"Jule, An Ethiopian, and Me: All Are Included"
This is a picture of me and my friend, Jule.
Jule is 28 years old, and lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
He loves sports, Shrek, and Garfield.
Jule worked as a grocery store bagger and can make friends anywhere.
We met at the summer camp Holden Village in WA state seven years ago,
and during our week there hung out, took a hike, and ate ice cream together.
Jule is also different—at least, compared to “typical” people.
Jule was born with Downs’ Syndrome, an intellectual disability
resulting from an extra pair of chromosomes in his DNA.
His parents have worked hard over the years to get Jule a good education
to get him into programs where he could use his gift of friendliness and learn skills
But it can be hard to get people to see that folks with Downs have much to contribute
or that they are worth time in the classroom
On top of that, although Jule was born physically as a female person,
Jule identifies as male.
Jule has always thought of himself as a boy—rough and tumble,
into boy stuff like baseball and cars
and Jule wanted to be thought of as a boy.
Jule wanted to be called Jule instead of Julie, be known as a ‘he’ instead of a ‘she.’
This was pretty unusual for the 1990’s.
People with Downs’ Syndrome are now being integrated more and more into society,
working jobs, living and learning alongside typically-abled people.
And with the recent publicity about Bruce Jenner transitioning from male to female,
we are hearing more about the plasticity of gender,
and that categories we thought we fixed really aren’t as permanent as we thought.
But truth be told, for many of us, the ideas on both of these fronts are pretty new.
And when I met Jule, they were pretty new to me.
In my eyes, Jule was an outsider in two ways:
first as a person living with intellectual disability, and second as a person identifying as transgender.
That’s why I think of Jule when I read about the Ethiopian eunuch.
This highly educated and powerful man was twice an outsider, too.
You see, eunuchs were the servants in the house of kings
It was a practice in those days to mark the bodies of those who served royalty.
Marking them in this way meant that the servant could not have children
They were therefore trustworthy with the women and the possessions of the household.
Eunuchs saw the intimate detail of royal households, but were taught to keep their distance.
Being favored servants did not make them part of the inner circle;
When push came to shove, they were always outsiders.
The man in our story was right hand man to the queen of Ethiopia, her finance minister.
He was a believer in the God of the Israelites
He had studied their scriptures, and had just made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship.
But he couldn’t worship in the temple.
Religious law dictated that anyone marked in this way was considered less than whole--
Not fit to enter the temple.
And so this powerful man travelled all the way to Jerusalem for nothing.
He was an outsider in Ethiopia, and an outsider in Jerusalem.
And that’s where Phillip, one of the deacons in the early church, met up with him.
Phillip had been told by an angel to go on the very road that the Ethiopian minister was on.
And when Philip saw the chariot, he knew he was supposed to talk to the man.
When he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, Philip called out,
“Do you understand what you are reading?”
And the Ethiopian man said, “No, how can I if no one explains it to me?”
So Philip climbed into the chariot and explained it like this:
The person who was humiliated, put down, the ultimate outsider, was Jesus.
But this Jesus was not humiliated forever; instead he rose again from the grave.
And this same Jesus is with anyone else who feels left out or like they aren’t good enough--
It’s a promise that they will be included in God’s salvation.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to hear this?
This Jesus has room for everybody!
No one excluded because they are different.
This was such good news to the Ethiopian minister that he was baptized on the spot.
Scripture says ‘he went on his way rejoicing,’
We don’t know what happened to him after this,
but I imagine him telling everyone how he was welcomed in God’s family,
and sharing that same gift of welcome with others.
Henri Nouwen, one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century, did a similar thing.
After teaching all over the world and writing many acclaimed books,
Nouwen went to live in a L’arche community, where people of typical abilities
live among those with intellectual disabilities.
He was so welcomed into that community, so humbled by the experience,
that he began writing and speaking about it, sharing the story of L’Arche with others.
“The question is not how can we help people with disabilities,
but … how can people with disabilities give their spiritual gifts to us and call us to love?”
The truth is that people with disabilities are part of the Body of Christ—
they do have gifts to share.
I experienced this with Jule.
You see, the week I spent with Jule was actually a really hard time for me.
I had been on leave from call for four years by this point
and though I was really itching to get back to ministry, I was also very conflicted about it.
Meanwhile, my husband Jonathan was the musician for the week at the camp.
He met with all the theologians and presenters of the workshops that week,
recruited people to the choir, planned worship—
all the stuff that I love to do but wasn’t doing, that week or any week.
I had been asked to preach in chapel, but I was about ready to say ‘no’
because I just didn’t feel like I was good enough.
At the low point of my self-doubt, Jule stepped in.
In the middle of the morning coffee break, Jule and a staff person called everyone together.
Then the staff person said that Jule wanted to sing a song for a special person,
and that special person was me.
The song was “You’ve Got A Friend,” with Jule singing, the staff person playing guitar.
It was so beautiful it made me cry.
I thought to myself—why am I so hung up on what other people think of me
or whether or not I will do a good job preaching?
And I decided at that moment that if Jule could sing a song in front of two hundred people,
then I could preach for them.
Jule gave me a gift that no one else could give me—
And that was the clear message that together we are gifted.
Together we share what we have.
Together we are the Body of Christ.
Together we love.
If people like Jule in our community are missing, then we are not complete.
If people like me are missing, we are not complete.
The craziest thing about Jule and me, though,
is that we share the same birth name: Julie Lynn.
That sent a message to me, too: We are two sides of the same coin.
That is the truth about anyone we think of as ‘different’
we are all part of God’s family, with more in common than anything that could separate us.
The ELCA’s work with people with disabilities through ministries like Mosaic
makes it possible for all of us to be more fully the Body of Christ.
In our own congregation, we can continue to learn how to welcome others
to appreciate the diversity of God’s people
and receive the gifts and love they have to share.
Who is someone who seems different to you?
I remember going with my parents to the house of my dad’s student from Japan when I was 11 years old. We took off our shoes before we entered the house, and it smelled different, like rice. I wasn’t sure what do, because we didn’t speak Japanese, and their kids didn’t speak English. But the kids brought out a deck of cards and showed us a game, which we quickly recognized: war! We had a great time playing cards.
A lot of times we meet someone who seems different from us, but when we take the time to get to know them, we find we are very much the same. I want to show you a video about people with intellectual disabilities right here in Connecticut. I want you to look for ways that these folks seem different and the same as you and me.
What was different about these folks?
What was the same? (they want friends, to work and play, make a difference)
This is what it says on the ELCA website:
People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have faith needs and desires similar to anyone else. They have Spirit-given gifts to offer, and they are individuals who want to worship God and use their gifts to build up the body of Christ. Like all Christians, they want to be included in the kingdom of God.
How can we include people who seem different?
getting to know them as people— notice what is different, but learn more: what is this person’s special interests? abilities?
ask if a person needs help before jumping in
inviting them to join us to use their gifts
making adjustments so people with differences can participate.
Our church is raising funds this year for disability ministry in a campaign called, Always Being Made New. You can read about it on the posters at the back of the church or in the flyer handed out this morning. Maybe you’ll want to make a donation, too!