God, my Father,
May I love You in all things and above all things. May I reach the joy which you have prepared for me in Heaven. Nothing is good that is against Your Will, and all that is good comes from Your Hand. Place in my heart a desire to please You and fill my mind with thoughts of Your Love, so that I may grow in Your Wisdom and enjoy Your Peace.
I came to St. Elizabeth’s Camp in the summer after my sophomore year of high school not entirely knowing what to expect. The Shrine Mont Camps brochure had described it as a “summer camp program for children and young adults with mild to moderate disabilities.” I had applied for a counselor position for very selfish reasons; mainly, after aging out of St. George’s Camp, I just wanted a way to stay on the mountain. Shrine Mont had always inspired within me a deeper spirituality than I ever could have experienced in a traditional church; and in the secluded, quiet valley of Orkney Springs, Virginia, I felt close to nature and close to God. I’d come to church retreats with St. James’s as a young child and stayed in the main hotel, and the five years I spent at St. George’s Episcopal Camp dramatically shaped the way I thought about my relationship with God and the Episcopal Church, as well as my relationships with other people through the love of God. In a way, I found Baptism in the mountain springs, and the graceful mountains became the security blanket I wrapped around myself.
I had heard of other kids moving on to volunteer counselor positions at St. Elizabeth’s after aging out of St. George’s or the Music and Drama Camp at Shrine Mont. I saw it as a way to keep my security blanket for another few years. So, I sent in my application and got Randy Hollerith to write me a letter of recommendation and a few months later I was hired as a volunteer counselor.
At St. Elizabeth’s, each camper gets a “counselor buddy” around their same age. The camper and counselor are together for the week. The counselor’s job is essentially to be that camper’s best friend- to keep him or her engaged, cooperative, and happy. Being a first year counselor, I volunteered to be a “floater”, a counselor without a camper who attends to any extra needs around the camp and watches campers while their counselors are on break. This gave me the opportunity to meet all of the thirty campers. Camp Director Laura Lockey put us through a few days of training. She explained that most of the campers were intellectually disabled, most commonly autistic or Down’s Syndrome. New counselors were excited but nervous, and we could tell that there was a certain quality about the camp and its campers which Laura Lockey was trying to explain but couldn’t quite describe. She gave us a list of attributes. She told us, “Intellectually disabled teenagers are sweet, bright, stubborn, funny, and sometimes moody. However, non-intellectually disabled teenagers are sweet, bright, stubborn, funny, and sometimes moody.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is saying something very radical about the type of people who will reach the kingdom of heaven. He’s not talking about the wealthy, the upper crust of society, the famous or the powerful. He’s talking about the outcasts. Jesus is preaching that God will reward the sick, the poor, the meek, the hungry and the abused. He is telling this to a society much like ours, one which heaps glory and praise onto the wealthy and powerful. In doing so, Jesus is ascribing a divine worth to those who before were seen as worthless. At St. Elizabeth’s I was about to learn how truly valuable each of the campers were.
Some of my campers may have lacked the level of intellectual skills deemed normal by society, but they possessed abilities and qualities which I soon realized were more important than a specific IQ. I remember waking up one early morning to the sound of rain drumming furiously against the roofs of the cabins. It was one of those gloomy mountain storms which frequent Shrine Mont in the summer. As I sloshed in the mud over to the latrines, trying to hide my sulkiness, I noticed a camper coming from the opposite direction. This camper, known by the rest of the camp for his persistent cheer, burst into song. Over the sound of the rain, the entire campsite heard, very very off-key, “Riiise and shiiine and give God your glory, glory! Riiiiise and shiiiiineeee…..”
I thought I had found God in the clean mountain air, the cool flowing streams, the gentle hills bowing to the clear blue sky. Instead, that week at Shrine Mont I found Him in the campers I worked with; in their meekness and purity of heart, their mercy, and above all their overwhelming love and joy. For so long our society has overlooked the intellectually disabled. It has cast them out and ignored them and undervalued them like the people Jesus preached to on the mountainside had cast out the meek, the poor in spirit, and the persecuted. The teens I met that week were extraordinarily capable and talented and incredibly humble and gracious. Because of that, I felt they were spiritually close to God in a way I had never been.
When Jesus preaches about the rewards which will come to the poor and the mourning, He’s conveying the magnitude of the scope of His love. He is speaking through the generations and to all of God’s children, sending us His compassion. But that’s not all. He wants us to understand that even those people which society deems unworthy are valuable and loved by God.
And if they are worthy of God’s love, they are definitely worthy of ours. That is what I take from this week’s Gospel. Jesus is not just laying his blessing upon the meek, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He is instructing us to love them as well and to value all of God’s children, not just the rich and the powerful or those whom it is easy for us to love. My time at St. Elizabeth’s has taught me the importance of loving my neighbor as myself; whether my neighbor be rich or poor, black or white, intellectually disabled or not. May today’s gospel passage have that same meaning for you; a reminder that we are all loved and we are all commanded to love.