Multiple Lenses, Essential Gestures

by Wendy McDowell

I spent my summers during college working as a counselor and cabin head at the Rotary Sunshine Camp in Rush, New York. The camp served children of all ages who had various developmental disabilities, hereditary and genetic conditions, and sensory impairments. I found many joys in this work, but one unexpected perk was getting to see the world through different lenses.

The work itself required different ways of being and moving—you had to slow down (and stoop down, to lift children in and out of wheelchairs), to lean in and listen closely, and to communicate in new, creative ways. All the counselors learned at least rudimentary sign language, and we used nonverbal gestures with many kids, as if we were in a never-ending game of charades.

One session, I spent long stretches of each day flat against the cabin floor, trying to coax Scott—a 7-year-old boy with Down syndrome—out from under the bed. He would scamper and hide there at every chance (not out of fear, but mischief!). Our little prankster would snicker and point his finger at us as we went through all kinds of machinations to get him out.

Falling in love with these kids, I couldn’t help but start seeing the world through their eyes, to imagine what it was like to watch mouths move without sound or navigate a gravel path in a wheelchair, to wonder how it feels to have limbs that fly out on their own accord or lungs that gum up with mucus each day.

This didn’t lead me to a “count my blessings” moment, but to a gestalt shift in which “having a disability” felt like the norm.

The world inside camp proved itself to be a healthier, more authentic environment than the sphere of the so-called able-bodied, which came to appear rather delusional to me.1 As my colleague Faye Bodley-Dangelo notes, “If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are only temporarily abled.”2

When I read Jonathan L. Walton’s “Seeing with God’s Eyes,” I immediately thought back to that camp and those children. The “dominant theme throughout the Bible,” Walton writes, is that “God sides with those on the underside of power.” This is why biblical narratives are replete with people who are physically or socially “disabled” (the blind, the lame, the hungry, widows, strangers, fishermen). Rather than read these as metaphorical conditions, perhaps we should seek out and sit with the “strangers” of today.3

It strikes me that most of the articles in this issue involve putting on new lenses so that we might make different gestures.

Several authors use a historical lens. Melissa Borja gleans lessons from past responses to refugees entering the U.S., while Diane L. Moore urges us to face the “devastating pillars” of our nation’s history. Curtis J. Evans and Kristin Kobes Du Mez explore how limited narratives about evangelical history sidestep important issues. Seth Perry points to the “co-constitution of factors” at play in the racialized history of Mormonism.4 And a Q&A with Dan McKanan illuminates different historical strands of environmentalism.

Shaun Casey and others engage a pragmatic lens focused on the here and now to ask: Where is innovative work being done in our communities? How can we share power and collaborate with new partners?

Others look through lenses of art and ritual. Seven poets meditate on their favorite hymns, unearthing deep memories and faith. Ahmed Ragab turns his eye to the literary futures Muslims imagine, given paranoid, postcolonial timeplays. Theophilus Kwek sees a Singapore Army camp through its ritual geography, and Christopher Montoya views the U.S.-Mexico border as a contested space.

Many use the lens of the moral imagination to address suffering. Alexandra Nichipor investigates how having the BRCA mutation shakes up women’s religious views. Emily Click asks us to consider the price paid by sexual assault survivors. Terry Tempest Williams challenges us to “stay with the troubles” rather than to “avert our eyes” from the violence done to other species and our Earth.

Williams employs multiple lenses within her essay.5 Biology. Theology. Geology. Politics. History. Myth. Memoir. She zooms in—a magnifying glass, zooms out—a bird’s-eye view. But always with her “Hands on the Earth.”

She asks here: “What is the essential gesture—gestures—for each of us? . . . Where is our grief? Where is our love?” To put on lenses of love is to have your world cracked gloriously open, but it is surely to grieve.

The last week at Rotary Sunshine Camp was for children with muscular dystrophy. Other kids in the earlier sessions had life-threatening conditions (sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, juvenile diabetes), but this was the one week our entire camp was full of children who had an incurable, degenerative disease. Those of us who worked there for years witnessed each child’s gradual loss of mobility.6

One evening another counselor and I were on night duty, and we overheard the hushed conversation of two boys after lights out.

“You know those boys in Cayuga? How they’re in wheelchairs, and can’t move?” John said to Anthony, his bunk neighbor (Cayuga was the cabin for the oldest boys).

“Yeah?” Anthony replied.

“That’s going to be us in a few years.”

A pause. I could hear the steady breaths of other boys, fast asleep after a chock-full day.

Anthony’s answer was matter-of-fact: “I know.”

Then John, the kindest boy in the cabin, said, “And after that, we’re going to die.”

Anthony didn’t respond for a while. I had the sense he was holding the weight of these words in his hands, as if they were a precious bag of marbles passed to him by his friend.

Finally he answered back: “Are you scared?”

John thought a moment and said, “Sometimes. Are you?”

“Yeah. When I think about it.”

There was silence for a good long while after this, until John whispered, “I’m tired” and Anthony said, “Me, too.” Soon their breaths joined the other sleepers.

Neither boy burst into tears or said it was unfair. An early death was a fact of their lives, and they had in each other a companion who fully understood that fact.

May I be so lucky as to know a love like that, I thought.

 

Notes:

  1. Unlike at the church camp I went to as a kid, there was little to no bullying in this camp.
  2. Faye has served as the managing editor of Harvard Theological Review since 2015, and she came on board as the Bulletin’s managing editor in January 2018—a welcome addition!
  3. The more we do this, the more we might find ourselves “identifying our neighbor in the unlikeliest of places” (Walton again).
  4. Racism and white supremacy are lenses, too, of course—but the kind that blocks vision and endorses hate.
  5. Terry models a multiplicity of voices and vantage points in everything she writes—this is part of why she is such a beloved “citizen writer.”
  6. Boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy go from walking tiptoed, to needing braces, to pushing themselves in wheelchairs, to the last stage in which most of their muscle tissue is gone. At this point, they need to be in automatic wheelchairs, and many experience life-threatening breathing and heart difficulties.
 

Wendy McDowell is editor-in-chief of the Bulletin

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