Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bella Notte

The back doors swung open and the families began to enter....perhaps one every few minutes until all nine had arrived, the parents dressed for a date night.  Their faces a mix of shy anticipation and uncertainty, they were guided down the long hall to the check in table.  Children were assigned to special buddies for the evening, and the kids were led away for a night filled with fun...in some cases experiencing separation from their parents for the very first time.  The parents were tense as the children walked away, but amazingly the kids all seemed excited to explore with their new found friend.

Down the hall, jazz music and soft laughter met the ears of the parents as they entered the atrium.  Beautiful picture windows looked out upon lush greenery.  Lanterns of soft white light hung from vaulted wooden beams soaring above the brick arches.  Linens shimmered in the glow of candle light, showcasing the grapevines and  flowers centering each tabletop.

Now separated by several rooms from their children, the couples began to relax and mingle, enjoying an array of appetizers and Italian sodas.  As people found their seats for dinner, a lovely string quartet began to play.  Chatting and laughter filled the air as the meal was served: Green salad, followed by bow tie pasta, drizzled with a devine alfredo sauce topped with smoked chicken. Those with special dietary needs were accommodated as well.  Creamy tiramisu and coffee capped off the delicious meal.  Throughout the evening, couples were brought outside to have their picture taken by a professional photographer, an unexpected treat that delighted them.

Amid this group of adults, there seemed to be none of the usual awkwardness among people who do not know each other.  In fact, each table seemed fully immersed in conversation....including moments of both serious discussion and laughter. There was a genuine connection no doubt existing from a deep understanding and respect of one another's circumstance in life.

Back in the gym and classrooms, colorful parachutes and balls were flung time and again into the air as children raced in and out with glee. Rice was sifted, thrown, and stuffed down sink drains. Shaving cream was spread; ribbons twirled; chases had.

You see, these were parents of Special Needs children.  Perhaps another way to describe them is through a picture of their reality:  Couples who do not have the chance to go on date night....People who are looked upon strangely....Families who are not invited anywhere.....ever.  An under-served group of people.

To meet these people outside of their family environment, you would never know the challenges they face on a daily basis: Social, emotional, mental, and physical challenges.  Day in. Day out. No end in sight. And this is, of course, in addition to the life challenges that the rest of us face. They are people just like you and I with a much larger load to bear.  And, they often bear this load alone in a world that does not understand or include them.

So there we were, a group of volunteers brought together by a common desire to reach out and meet a need.  Other than some planning conversations, donation solicitations, a few trips to the store by various individuals and some prep work.....all we had to give up was one day of our time.

As a first time event, we had little idea of how the night would flow. Some volunteers were buddies to children.  Some of us prepped food.  Some decorated.  Some served. Some cleaned. Mostly, everyone did a bit of everything as the day progressed from a pile of unprepared food and decorations to the elegant event it became.

In this atrium, once off limits to food and drink, people ate and drank merrily, perhaps in illustration of the  best possible use of the church building.

We were by no means experienced at any of this, but God showed up and filled in the gaps.  And that was more than a little humbling.

...Seeing two non-verbal autistic children coincidentally paired with a high school special education teacher by an intricate, yet unplanned, weaving of time and place.

...Hearing a mom who almost didn't come say she had been praying she could meet other parents of autistic children who could understand her life, and she randomly chose a table that ended up being only parents of autistic children who lived in her school district and participate in programs of which she was unaware.

...Hearing a couple say this was the first time they had ever been away from their child since birth.  10 years.

...Hearing, "Date night is not something we get to do."  Ever.

...Hearing, "You mean, we could come to church and someone would actually watch our children?" Yes.

You always hear about how good it feels to bless someone else. I was reminded of that last night in a big way.  It more than "feels good".  Sometimes serving someone else is astonishing.  Eye opening.  Humbling beyond words.  We soon realized that what was only a few hours of time and effort on our part provides a drink of water and a meal for a starving man.  Life giving.

Let us not forget these lessons. This is what being the hands and feet of Jesus is all about.  And we should plan to do this again.....and again.....and again.

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." Philippians 2:3-5

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