Detour Company Theatre

One Way To Do It, Among Others

[This post also appeared as an ePistle of The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, May 25, 2012]

Last Sunday, May 20, 2012, the Sunday after the Ascension, in the Gospel reading from John, Jesus prayed for his disciples—us included—acknowledging that while “they are in the world… they do not belong to the world.”  In our weekly staff meeting on Wednesday mornings at diocesan house, Bishop Smith always challenges those of us who will be preaching the following Sunday to not only talk about “what” the Gospel calls us to do, but to answer the silent question that pervades the minds of people in the pews: “Tell me ‘how’ I am to go about doing what the Gospel calls me to do? Give me an example of how.”

Taking this to heart, last Sunday I was honored to be the guest preacher at Trinity Cathedral in Portland, OR, and I felt called to preach about being “in the world… but not of the world.” Rather than offer a list of moral imperatives, “Do this… Don’t do that,” figuring that would not be useful, I opted instead to tell a story, a story of one way we can be in the world, but not of the world. In my sermon last Sunday, I told the story of a friend of mine (and of so many others in this diocese) who does just that, by the way she lives and serves from her strengths and passion, the way Jesus calls us to serve.

Sam is a mom, widowed about a year ago, and guardian of her thirtysomething son who has intellectual disabilities. Twelve years ago, Sam had this idea. Sam teaches theater at Phoenix College, and she wanted to create a way of doing theater that would include people with disabilities, because—as she repeats like a mantra: “The Arts should be accessible to everyone.” So Sam created Detour Company Theatre, an award-winning, Phoenix based acting troupe for adults with disabilities. For the past twelve years, Sam and the actors of DCT have been providing wonderful theater performances in which all the lead roles and other principal actors are persons with disabilities. Some non-disabled persons appear on the stage, but they only function as extras in the performance, to help support the singing a little, and serve as coaches to provide a little help (or a reminder) to any actor who needs it, in getting to their place on time and on cue.

What’s so great about Detour Company Theatre is that it makes people who often are invisible in our society VERY visible—in fact, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the production without them. Sometimes in our culture and in our world we don’t see people with disabilities; oh, we may see them, but only to look past them onto someone else more interesting, or we see them in order to not run into them, but often we don’t “see them,” as in see them to notice them, or experience them as human beings, only different. So Sam (a lifelong, active Episcopalian) has taken this idea of Detour Company Theatre and has introduced all these wonderful people with disabilities to the people of Phoenix and its surrounding communities.

For the past three years my son Jonathan, an eighteen year old young man with Down syndrome, has acted in DCT. When he first started, being the then youngest member of the troupe, he got all the “little brother roles”: Winthrop in “Music Man,” Randolph in “Bye, Bye Birdie,” and Benjamin in “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”  With every performance, his acting skills improve, little by little. While the acting and singing of a DCT performance is indeed a miracle, the real miracle occurs in the audience. In truly seeing (perhaps for the first time) these people with disabilities performing on the stage—for two hours or so, impossible to ignore—the miracle occurs, and “something like scales falls from [their] eyes” and sight is restored, the heart is lifted to a new height, and a mind is stretched a little further never to snap back to its original shape. I think it is impossible to attend a Detour Company Theatre performance and not be moved in the deepest part of your being.

In this, Sam is doing what she sees Jesus doing; including the marginalized, bringing in the outcast, welcoming the stranger, the lonely, and ignored of our generation. Loves pervades it all. And to me, that is one way of being in the world, but not belonging to the world. Because we know how the world wants to treat people with disabilities; Detour Company Theatre says otherwise. Just like Jesus says otherwise.

The most encouraging thing we need to remember is that Jesus prays for us, prays for our success at this. When we step out in faith and courage to do what seems an impossible thing—be in the world, but not of the world—Jesus prays for us. I’m thinking the prayers of Jesus probably have a good chance of getting answered, so we should just move forward with confidence that Jesus stands with us, no matter how crazy things might get. Jesus prays for us, prays for us to be like him.

So there you have an example of being in the world, but not of the world. This is one way to do it, among others.

Take heart and have courage to allow the Spirit this season of Pentecost to guide you into your unique way of being in the world, but not of it, as it has Sam and so many, many others. God bless you in you efforts.

(By the way, the next Detour Company Theatre performance will be Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” on  June 15, 16, and 17, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts; admission is on a donation basis. For more information, go to the Detour Company Theatre website. See you there!)

Detour Company Theatre R-Word Take The Pledge R-Word

Sorry To Have Let You Down, Jonathan

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…” Romans 7:19

Nothing feels more frustrating than realizing that I didn’t do something I should have done, and in this case, I really knew I should have said something, but didn’t. The reasons for not saying something do not matter, nor do they outweigh the reason why I should have said something. I just know now that I didn’t say anything and I really wish that I had. And I pray for the chance to redeem the thing I “have left undone.”

You may think this is nothing, and that’s OK. I respect that; you can feel the way you want to about this, that’s your prerogative. But I know better, and have responded well in situations like this before. Except last Saturday.

We were standing in our places at our seats, getting ready to deplane from our American Airlines flight in Miami, on our way to visit Jonathan’s grandmother in Florida. On board with us since our departure from Phoenix Sky Harbor International airport–amid a nearly full plane—was a group of high school aged young people and their adult chaperones on their way to the Dominican Republic, part of a short-term mission team.

What a great time I hope they have on their mission; my participation on a short-term mission team in 1976 literally changed my life and, ultimately, my life’s direction, and for that I am eternally grateful. About 30 kids and adults comprised this team, and they were so excited to be going. Love and energy radiated from them and warmed the hearts of the people around them on board.

So what happened that has me so upset with myself? As I said, we had arrived in Miami, pulled into the gate, the seat belt lights went off and we all stood, gathering our things as we prepared for departure from the plane. A few of these vibrant, happy, Christian teenagers were seated right behind us and they began to talk excitedly about things, and I happened to hear one of these young people use the word “retarded” in a sentence as a synonym for “stupid.” And, remarkably, I didn’t say anything to them.

Ever since the birth of our son Jonathan, who has Down Syndrome, Beth and I have been vigilant in not using the word retarded as a synonym for “stupid,” and have been sharing this idea, based on respect and common courtesy for all persons with developmental delays, with everyone we know, and sometimes with people we don’t know but have used the word that way in our earshot. Frankly, I have become pretty adept at addressing this issue with friends of friends or with total strangers and so it wasn’t out of fear that I didn’t do it. I just didn’t hear it a second time. Usually, I give a person the benefit of the doubt on the first time. So I thought to myself, “If I hear it again, I’ll say something.” But I didn’t hear it again. I didn’t hear it again.

Later, as we wandered into the terminal looking for our connecting gate and a place to eat, Beth looked at me in amazement: I can’t believe you didn’t say something to those kids. I said, I didn’t hear them say retarded except once. Beth: Are you kidding? I heard at least three other times, including twice within ten seconds.

Now you may ask, why didn’t Beth say something to them, but I don’t speak for Beth and perhaps she doesn’t raise this with complete strangers—she is, after all, a little more introverted than I am introverted. (I’ve been working on being less introverted.) Anyway, I didn’t hear them. And frankly, I really should have said something the first time.

Being that they were going on a mission trip, I could have tied my comments in after opening a conversation on partnering in God’s work with people in a different culture and social context, but no less created in the image of God. From there, the connection with people with disabilities is simple—they, too, are created in the image of God, just like we are, and are fully and completely loved by God and complete in and of themselves, just as we are.

From there, I would have asked: So, if I may ask, what do you think the word “retarded” means? Believe it or not, many young people think it means “stupid, incompetent, unbelievably dumb.” Sometimes they say worse; I’ve heard a young person in Dallas describe “retarded” as worse. Then I talk about my son, Jonathan, who has Down Syndrome—and here most young people talk about someone they know with Down Syndrome, whom they really like and usually talk glowingly about. In this case, Jonathan was seated less then four feet away, and I would have introduced him to them, and they would have loved him I’m sure .

After that, gently and carefully, I explain that retarded actually means “delayed,” not stupid. Usually at this point I do a little (OK, maybe a lot) of bragging about all the things Jonathan does that shows he’s not stupid, but I reiterate that he does have developmental delays, and in that respect, his development is delayed, is retarded—but he is NOT stupid. Retarded never means stupid.

I do this never to embarrass or shame the person who used the word improperly, but I do it for two reasons: one, to stop the misuse of the word “retarded.” Families of persons who have developmental delays, and many persons living with disabilities themselves, cringe at the misuse of this word—it is offensive to us and them to use “retarded” as a synonym for stupid. And it is sin; it treats people with disabilities as a second class of human beings, not on the same scale of people not diagnosed with any disability—yet. Nothing could be further from God’s truth. That’s the second reason I speak up.

The first reason I call people on the misuse of “retarded” is to stand up for my son Jonathan and to advocate for him in this world. As you will see in this powerful PSA, this is not acceptable any longer. You see, I want and believe in the possibility a world that includes everyone: male, female, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, [fill in the blank], French, American (both North and South American), Arab, Chinese, Japanese—do you get the picture?—and people with abilities and those with disabilities. All of us have been created in the image of God, and are no less loved by God. All of us. No exceptions.

The only R-Word we need to use regarding people with disabilities is “respect.” And it is out of respect for my son that I speak up for him when I hear people using “retarded” inappropriately. Except for last Saturday. Last Saturday, I let Jonathan down. I let my friends in Detour Company Theatre down. I let all persons who live with developmental delays down, and for that I am sorry. In the future, I promise to do better.

But today, I have to live with my decision to say nothing. And saying nothing in the face of disrespect is what keeps disrespected persons beneath other persons, anywhere such judgments are made, where such oppression is carried out or takes place. Oppression of any human being keeps all human beings oppressed—especially the one doing the oppressing. This is what drove the non-violent actions of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. “Let’s free both the oppressor and the oppressed!”

Today I live with my non-action and the feeling of letting Jonathan and so many others down. And I pray for the opportunity to redeem myself. Don’t worry, for it is a fact of life right now that my opportunity will come far sooner than I would like. My hope is that one day I will never have to bring it up with anyone again because I don’t hear anyone misusing “retarded” again. And I hope you will join Beth and Jonathan and me in our efforts to create a world that works for everyone, especially those who do not have a voice to speak up for themselves, or don’t get listened to even if they do.

In the meantime, Jonathan, I am sorry to have let you down. In the future, I promise to do better if it happens again. I promise.