Jon couldn't wait to hold the doll I had brought along to his home that Wednesday afternoon last December. It was one of the visuals I planned to use to help him remember his baptism in preparation for his profession of faith. As I held the blanket-clad plastic doll in my arms, I told Jon about how small he had been when his parents brought him to church to be baptized, but he didn't listen. He only wanted to hold the doll—so I gave it to him. Tenderly he talked to the lifelike load in his arms, as if it were real. He caressed it lovingly and kissed it. "You like babies, don't you?" I murmured, while Jon rocked back and forth, looking at the doll with love.
Jon was born with Down syndrome, a condition that gives him the freedom to enjoy dolls at age twenty-one. And enjoy he did! He was so involved with the doll that I knew I had lost him and wondered how we could get back to the concept of baptism.
After a while Jon put the doll down for a few minutes and went to get the family photo album. First he turned to the page with his baby pictures. Then he showed me his mom and dad, his brother and sister, his grandparents, aunts, and uncles. We lingered over each picture, reminding ourselves who each person was.
Then the idea came to me! Jon's social life is limited, making family even more important than it is for most people. I said, "This is your family, isn't it, Jon? But it's not your whole family. You have an even bigger family than this. The day you were baptized, the church became a part of your family."
Now things began to make sense to Jon. He was with me. We were on the same wavelength.
I met with Jon three more times after that to help him prepare to make his public profession of faith. During those sessions I was pleased to discover that he and I were learning together. Exciting!
My relationship with Jon had begun several years earlier as he and I explored stories from the Old and New Testaments by using The Friendship Series, published by CRC Publications. For three years we worked during the church school hour every Sunday at our church. Fortunate enough to have our own room and a piano, we were free to sing, dance, and dramatize our lessons.
Jon loves music. He knows the hymn "Beautiful Savior" by heart. Another favorite is "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Singing that song always took us at least ten minutes, because he wanted to sing a verse for every member of his family— including aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Acting out stories was essential to many of our sessions too. Sometimes I would ask others to join us and take parts in our story. One time my husband played the part of the lame man, lying on his mat (sleeping bag). Jon played the part of Jesus, while I narrated. As Jon pronounced words of healing to my husband, Jud stood up and did a few jumping jacks. "You are like Jane Fonda!" Jon said, laughing. His sense of humor is delightful.
At Christmas Jon always wanted to act out the story of Christ's birth. Once I brought along a robe for Joseph and a long dress for Mary. Jon asked if this time I would be Joseph and he could play the part of Mary, and I found myself wondering why he wanted the female role. Later, as our baby was born, Jon grabbed it and held it. I wondered no longer. Instead I marveled at his inner freedom to play a female role, to love a doll, and to enjoy drama.
Yes, Jon experiences a freedom I envy. He doesn't have the inhibitions, the hang-ups I have in loving and enjoying God.
During the past year or two, though, I noticed a change in Jon. His joy and energy were no longer apparent in our congregational worship services—in fact, he barely participated at all. When he was younger, Jon used to sit on the piano bench while his mother played the piano. He also liked to snuggle up to his mom and dad while they sat quietly listening to the sermon. Once he became an adult, he couldn't do either of those things. He also couldn't understand much of the sermon and didn't know most of the songs—which prohibited meaningful participation.
His family and I talked about the problem and decided that Jon needed to take the next step in becoming a full part of our church—professing his faith publicly. We knew Jon loved Jesus. He knew Jesus died for his sins. He knew that when we eat bread and drink wine we think about how Jesus died for us. He liked to be with people in church, to sing songs to Jesus and to praise God. He was sincere about his faith. So why shouldn't he become a full member of our congregation?
When his parents talked with him, Jon reacted positively to our suggestion. He liked the idea of standing in front of the congregation and telling them he loved Jesus. So Jon and I met together on four Wednesday afternoons. After that first session in which we remembered his baptism, we talked about what it means to belong to the church—about how we help each other in church and how we partake of the Lord's Supper. We practiced passing the bread and wine a few times so it would be easier for Jon to do in church. Then we met with our church's council.
The Christian Reformed Church has published a booklet called "Profession of Faith for People with Mental Impairments" by Ron Vrede-veld. It discusses reasons why people with mental disabilities should become full members of churches, offers some case studies, and gives specific suggestions to church leaders who want to help a person profess his or her faith.
We used the questions in that booklet to help Jon express his faith at the council meeting. After Jon answered a few questions, he indicated that he wanted others to talk. He wanted a discussion, not a question-and-answer session. We asked him what he wanted the members of council to talk about. He asked one of them, "Do you love Jesus?" After he got an answer, he went around the room and asked each person, "Do you love Jesus?" That was our discussion, and it was a good opportunity for each of us to tell each other that we still believed.
Just before the service in which Jon was to profess his faith, he and the pastor practiced the ceremony so that Jon would feel more comfortable. During the service, I introduced Jon to the congregation, telling some of the special things I had learned from and with him over our years of working together. Then our pastor asked Jon questions from the booklet by Ron Vredeveld:
Is Jesus God's Son?
Does the Bible tell us about Jesus?
Are you a friend of Jesus and of other people in this church?
Will you serve Jesus by helping with the tasks of the church? What will you do?
Jon answered each question with a yes and then told us he would pour coffee and juice every Sunday during fellowship time. He pours well and likes working with a group of people.
Our congregation gives a necklace (a leather thong with a small metal sculpture of the burning bush) to all who profess their faith, and we did the same with Jon. Then our pastor asked Jon to kneel while we all prayed for him. To close the ceremony we sang Jon's favorite song, "Beautiful Savior."
I had asked someone to take pictures of the ceremony and the social time afterward in which everyone greeted Jon and congratulated him. A couple of weeks later I gave Jon an album with the pictures of his profession of faith. He loved it! I'm sure it's a keepsake he will treasure for a long time.
Somehow—it's hard to pinpoint— Jon seems more mature than he did before his profession. He now stands during singing—which he didn't do before. He sometimes sits with our family or another family and takes the Lord's Supper with joy. And every Sunday he's in the kitchen pouring juice and coffee for others. It seems as if Jon has taken a giant step in his spiritual growth this year.
Through my work with Jon, I too have grown in faith. Jon will always be childlike in some ways. However, I am a child also, especially in God's eyes. I look forward to the day when Jon and I will stand before God in heaven, praising, singing, dancing around his throne. I hope to be as free and uninhibited then as Jon is now.