Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Flashback: An Ordinary Life

[While I am working on another project, I have been re-posting some of my favorite past essays. This one was written around 2004, several years before I began blogging. This post appeared on my blog on November 9, 2010. I would later write more on this subject in my essay, Form and Substance: How a Sonnet Saved My Life, which was also featured in the current "Flashback" series.]

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church
"People who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human"

I found myself getting a bit teary-eyed last Sunday during the closing hymn celebrating All Saints Sunday. The hymn was “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” In the old 1940 Episcopal hymn book it was listed under “Hymns for Children.” I knew it had been a favorite of my friend, Meg Parker. Hearing the song made me think of days past, and so I decided to post this essay I wrote several years ago after Meg’s death.

An Ordinary Life
by Charles Kinnaird

Meg Parker lived an ordinary life, which was quite an accomplishment given the obstacles that she faced. She lived in an apartment and had a daily routine with friends and colleagues. Meg had loves and conflicts. She knew joys and sorrows, gains and losses. The fact that she lived the life that she did is a tribute to her family, to the community at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, and it is especially a tribute to Meg herself.

Meg Parker lived with developmental disabilities and a seizure disorder. St. Andrew's Foundation provided group homes for adults with mental retardation. It was there that Meg was taught daily living skills and was able to acquire some measure of independence. Eventually, she was able to move into an apartment with a roommate. There, with supervision, she was able to live a normal life with a normal routine. She was also able to move from a sheltered workshop to her own job in the community. She had a good life, and she was determined to enjoy life in spite of the difficulties.

At her funeral, the priest, Father Marc Burnett, said just the right things to commemorate the life she had lived before that final seizure "shook her from this life into the next." As I sat there listening to the eulogy, I could not help thinking about the day, eighteen years earlier, when I first met Meg Parker

I first visited St. Andrew's Church in March of 1984. I was a Baptist seminary graduate trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Meg was the first one to welcome me to the parish that day. Little did I know how my life would change after that encounter in 1984. Within the year, I had joined the Episcopal Church and had begun working at St. Andrew's Foundation (which was later named St. Andrew's Place). The parish and the group homes would become central to my life for the next twelve years. It was Meg Parker and others at the group homes who caused me to re-evaluate my worldview and to reassess my ideas about what things are important in living a meaningful life. I came to see the importance of ordinary things: a simple meal shared, a conversation about little things, an outing in the park.

So much happened during those years. I was able to immerse myself in Anglo-Catholic liturgy, social service, and progressive theology, all of which were a break from my Baptist roots. It was also there that I met my wife and our daughter was born. All of these things were changes for the better. I shudder to think how life might have been otherwise.

My life took a dramatic turn on that day back in 1984, and Meg Parker's welcoming of a stranger played no little part in its turning. It was at St. Andrew's that I came to realize that people who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human. How we respond to people with disabilities says something very important about who we are as human beings. When I look at the ordinary life that Meg lived, I see it as a sign of hope. In the final analysis, is that not what we all want – an ordinary life? All of us achieve that ordinary life the same way that Meg did, only with help from our friends.

[Note: The group homes and supervised apartments of St. Andrew's Place are now under the auspices of The ARC of Jefferson County]

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