By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD
“Ministry is, first of all, receiving God’s blessing from those to whom we minister. What is this blessing? It is a glimpse of the face of God.”
These words of Henri Nouwen resonate with my experience in the Special Religious Development (SPRED) ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago. SPRED is a program of faith formation designed to meet the spiritual needs of people with intellectual, developmental and learning disabilities.
Recently, I became a lead catechist. As a leader, I stay next to the entrance and welcome our friends. Andrea is a tenderhearted girl who is friendly and sweet. Andrew is an observant, straightforward boy. Daniel, who is constantly enthusiastic, is animated and loving. Leah, a quiet girl with a calming presence, has a contagious smile. Fred is a gentleman, polite and intelligent. Mary is a goodhearted girl whose gentleness and genuineness draws us closer to her. They are ages 11 to 16. They are on different levels in terms of their developmental and intellectual growth.
Our activity catechist prepares the activity room and fills it with sensory materials, such as paints, puzzles, sandboxes, musical instruments and coloring books. They help our friends get in touch with their senses. As the youth enter the room, they approach each other one by one. We shake hands and give warm welcomes. The catechists try to make all of them feel safe and loved.
On one occasion, I gazed at them from my seat while they were doing their chosen activities in silence. I was drawn to their calming presence. The love and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ was with us.
The sense of peace became deeper and stronger when we went to our sacred space, a room where we gather around the Holy Bible that is placed on a small table at the center. Next to it was a vase of fresh flowers and a lighted candle. Together with those objects before our eyes, the dim lighting made us feel the sacredness of our gathering.
Our goal that evening was to ponder our experience of peace. I showed two different images of snow-covered countryside. One was a painting, and the other was a photograph. We shared our personal experiences of how the snow during winter make us feel peace.
As I was showing the painting and photograph to each of our friends, I was surprised that a few of them touched the images. Perhaps their sense of touch was evoked in them by the images. As some of them touched the images, they thought they would feel the cold snow. In our sharing, we related our experience of peace with the sense of peace in our liturgy, when we go to church.
Our celebration in the sacred room gave us a deep joy, especially when we shared our thoughts and feelings. I stood and proclaimed the Scriptures from Philippians 4:4-7, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
We felt Christ’s presence in our midst when the Scripture passage was proclaimed to us. We opened ourselves to Christ speaking to us, because Christ Himself is with us.
Our sense of joy was infectious. We could not contain it in our hearts. We all stood and formed a circle around the Holy Bible. We held each other’s hands and expressed our feelings. Our hand gestures and body movements became an expression of our joy. We sang a hymn of thanks and praise to Christ with gratitude as an expression of our unity. Our friends’ disabilities did not hinder them from celebrating the peace of Christ. The peace of Christ brought us together and united us as a faith community that is grounded in trust, patience, kindness and understanding.
After our time for liturgy and catechesis in the sacred room, we continued enjoying the peace of Christ in our agape. The catechists used three tables to make one long one. They arranged the chairs. Mary placed the table mats. Andrea put the spoons on the table. Andrew prepared the pitcher of juice. Daniel added the cups. Leah set up the plates. Fred assisted in serving the food. Christ came to us through the Divine Word. Christ preached peace to us through the presence of our friends who were with us.
Christ’s peace impelled us to serve one another during our preparation period, celebration in sacred room and sharing in agape. In that room, we get to know each other; we talk about things happening in our families, schools, workplaces and in society.
We experience meaningful and transformative relationship, the friendship built on the peace of Christ. We are one body of Christ, regardless of age, gender, race, education, ability or profession. Each of us feels accepted and loved. It’s our experience of mutuality in diversity and ability. The joy among us grows. We savor its beauty. It brings out goodness in us that shines upon our community. Together, we radiate the peace of Christ. With humility and confidence, we strive in our shared vocation to seek the grace of Christ—a glimpse of God’s face.