“Come up with me! Will you come up with me?!”
A teenage girl named J. looked at me and eagerly asked that question as she yanked on my arm, practically dragging me out of the church pew we were sharing. It was Sunday afternoon at Mosaic Bethphage Village in Axtell, NE–where my Spring Break Service & Justice Trip group was spending our week–and the eclectic, vibrant community of children and adults living with disabilities were gathered in the campus church for a worship service.
Mosaic is full of differently-abled residents living in community together. The campus is several acres large, out in cornfield-country, Nebraska, three hours West of Omaha and 30 minutes West of Kearney, the closest town. The residents share houses and live family-style with 24/7 staff there to help take care of them, provide activities and healthcare, and most of all be a source of love for them. Each house is named after a Biblical location, as Mosaic was founded by a Lutheran pastor 106 years ago. It still holds true to its Christian heritage and provides an inclusive spirituality to any residents interested.
What’s striking about Mosaic’s Sunday worship service is that it is entirely inclusive. Not just inclusive towards people of different denominations or faith traditions, but also inclusive towards people of all abilities. The pews are pushed back, starting mid-church, leaving the front area wide open for the many residents in motorized wheelchairs. For those who are more mobile, they fill in the pews, sitting together by house. What any visitor will notice, though, is that for those who can get up and walk, they don’t usually stay in their pews for long. Pastor John, who’s served at Mosaic for over 30 years, often invites the residents to help lead worship songs at the front of the church, to help welcome others as part of the liturgy, and, for those who are more verbal, to share their own take on the message for the week. Most amazing is that if people feel like getting up and dancing at the front of the church during a worship song, they just get up and go, and Pastor John, and his co-minister Micah, are overjoyed to let them.
So when I found myself being pulled up the center aisle to the front of the church by J. so that I could join her in dancing and singing the worship songs, I knew that no matter how goofy I felt dancing in front of the huge crowd and singing songs I didn’t know very well, I was welcome. I was welcome exactly as I was. That sense of welcome quickly overpowered any embarrassment I felt for participating in a worship service much differently than I ever had before. And I was included in everything the “choir” and dancers did–from being splashed with Holy Water to being “booped” on the head by Micah during one of the more childish worship songs. It was a profound gift to be so welcome and included.
This radical welcoming and inclusion brought home for me the fact that at Mosaic, everyone was welcome exactly as they were. I remember sharing this realization with my Service & Justice Trip group during reflection one night. The people of Mosaic couldn’t be anything but themselves; they just had no other way of being in the world because of their different abilities, different ways of interacting with people and different mental capacities. None of these differences made them lesser, only different, unique. And those differences enabled them to be heroically authentic. Because they were differently-abled, they somehow didn’t have the same kinds of reservations, hesitations and pressure to be someone they weren’t. For this group of people, being anyone other than themselves wasn’t an option. It just wasn’t, as hard as that is to explain.
They had different ways of being mobile, different ways of thinking, different ways of communicating that didn’t look like my group’s ways of doing these things. They relied on the staff to provide the intensive care they needed in order to live, and that complete reliance and vulnerability was radically different my group’s autonomy and independence. In all honesty, I think that vulnerability actually enabled the residents to be more authentically themselves.
To be sure, Mosaic works to empower its residents to live the fullest lives they can. For some, that means eventually moving into more independent living situations, securing jobs in the community and being able to take care of themselves. For others, that means living at Mosaic permanently but achieving smaller goals (big goals for them), like being able to go out to eat with their families or being able to dress themselves. Each person, regardless of their unique abilities, spends their weekdays at the campus school or at a day-site, where they can play games, do art projects, participate in occupational therapy, or help with community chores. In this way, the staff excel at providing the residents ample opportunities to live the fullest lives they can, and they work with the residents’ families to continue improving and creating goals.
As the week unfolded, I found myself coming back to the gift of being able to simply be unapologetically yourself here. At Mosaic, it didn’t matter if you needed a lot of support just to stay alive, just to do the simplest things. It didn’t matter if you were differently-abled. Those unique, different abilities were celebrated. You weren’t a burden or a nuisance or weird. Instead, you were accepted and loved exactly as you are, welcomed and included in a tight-knit community. You felt at home, part of a family.
That I can be loved exactly as I am, with all of my strengths and weaknesses, successes and struggles, abilities and needs is a lesson that’s taken me my whole life to learn–a lesson I’m still learning every day. That kind of love, inclusion and welcome is a powerful gift, and it was especially tangible during my time at Mosaic. That it was extended to my group by the staff and most of all the residents we connected with in such unique ways is an experience beyond words.
For me, Mosaic was most of all an invitation to receive–to receive the love, joy, pain, fear and unique abilities of the residents, to receive the radical acceptance, welcome and inclusion that Mosaic offers to everyone. It wasn’t a week of “helping” or accomplishing large service projects. It was truly a week of receiving–receiving others and receiving myself exactly as we are.
The SCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice (SCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the SCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.