“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2
Have you ever met someone and felt an instant bond?
That’s what happened the day I met Katie. We both were new to Oxford, Ohio, a sleepy little college town in southwest Ohio. My husband and I, along with our son, Joel (who has autism), had been worshipping at the Oxford Vineyard for a few months. We loved this church community because of its hospitality toward people with disabilities—no special program, just acceptance, unconditional love, and a willingness to make everyone feel at home and appreciated for their gifts.
One Sunday I noticed a new couple across the room. Wanting to pass on the welcome that we had received on our first Sunday, I walked over and introduced myself. I discovered Katie, Tim and their youngest son had just moved back from Morocco where they had spent fourteen years establishing and running a school. Katie and I had an animated discussion before worship began.
That first conversation never ended. We were destined for the special type of friendship where you feel free to drop in at one another’s home at any time and walk in the door calling “hello!” instead of knocking. Where you pray together regularly and share dinner or lunch at least once a week.
Very early in our friendship, when I told Katie I was leading a workshop on my book, Autism & Alleluias, at a nearby university, she immediately asked, “Can I come?” Wow! In over ten years of speaking, only one friend had ever asked to accompany me.
Katie’s introduction to my spiritual journey of raising a son with autism gave her a new perspective on people with disabilities. We’d talked about it over tea as we had gotten to know one another. But reading my books was a crash course in how a person with autism can teach us about the Kingdom of God.
Katie began to sit next to Joel in worship, and often accompanied me on Sundays when I drove him back to his home, Safe Haven Farms, after his weekends at our house. She took the time to get to know Joel beyond the simple “hello” and handshake to which so many people limit themselves when they’re confronted with someone they don’t (or won’t) understand.
Katie grew to love Joel, and Joel loved Katie.
“You know, I was uncomfortable when I first started worshipping at the Vineyard,” Katie told me one Sunday as we drove the back country roads between Safe Haven Farms and Oxford. “I didn’t know what to do, or how to interact, with so many people with disabilities. For a long while I thought, the Lord wants me to love and serve these people, even if I’m uncomfortable. On an unconscious level I probably thought I was full and complete, and somehow they weren’t. And then, after reading your books, I moved to a new stage. I began to understand—they have gifts to give to me. It’s not just what I have to give to them!”
Katie went on. “And then, in church this morning, Joel looked up at me. He gazed into my eyes with adoration, with this look that said “I really, really like you.” I squirmed. How long can you hold someone’s gaze? I felt really uncomfortable, and wanted to look away, but Joel kept staring at me with this look of total love. As I turned away I heard God say, ‘Katie, that’s the way I adore you. Are you going to turn away from my gaze?’
Listening while I drove, I detected the sound of tears in Katie’s voice. I wiped away a few of my own. After a moment of silence she continued her story. “The Lord used Joel to wake me up to His adoration for me. He wants me to feel Him loving me—not just know it in an intellectual way.”
Wow. I look back at all those Sundays over the years when Joel grabbed my head during worship to turn my face toward him and gazed at me with adoration. All those times I said, that’s enough, Joel. Hands to yourself.
How often do we miss out on the gifts people with disabilities bring just because they come gift-wrapped in a different kind of package? Because we are uncomfortable holding their gaze?
I praise you, Lord, for Joel’s openness to the Spirit, and the way he brings you into focus for so many people. I thank you for my friend, Katie, and the way that she has brought your gaze of love into focus for me. There are no coincidences in your Kingdom, Lord. Keep my eyes open for the angels that pass through my life on a daily basis, even those who come incognito. Especially those, Lord. Especially those. Amen.