When our daughter Penny was a baby, I took her into Panera Bread at lunchtime. One of the women who worked there approached me. She said, "I love looking at your baby." Penny has Down syndrome, and I'm never sure what to make of a comment about her appearance. But the woman went on to say, "I have a sister." Her eyes filled for just a minute, but her smile returned as she looked at Penny. "Back in Morocco. I miss her so much." Down syndrome served as a bridge that spanned continents, language, and faith.
Down syndrome exists because of the presence of a third copy of the 21st chromosome. Today is the seventh annual World Down Syndrome Day, and it's the first year that the United Nations has official recognized it. Down syndrome naturally occurs at the same rate around the world. Race, religion, climate, and socioeconomic standing make no difference. But individuals with Down syndrome face different challenges in different parts of the globe. For example, women in countries with advanced prenatal testing and legalized abortion are more likely to terminate a pregnancy when the baby has Down syndrome. The government of Denmark recently reported, "If current health policies and trends continue, Denmark could be a country without a single citizen with Down's syndrome in the not too distant future." Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, predicts a similar future in France.
Ironically, those same babies are likely to live a long and full life in a developed country due to access to health care and early intervention. In developing nations, children with Down syndrome are highly unlikely to survive childhood. Even when they do, they are often stigmatized and rejected by their communities. But Christians around the world are motivated to minister to individuals with Down syndrome in recognition that their lives are precious gifts to be valued alongside any other.
Among such Christians are those who founded Reece's Rainbow, which began five years ago as a ministry to match orphans with Down syndrome around the globe with American parents. Founder Andrea Roberts writes, "God has led me through some very difficult times, but waiting on the other side of that 'rainbow' for me was enlightenment, empowerment, compassion, mercy, and a tremendous 'calling' to reach out to other children like Reece who were not as fortunate as he to have a loving, supportive family to grow up in." Her experience as the mother of a child with Down syndrome has helped support the adoptions of more than 500 children from around the globe who would otherwise have been left to die in orphanages.
Reece's Rainbow is helping Andy and Bethany Nagel bring home their third son. In addition to their two biological sons, the couples is currently awaiting the arrival of a young boy with Down syndrome from Eastern Europe. Andy, who pastors a church in Germantown, Maryland, tells of watching a family in his congregation adopt two girls with Down syndrome. Andy can already express some of the ways God has used his son to minister to him: "Theological ideas like election, justification, and sanctification have come alive for us as we've understood them through the lens of being chosen, adopted, and incorporated into the family of God. … We feel like we have experienced a small taste of God's compassion for his children."
Holly and Eric Nelson, the founders of Special Hope Network, moved to Zambia two years ago to offer therapy training and resources to children with special needs. The Nelsons minister from personal experience, as they adopted their three Brazilian children with Down syndrome years ago as infants. Holly writes about her three children as they now serve together in Zambia: "[Their] ministry is never-ending. Our children are part of the training for churches, schools, and teachers. Just shopping or walking at the mall breaks down barriers by people seeing children with Down syndrome pushing a cart, counting out peppers, carefully putting our eggs in the basket, and kindly bagging my groceries with gusto and happy hearts. Many, many people have come up to us in stores and have been teary-eyed, that our kids are there, while they hide their child at home, due to their disability." Special Hope Network is growing as it seeks to serve the needs of countless individuals who can benefit from early intervention services, teacher and parent training, and therapeutic and medical interventions.
L'arche International stands as another—and perhaps the best-known—example of a Christian ministry devoted to both blessing and receiving blessings through individuals with disabilities, including many with Down syndrome. L'Arche communities exist in 40 countries around the globe as residential spaces where individuals with disabilities and "assistants" live side by side. The charter of L'Arche states that the community "knows that it cannot welcome everyone who has a mental handicap. It seeks to offer not a solution, but a sign that a society to be fully human must be founded on welcoming the weak and the downtrodden."
World Down Syndrome Day offers us a moment to give thanks for the Christians who have welcomed the weak and the downtrodden among us, and to honor the God-given gifts those individuals have to offer the church.
Amy Julia Becker is author of A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny (Bethany House). She regularly contributes to Her.meneutics, Christianity Today's blog for women.
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See a related piece on the future for those with Down syndrome.
Previous articles on children include:
My Perfect Child | What God taught me through my daughter's disability. (November 30, 2011)
A Christian Response to Overpopulation | We can continue to affirm life while acknowledging that unrestricted population growth can put women and children at risk. (May 25, 2011)
Be Fruitful and Multiply? | Observers weigh in on whether Christians have a special responsibility to have children. (July 26, 2010)
Previous columns by Amy Julia Becker on Her.meneutics include:
A Real Christian Education | My daughter Penny reveals that academic success is not always connected to test scores. (October 26, 2011)
Coming Home After Hurricane Irene | The place where our family played, worked, and fell in love for nearly 100 years was destroyed. So it's not "just a house." (September 21, 2011)
How Do I Explain Easter to My Children? | The reality of a human raised from the dead is hard enough for adults to understand, much less kids. But here are some approaches I've taken. (April 20, 2011)
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