I have had a fairly broad religious education. I grew up in the 1950s in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and played primarily with Jewish friends as a young child. In fifth grade, I had the privilege of being admitted to an independent girls’ school, where I helped fill the quota of two spots allotted to Jewish students. When I moved away five years later, my space went to another Jewish student. In my Episcopal high school, I attended chapel daily, sang in the choir, and still know three verses to “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In graduate school at a Jesuit college, I met my first nun. I’ve studied both the old and new Testaments, and can recite many psalms and Biblical passages.
However extensive my experiences, I was not prepared for the profound religious connections I had in 2013. This year I was embraced, both spiritually and physically, by two amazing groups: Muslim parents in Kuwait launching a center for their young adult children with disabilities and a Methodist ministry sponsoring an autism conference closer to home. If you have been following my blog, you know about the former. The latter occurred this summer on the top of a mountain at a heavenly place called Jumonville, a retreat center an hour from Pittsburgh, where, on a clear day, you can see three states!
“Do they know you’re Jewish?” was one of the first questions many people asked when I told them about my invitations to go to Kuwait and be the keynote speaker at this year’s Autism Initiative. “I think so,” I said, wondering if it mattered. It didn’t. No more than my being female, having green eyes, or being over 60. In fact, it mattered so little that, at times, I felt closer to these warm, loving people than I did to many of my own faith. What did matter was that regardless of our beliefs about God, we had the same basic values, philosophy and goals toward people with disabilities: that every individual is deserving of respect and love, and the opportunity to thrive, not simply survive.
What surprised me was that no one proselytized, and that many asked questions about Judaism, attempting to broaden their own religious education. A few times I was embarrassed at how little I knew; most of all, I was proud of my heritage and its teachings that we all worship one God. When I looked at the faces of the men and women in traditional garb in Kuwait, they looked indistinguishable from those of the religious Jews in my childhood neighborhood. We were, if fact, distant cousins whose ancestors, many centuries ago, had wandered in the desert together.
The biggest message was that of acceptance. Few I met were ashamed of or embarrassed by their kids. No one watching the interactions among these families – mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins – could have any doubt about the total inclusion of their relatives with special needs in the warm loving embrace of their families.
On the top of Jumonville Mountain I witnessed the same loving acceptance that I saw in Kuwait. Prayer was a major healing tool in both locales, and science confirms its power. While unconditional acceptance of our family is an enviable trait that many of us strive hard to attain, a tough question that kept nagging at my brain is this, “Are they maybe TOO accepting of their children as they are? And can unconditional acceptance interfere with seeking out therapies and treatments that can enhance potential?
I have spent a long career promoting a healthy diet, nutritional supplements, daily movement and exercise, glasses, environmental accommodations and more recently assistive technology. These are, in many cases, life-altering interventions. I will never forget the non-verbal Kuwaiti young woman with autism who, given an iPad, was communicating within minutes. Then there is the untoilet-trained ten-year-old with alternating diarrhea and constipation, who had normal bowel movements after three weeks on a gluten- and casein-free diet. And what about the sociable, verbal 30-year-old man with Fragile X syndrome who could not walk a straight line or catch a ball until fitted with prism lenses that corrected an eye turn?
Religion, no matter which one, and the latest medical science are indeed compatible partners. I am grateful for these invitations, and in retirement look forward to continuing to delve into some of the most rewarding experiences in my life.