My only child is a little girl of nine. She is tall for her age and extraordinarily pretty, with large dark eyes that sometimes seem to look right through you. So attractive is she that people have come to me in the supermarket and exclaimed over her—and then they have stopped in mid-sentence, for it suddenly strikes them that she is different. And indeed she is. My little girl is mentally retarded. Her I.Q. is between 50 and 60, classing her with the trainable group of the retarded.

I write therefore as the mother of a retardate, but more than that, as a mother who has put her heart and her life in Christ’s hands. I have read articles by directors of Christian education or by volunteers teaching church classes for the retarded, but I have never seen an article by a parent of a retardate who is willing to speak openly to her fellow Christians about what it is like to mother a defective child.

Three out of every hundred persons are mentally retarded. This means that, in a state such as mine, one out of every eight persons is as closely related to a retardate as mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, or aunt. Here is heartache. Only 3 per cent of the mentally handicapped are institutionalized; the remaining 97 per cent are at home, many of them without adequate schooling, recreation, friendship, and church life. Some may say, “But I honestly don’t know any retardates.” Nevertheless they are with us—perhaps hidden, perhaps mildly retarded and “passing” in the community, but all needing the evangelical church and what it can offer.

There are several stages through which one goes upon learning that one’s child is mentally handicapped. For those who do not know that Christ controls all that happens in their lives, there is usually a harrowing time of guilt and self-examination. Parents ask themselves again and again, “What did I do to give birth to such a grievously handicapped child?”

As a Christian I went through this for a mercifully short period, when it had to be all or nothing. Yet even with the most scripturally grounded believers, the human element of what may be called a built-in psychological mechanism is not wholly canceled. When a mentally handicapped child is born, this mechanism may lead to bewildered questioning. Parents cannot help asking, “Lord, why me? How can I live with this? What shall I do?”

From The One To The Many

Some unfortunate parents never progress beyond this stage. To the great detriment of themselves and their handicapped child, to say nothing of any other children in the family, they remain preoccupied with “I,” “me,” and “us.” Most parents of retardates, however, pass out of this stage to a second, in which their thinking is all directed toward the child involved. Here the normal reaction is to ask, “What can I do to help my child, only mine?” Some parents, unfortunately, remain in this second stage, and are almost as useless to themselves and to the child as those still in the first stage. Hopefully, most parents pass into a third stage, that of asking, “What can I do to help all mentally handicapped children?” Only then, they realize, can they help their own child.

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Some parents pass through these stages rapidly, others slowly, and some never through all three. Nor does being a Christian exempt parents from these experiences. But, as my husband and I know, many Christians are able through the grace of God to reach the third stage more rapidly than others. For ourselves, we learned that when parents are told their child is mentally retarded, they suddenly realize that if all they believe and have professed is really true, then it mustbe sufficient now in this moment of soul-searing truth. Christians who have faced with God this hardest of problems understand why their faith is powerful, why it is built on agony and sacrifice instead of upon mere platitudes and kind sayings.

If my faith offered only some practical guides to everyday living, I would not be able to write this. But for Christians who have such inescapable problems, it means everything to know that we have a hereafter to count upon for us and our children. We have a God who is all-powerful, all-loving, and in control. We know that our children are provided for in God’s eternal plan, that not just a great man but the incarnate God himself said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).

Loving The Unlovely

Surely among “the least of these” are the retarded, for who is more lowly than they? Perhaps the most comforting fact of all is that Christ loves the unlovely. Many retarded are unlovely; their features are ugly. Some have crossed eyes, some have heads malformed from birth injuries; others are palsied, and still others are so handicapped that they are living vegetables. What has helped most as I have felt the anguish of knowing that my little girl is retarded is to realize that the retarded are part of the Lord’s plan and that his love encompasses them as much as it encompasses the most gifted children.

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All of us (Christians included) have a great deal to learn about the problem of retardation. Every retardate has parents and often brothers and sisters who desperately need Christian friendship, Christian love, a church home, and genuine acceptance. How sad to hear it said in an open meeting about church classes for the retarded, when conservative evangelical churches are mentioned, “Oh, they don’t care. They won’t do anything but sit in their ivory towers and criticize!” How cruel it is to know that, with some exceptions, this is true.

Why is it true, not only concerning retardation, but also in respect to alcoholism, mental illness, and the underprivileged poor? Why are some evangelicals letting their liberal friends do most of the works of compassion, while they argue about immersion versus sprinkling and whether Christ will come before or after the tribulation—and all the time souls in the agony of despair over a mentally retarded child, an alcoholic or mentally sick relative, are perishing all around them? While Christians who have knowledge and understanding of the power that alone can save souls and ease burdens quibble over how separated they are, there is intense spiritual suffering going on in the very blocks where they live. And somehow they are strangely uninterested in helping. If this seems overly severe, let me ask this: Why is it only now becoming the “in” thing to assist the retarded and their parents? Where have we (and I include myself) been?

It is time to come down out of the clouds of theological controversy and spiritual pride and to take our share of responsibility for the unfortunates of society. Our great-grandparents did it for the slaves. We can do it for the “least of these,” Christ’s brethren.

What then should Christians do? Let me offer some suggestions based upon experience. First, they must realize that retarded children and adults need to feel wanted and that church life is important for them. “But,” someone says, “their mentality in most cases limits their understanding of doctrine.” Such a statement overlooks the wonder of the Gospel. Most retardates understand something about death; many can understand, to a limited degree, the concept of an all-powerful Being; many understand wrongdoing; virtually all can understand love—the quality they need more than any other. Thus many mentally retarded persons are able to understand something of the central truth that Jesus is God and that he loved them enough to die for them. And after all, what else is there? This is the magnitude of the Gospel and its magnificent simplicity.

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I believe that my little child understands this great truth. Whether she is or ever will be at the age of discernment I may never know; but she loves Jesus, and she knows that he loves her. And if she could not grasp even this, I would still know that he loves her.

A teacher of a primary-level church class for normal children told me recently how a rather severely retarded child entered class the day the Gospel story was told. Instead of being a behavior problem as the teacher feared, the child sat very still. At the end of the lesson, the teacher gave a simple invitation to accept Christ. The retarded child stood up asking over and over, “Can I? Can I?” There were tears in that teacher’s eyes as she said that she knows our Lord is as happy over that little one as over any other.

Not Only For The Child

Secondly, Christians must understand that it is not enough to say, “Let’s have a nice church class or Sunday school class for the retarded,” and then, after doing this, to think that nothing more is needed. Every retardate has a family, and these are often in greater need than the retardate. What about the parents and others in the family? This is what pastors and congregations must ask when they decide to do something for the retarded. What of the teen-aged brother of the little mongoloid in the special class? Is this adolescent made welcome and shown that his church understands? Does the congregation realize that mongolism is not hereditary and is not the result of some hidden sin of the parents?

Churches must do more than begin classes for the retarded; concern must also be shown for their families. Evangelicals might well follow the example set by some of more liberal theology and start group therapy classes for parents, never forgetting that the greatest therapy comes through personal knowledge of Christ as Saviour and Lord.

Only those who have a defective child will ever know the terrible need for acceptance, the deep desire to be treated like other families. The cruel stigma against the retarded has been tolerated far too long. Human beings seem to accept any handicap so long as it does not limit the one thing we need above all else—the mind. The words of Milton’s sonnet, “On His Blindness,” apply also to mental retardation: sight is not the only “talent which is death to hide.” Even more essential is our ability to reason, to express ourselves in spoken and written language, to think.

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Today in an inarticulate but eloquent plea the retarded are calling for help. It is to the lasting credit of our late President Kennedy, whose oldest sister is mentally retarded, that he heard that plea and led the movement resulting in the first legislation in our national history designed to help the retarded.

Emotional response is not in itself sufficient. Response must be informed. This means that Christians must lake the trouble to learn the difference between retardation and mental illness. They should know what facilities their communities offer for therapy and schooling for all retarded. They should be aware of the need for greater educational opportunities, more job openings, additional legislation in the field of retardation, and institutional reforms. They should find out what parents’ groups are available where fathers and mothers of retardates can meet others with similar problems. Above all, they should know that retardation can happen to any family, that it is no respecter of education, social position, or economic status. With such knowledge they will have something concrete to recommend when a young couple comes to church in the crisis of having just learned that their child is mentally handicapped.

Progress But No Cure

Parents of retarded children can become victims of the most callous medical quackeries—money-draining schemes that claim miracle cures. The parents must be helped to realize that there is no cure. There can in some cases be great progress for the retarded child. Nevertheless, retardation is a condition, not an illness to be cured. Apparently our Lord meant for the retarded always to be with us, needing our help and understanding.

All children take their cues from their parents and the adults around them. Normal and gifted children must learn compassion for their unfortunate brothers or sisters. They should be told that handicapped children may be coming to church or Sunday school, that this is how God made these children, that they are to be helped and loved. Normal children will surprise parents and teachers with their matter-of-fact acceptance and eager willingness to help. The real hope for the retarded is regrettably not in this generation but in the next. If young people hear about retardation in the community and ask, “What can I do to help?” instead of saying, “Poor things, poor, poor things,” then progress will be made.

Retarded children have emotions. My child loves, she gets angry, she gets upset. She knows when people accept her openly for what she is; she also can tell when they feign sympathy. In addition to those who have already heard the call to help “the least of these,” many more professionally trained persons—teachers, medical researchers, therapists, recreation directors, counselors—are needed. So much can be done for the retarded, many of whom, when trained and supervised, are able to lead useful and happy lives as part of the community.

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Here is a call to Christlike service for evangelical youth. Such service entails more than professional skill; it can mean helping parents of retardates to a sure trust in Jesus Christ that will take them through the deepest valleys of despair.

The Newly Open Door

The task of assisting parents who have older retarded children may be especially difficult; they will not always respond happily or even graciously. Perhaps years ago when they needed a church, none was ready to welcome them. They may ask, “Why is the church now opening its doors to us and our children?” The best answer is a positive program. It is important to schedule classes for the retarded at the same times as regular church services. Some churches offer classes for the retarded on Saturday or another weekday. This has two serious flaws. It prevents a group of parents from going to church on Sunday, because there is nothing on that day for their handicapped children; it also means that there are whole congregations of adults and children who will never see these mentally retarded children among them on Sunday as part of the Lord’s flock.

Too long have most Christians lagged in assuming their burden for the unfortunate and the handicapped. We who have mentally retarded children need more than sympathy and tears. We need what committed Christians have to offer us in knowledge of sins forgiven, in courage for living, and in a blessed hope for the future. Let Christians to whom much has been given give of themselves and of their bounty to help the unfortunate. Let them give in love.

To do this is no concession to a social gospel. The second great commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” is part of the faith. Christians can no longer forget the young father and mother in that hospital room who have just been told that their baby is retarded and may always be a child in mind. To these can be given understanding and hope for eternity. While they cannot be offered immediate happiness, they can be shown that there are things more important than mere happiness.

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Some of us are crossing our Jordans sooner than others. We parents of the mentally retarded have heavy burdens. But when you free our souls by giving us the joyous knowledge that Christ is God, that he died for us and for our children, that he cares for us, that he loves the unlovely, that he is with us day by day, then there is nothing we will not strive to do for our children and all of “the least of these [Christ’s] brethren.”

Dorothy L. Hampton (A.B., Barnard, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) is the wife of Clyde R. Hampton (A.B., Columbia; LL.B., Colorado), an attorney in the legal department of the Continental Oil Company. Mr. and Mrs. Hampton are active in the work of the Metropolitan Association for Retarded Children of Denver, of which Mr. Hampton was the first chairman.

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