Friday, December 23, 2011

Fed with Human Kindness

A true story to warm your heart this Christmas -- I met Robert Reid, at Summit, the annual September Bible Lectureship at Abilene Christian University. In his story, I saw a faithful, determined, and humble man, reflecting the image of Jesus Christ. 

            Robert, wheelchair bound, faced challenges all his life and wrote about them in his memoir: “Bursting with Life: Cerebral Palsy.” In 1942 in a small West Texas town, he was born two months prematurely after 27 hours of labor. Not many expected him to live, but God had other plans, as Robert wrote in the opening of his book, “I am the central character of this true story, God is the author.”

            Even when released from the hospital, he couldn’t nurse, so his mother fed him with an eyedropper. By the age of two, Robert still wasn’t crawling and kept his fists clenched. Eventually, doctors gave a correct diagnosis of cerebral palsy.

            Robert explains about degrees of cerebral palsy, saying he is in the middle range: “I am able to talk (although not plainly) and use my feet, but I’m in a wheelchair and can’t use my hands.” His childhood filled with doctors’ differing advice and therapies, both good and bad. His mother and father never gave in to those who wanted Robert institutionalized. Until the age of 12, his parents carried him in their arms everywhere they went, so he could experience all they did.

            That year, he grew so fast that a wheelchair became necessary. Because of the damage to his body and his spastic movements, many wrongly assumed that Robert also had brain damage. Reading his story, I realized once more how many wrong judgments people make. One occasion at a popular barbeque restaurant in Lubbock shows this: his parents got his food first and sat him at a long bar with a row of stools. A couple came in to eat, and the woman asked him to move down one spot so they could sit down. He told her he couldn’t move, thinking his handicap obvious, but she responded by calling him a “spoiled brat.” Robert remembers that he would have loved to be able to move and run around the restaurant like a spoiled brat. Despite similar incidents, Robert knew the blessing of his parents taking him to public places and for never hiding him at home.

          Told by many professionals that he’d never get proper schooling, Robert pushed to get into public high school and enroll in college. In college, living away from his parents proved challenging since he couldn’t write, dress, or feed himself. Always dependent upon the kindness of others, fellow college students used carbon paper to make copies of their class notes for Robert.

            Two driving forces kept Robert going: he knew an education would benefit his future, and he knew without a doubt that God had a plan and a purpose in all “my struggles” Robert recognized a calling to Portugal as a missionary. He mastered Portuguese, and with the invention of Velcro, replacing buttons and zippers on his clothing, he could dress himself but it still took a long time to dress.

            While in Portugal, Robert continued studying the Portuguese language in classes and through private tutoring. Another dedicated young man, Clay, was his roommate, and fed Robert his meals. Later, his roommate, Clay, returned to the United States, but Robert wanted to remain in Portugal. His first time to live alone gave him great freedom even though he had to crawl to the bathroom. Each morning, a kind man helped him down the flights of stairs to the street.   

            One of the things Robert most enjoyed about the culture in Portugal was their relaxed way of living and their compassion for his disability. In restaurants after ordering food, a waiter would see his struggle to pick up a fork and would offer to feed him. Because many servers knew him, he summoned the courage to ask if they could feed him. They treated his requests with the “greatest respect and dignity.” They only asked that he arrive before or after the lunch rush. “I don’t think I could have managed without such compassion,” Robert said. Eventually, he married Rosa, and they have an adult married daughter.  

            From the nurturing family who fed Robert with an eyedropper to the waiters who fed him in restaurants, I found an echo of the story of Jesus Christ – the bread of life. When we are fed by Jesus, his compassion becomes ours, enabling us to love and care for others. Robert’s story reminds us that we all have disabilities – overcome best when the spirit of Christmas rules our hearts all year long. Merry Christmas, dear readers.

            Index card verse for week 51: “Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 1:21).  


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