Two people were facing the congregation at Mass last Sunday: The priest, of course, and an interpreter, who was signing for the deaf people in the pews.
Scratch that, there were three people facing the congregation. The third was a profoundly disabled man, his body twisted permanently into a pretzel, his skull misshapen, his features preternaturally mobile. He didn’t seem able to face the altar, but spend most of the hour bobbing and grinning and leering at the rest of us, while his caregiver patiently redirected him over and over again, calming him when he got agitated, soothing him when he got loud.
Why is it so hard to meet the gaze of folks like this? If ever there was a low-risk social interaction, it’s making eye contact with someone who can’t talk at all, much less expect something witty or suitable in response. “Just smile at him,” I tell myself. “Just be friendly and sincere, and then move along.” Still, I avoid eye contact. It’s obviously not about him. It’s about me.
That hour nagged at me. Two faces, the translator and the disabled man demanded our attention, their eyes shining, their hands busy with gestures that meant nothing to me. If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts. If today you see a face and it keeps grinning and winking and nodding at you, at least you could ask the Holy Spirit what’s up. Here’s what I think it is.
The sign language translator was there because there are some folks in the congregation with a disability. They cannot hear, so they need extra help to have God’s word conveyed to them.
I am disabled, too, spiritually. I need a translator. There is something in my heart that fears and rejects mentally and even physically disabled people, and I’d rather they just turn around and leave me alone with my smart, attractive children and friends. I’m a pro-lifer, so I am ashamed to respond this way to any of God’s children. It is a common but severe defect. I want to be open, but I am not, and I can only fake it about half the time. Most of the time, I just avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid. I’m not alone or unusual in this, but that doesn’t make it all right.
I don’t mean to reduce another human being to a symbol. This man was attending Mass, and certainly wasn’t there just for my benefit or edification. He has a name, and he obviously has at least one person who loves and cares for him. But he was also, for me, a translator, someone turning to face me to convey a message that I wasn’t able to hear on my own without his help. Sometimes you don’t realize you are deaf until a translator turns up.
So there is more. It made me ask myself: Who am I having the hardest time facing right now? Who do I not want to look in the face? Who am I reluctant to treat as fully human?
Easy to answer in January of 2017: Enthusiastic Trump supporters. Over and over again, despite my resolve, I lose my temper with them, I get nasty, I get personal. I am just so angry at what they have chosen for me and my family and my beloved country. There they stand, shamelessly twisted in their worldview, not even hiding their faces, just leering and gesticulating. Turn around! Shut up! Get away from me! I want to yell (and sometimes do).
I’m not proud of behaving this way. I call myself a pro-lifer. This is a severe defect, that I allow myself to respond to other human beings with open, personal contempt and derision. It’s especially egregious because I often write about our obligation to show love to each other.
I don’t know what to tell you. I’m working on it. Yes, this post is the best I can do right now. Those of you who happily voted for Trump and continue to champion him, I think you are wrong, wrong, wrong, and I will not apologize for calling it twisted and awry to admire and champion a wicked man. Whatever your motivation, you have done something objectively terrible to our country.
But the way I respond to you is my problem, not your problem. I have a defect, and I know it. Thank you for looking me in the face and helping me be more aware of my defect. Thank you for being the translator who alerts me to just how deaf I am. Please pray for me, and I will pray for you. And then maybe we can all just turn around and face the altar, like we’re supposed to.