of high school, and I started to be able to wonder if I'd be able to keep believing some of the things that I was being taught: that people who hadn't asked Jesus to be their saviour were going to hell, that homosexuality was a sin, that abortion was wrong...that the depression that I was experienced in my last year of high school wasn't giving up its hold on me because I didn't have enough faith...

It was the beginning of me leaving Christianity behind. I was 18. It would take six years of basically spiritual crisis, sometimes just on the back burner in my head, other times so intense that I wondered how I'd live with it, before I felt truly comfortable saying to people, "I used to be a Christian, but I'm not anymore."

And my disability is tied into it in some ways, but I was 22 and through the worst of the religious angst when I figured out that I had an AVM. In fact, I'd just spent a summer with two great friends in British Columbia, traveling and writing and talking to spiritual people from all walks of life. I was feeling pretty good about my spiritual life, and that was probably a good thing, because in the fall I bled into my head during a job interview. That put enough on my plate for a while without having to deal without the internal face-off between intense anger at God and fear of going to hell if I left Christianity.

I now recognize a disability issue from even before my "doubting period" started, however, when I was at a counselor at a Christian camp one summer.

Jesus Saves

He was a lovely little boy, intellectually disabled. The camp was a Pentecostal camp, and being there over the summer was all the better because one of my best childhood friends was a counselor there, too. We were both sixteen.

The "Jesus saves" message was pretty hard-core at this camp. The kids began each day singing choruses, and they memorized Bible verses. The activities were fun, with a Biblical theme. We had cabin devotions at night. Lots of kids prayed the Salvation Prayer, and the staff celebrated.

I first prayed the Salvation Prayer when I was six. I'd gone with a friend to his Bible activity group, and there had been an opportunity for kids that had wanted Jesus to save them to go into a room with one of the leaders and pray. My friend went, so I did, too. I prayed the prayer as instructed, and the group leader said, beaming, "You've asked Jesus into your hearts, children! Wasn't that easy?"

"Will he be in my heart by bedtime?" I'd asked, confused.

"He's in there right now," she said. That hadn't helped. Apparently I'd done something important, and something good, because the lady seemed pleased, but I had no idea what it was.

I remember thinking about this the night that the intellectually disabled boy prayed the Salvation Prayer toward the end of his week at camp. The staff and the other campers made no secret about how pleased they were. They hugged him and told him how glad they were, and there were a lot of pleased "Praise Jesus!" utterances around him, and from the smile on his face it was clear that he understood that he'd done something of which people highly approved, and that everyone was very pleased with him.

Does It Matter?

The cynic in me wondered, "Does he really understand what just happened? Or has he seen other kids get lots of positive attention over the course of the week for doing this and decided he wanted some of that too?"

Not that I think that doing the latter would have been nefarious in any way. I actually think that you could ask that question about any kid that age in his position (the age group that week was 7 -8). I still have questions about the Salvation Experience to which there don't seem to be easy answers, such as "What if you're saved and you live a godly life for a while, but then you stray? Will you still go to heaven?" Is it really reasonable to expect that something that something clicks in a kid's head that folds back a veil, that they can say, "Ah, Jesus enters my heart. I understand this mystery. I see the implications. I want this. Let's pray!"

The other counselors seemed to think, that in this boy's case, this had happened. And maybe it did. I'm not a Christian, I'm barely an agnostic, but I certainly believe that there's some stuff out there that we just don't understand. And I know that sometimes I've been blown away by some of the profound insights on spirituality and religion that intellectually disabled people with whom I've worked have produced, as if it was just common-"Doesn't everyone think this way?"-sense.

I haven't realized until I started writing this that perhaps I still have a *little* bit of religious baggage. Because does it ultimately matter whether the little boy totally understood what he saying or whether he just prayed the Salvation Prayer because he knew he was going to get some hugs and "Way to go"s? Does it matter whether it was due to a prompting from God or a desire to get the positive reinforcement that he'd seen others get over the week?

We'll never know, he was seven years old, and he sure was happy that night. Shouldn't that be what camp's about?

Maybe it really doesn't matter, but there's something that still bothers me about it. I need to do some more thinking about it to figure out whether it's a legitimate concern or something that's just my issue.


  1. There's a saying by a Zen master: Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish your opinions. I distrust anyone who claims to have (or want to find) The Truth.

  2. Oh yes, there is an old purported (doubtful) Native American saying (the origin does not hide the truth)....Religion is for those people who fear going to hell, spirituality is for those who have already been there!