My friends Sue Tatem and David Hauser are involved with a program called AbilityPlus, Inc, and I am so impressed with it that I wanted to tell you about it. From my understanding of theology, it does two types of work: “Miracles” and Miracles.
The first type of miracle, (“miracle” in quotes) is some thing we used to dream about when I was a kid. It’s the kind of miracle that is like the iPod or the cellular phone – something dreamed of in science fiction and old Star Trek reruns. When Star Trek first came out, the idea that you could communicate with something the size of an electric razor was just something “those people” would do in the future. No one really believed we’d ever actually see it, but it was fun to imagine. In real life, you could find the phone by following the cord that attached it to the wall and you made it work by dialing the numbers on a dial.
Computers ran spaceships in Houston, so you could imagine them doing incredible things, but sitting on your lap was not one of them. Something that worked as fast as the thing I’m now typing on took up a city block in Springfield, Mass. and was shared in milliseconds connected by a phone line. Just the keyboard part was bigger than a desktop computer is now. The point is that at least as far back as Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, we have understood some of what people in the past called “magic” or “miracles” is actually things humans don’t understand yet, or haven’t invented yet. AbilityPlus deals in those kinds of “miracles” all the time – the kind of thing that lets a person missing a leg put on a graphite spring-like thing that replaces the leg so that they can ski. I don’t know who invented such things, and I don’t really care. They are just so cool. Last week, there was an event in New Britain, near where I live. It was the championship of something I’d never heard of — “Sled Hockey”. It’s hockey as I used to know it, but with a twist: handicapped folks do it from sleds that didn’t exist years ago. (You’ll note that there’s no such thing as “Toboggan Hockey” which we could have invented in my day, but it would have required pulling ropes like we were slaves and there would have been no independent steering among other problems)
The fact that things like the Paralympics (the Olympic games for disabled folks) exist at all is unimaginable to me in much the way that The X Games are unimaginable – bikes that are so lightweight they fly and so strong they can land in one piece, skateboards and roller luge made out of new materials and designs lead to bravery that defies logic. I can see it happen and I still can’t believe it. I have been on crutches a few times in my life and those things hurt , so the idea that someone can use a variation of them without being in agony amazes me. Maybe these athletes are in pain, but it sure doesn’t seem it.
Then there’s the fact that these people are athletes at all amazes me. I can’t make it down a mountain on skis without falling a hundred times. I can’t run great distances without stopping, and yet there are Paralympics events like marathons. And the technology that lets people do this stuff is absolutely amazing. Who dreams up this stuff? This is all, as far as I can tell, a “miracle” of the science-fiction variety. Every once in a while we humans put our minds to making good things, instead of things that kill. Their miracle gives me hope. Every once in a while, we make things that actually give life meaning, rather than plastic objects sold in vending machines to be thrown our ten minutes later. The idea that someone would want to create gizmos like this, that someone else might dream of using them, and that they would do all kinds of unimaginable things with them are all miracles in-and-of-themselves. To watch them in action as they execute some kind of spinney thing while rotating head over heels would have been considered amazing when I was a kid, and downright magical or miraculous a century ago, But here they are, and Dave, Sue, and all the other people at AbilityPlus know about them, know what fits who, and what a person might do with them in all kinds of conditions.
But as miraculous as these things are, there is another real miracle that takes place. People’s lives change. People’s spirits are healed. People who couldn’t imagine even talking to each other are connecting and becoming the best of friends, people thought about across the miles, people that hearts ache for and break for when they leave or misfortune hits.
In the days when “liberation theology” was all the rage, there was a type of theology written by people like Veterans for Peace who understood Christ from the perspective of their experience as soldiers. The long and short of such a theology is this: All soldiers die for our sins. All of the greed and self-interest that causes countries to go to war, all of the willingness to spend billions destroying things just to see if we can, all of our fascination with violence causes us to put men and women in harm’s way. They die – or get injured — because we live the ways we choose to live, in whatever ways that means, because of whatever evils live in some dictator’s soul or some corporate boardroom where bombs are made for profit.
In the same way, poor city children die daily because some people want to be rich and live far enough away from them that they don’t have to care. People born with handicaps suffer and die because we live the belief that we’re “normal” and they’re not. In point of fact, if you subtracted all the people who aren’t “normal” (for whatever reasons) from the overall population, all ten people who would be left would feel strange themselves.
Still, we choose to live this way as a society and plenty of people suffer the slings and arrows, the slights and the deaths that come from it. White folks don’t talk to Black folks or – in the city – some types of Asian folks. Kids don’t respect adults. Adults don’t respect kids. The poor who are on welfare seldom meet the wealthy who determine what they have. We put away the elderly in nursing homes, we don’t talk to our mentally ill, and people who are not “perfect” physically get mocked for having zits, teeth with gaps, oily hair, unbranded sneakers,” unibrows”, obesity, plus race, gender, orientation and so many other things. And, after we don’t talk to each other, we can’t figure why we fight so much among ourselves.
For all of the little deaths we put ourselves through and the actual deaths we send our soldiers to, the world suffers. Ability+ will have none of it. While we’re putting kids in special-ed classes and their peers are mocking them as “SPEDs”, Ability+ makes them feel like the “somebody” they actually are. While many people are afraid of the developmentally delayed, Ability+ is teaching them to ski, or snowboard or just have fun being out in the world. Their lives are changed.
But then something else happens. Our lives are changed as we learn there’s nothing to be afraid of. We learn that a kid in the classroom runs out of space, but on a mountain we all get some perspective. The person whom we shun for not having all their body parts comes out of their house and turns out to be pretty special. The person whose spirit we killed in other places begins to live again. They experience resurrection and we begin to have hope again. That is a miracle. This renewal of souls is something only God can provide but something we participate in. It is something we activate like putting two new chemicals together, but the burst of energy that is generated provides an unexpected awe. From the potential energy that was there comes the kinetic energy that is the miracle of rebirth, resurrection, or recovery.
When David and I saw each other a while ago for the first time in years, he didn’t much talk about the gizmos or the skiing, the views from the mountains or the budget required to make it all happen. He talked about inner-city kids bringing cheer to people who lived for their business. He talked about insular people learning to reach out to people that they never would have considered before. This was what he found exciting. This is what made his day. The fact that he got to watch it happen and be a part of it all was more exciting to him than whatever direct benefit he got from working at AbilityPlus.
AbilityPlus runs at least two different sites – one near Boston where David works and one in Vermont, near Mt. Snow that Sue is related to. There may be more, but those two places do the best kind of miracles – they use our “miracles” to make more and more miracles. They build bridges of community between people that never would have known each other existed. By doing so, they keep the spirits alive of those involved, they re-energize hope in a world which badly needs it and, yes, it provides a form of resurrection for people we as a society have hurt. Who knew that by letting people ski or by helping them play hockey or inviting challenged kids to breathe crisp air on slopes that challenge everybody that we could undo sin itself? Apparently, the people at AbilityPlus did. As David, Sue, and all the people who work or volunteer, teach, or give their resources to these experiences know, the miracles just keep coming.
If you want to be involved with AbilityPlus or another organization of Adaptive Sports like them in some way, check out AbilityPlus Adaptive Sports online at http://www.abilityplus.org and find links to all kinds of ways you can take part in miracles.
[BTW, this is not a paid advertisement. I get nothing from AbilityPlus but the knowledge that I’m spreading the good word about what I see as a great organization with great people doing great things — the very purpose of “Because It Matters”]