The gift of love has no boundaries.
by Jenny Beatrice
In our busy lives, it is important to come away from time to time and allow ourselves to be in the presence of God, transforming our lives to be more in tune with God’s will.
For 30 years, Pallottine Renewal Center has welcomed a group of people for such a retreat. Some may consider this group “special,” but Handicapped Encounter Christ (HEC) considers themselves a wonderful community of friends who come together for worship, prayer, laughter and fun. They celebrate who God made them to be as community.
The retreats, based on Christian principals, are structured around presentations, reflections, sharing and fun activities. Amidst the deep reflection, this light-hearted and spirited group comes together as a Christian community to search for God inside themselves and one another.
The joy, the listening and the humor fills the room as you hear the stories and sharings. Honest and powerful, each person’s perspective speaks beyond their handicaps and connects to the human experience. Some express gratitude and joy, some express anger and fear, but each expression is accepted without judgment and given the gift of support.
“Simply being human bonds you with 7.2 billion other people,” says Emily Dunn, participant. “And part of this HEC team bonds us all together.” And it is these bonds that inspire the group members to form a wider circle of friendships throughout the year.
Andy Dapron, a participant and organizer of this particular retreat, says that the types of handicaps people have who come to the retreat has expanded, ranging from cerebral palsy (as he has) to blindness and hearing issues as well as mental issues.
Andy says it is important to the group that they use the word “handicap” that has been deemed politically incorrect versus “disabled.” “We are not using it as a label to distinguish you from me. I’m handicapped and you’re not but we are raising awareness that we all come with some kind of handicap. Some of ours are more obvious than others. We all bring a certain amount of brokenness, but we’re also bringing something we can contribute.”
Lisa Walsh, participant since 1981 who has cerebral palsy, gave a talk about such labels–the ones others place upon us and the ones we place upon ourselves. “The gift of love has no boundaries. We put up our own boundaries,” she says.
She challenged the concept of labelling handicapped people with the same humor that permeated the retreat. “I have red hair. I’ve been labelled a troublemaker,” she says with pride. “Handicaps disappear when we give each other a chance. Labels are everywhere. It’s our job to our hearts and minds to open them up.”
Emily shared a surprising talk about the power of hidden labels. A victim of a violent attack, her handicap is one that is not obvious to others.
Emily says of people’s perceptions of herself, “Oh look at this 23-year-old college student from a relatively well, kept together family and able bodied – what problem could she have?”
Stretching the boundaries of labels, she spoke about how her attitude about the experience shocks people. “What separates me further is that I don’t see it as a problem. Sometimes people are thrown off about how accepting I am of what happened. My dad told me that experience in life is the best teacher. And this taught me about myself and about others in very twisted way to expect the unexpected.”
She’s challenged herself to bring her signature smile back into her life and has challenged others to do the same, letting emotions flow and accepting them without self- judgment.
The able-bodied participants are quick to share that they get more out of the experience than they ever imagined, like Kathy Timpe. “I’m a caregiver at heart and I just like to help people. But I got more than I ever dreamed in return with peoples’ unconditional love for one another.”
She admits she didn’t know much about handicapped people before this experience. “Truthfully, I almost avoided them because I was uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say or do. And now we are, just like Lisa said, ‘all the same,’ and we just want to be friends, comfortable with life and one another.”
Kathy’s husband Mike, another committed co-director of the retreat, says, “For me, this is always a profound experience. It really makes me think. There are some tremendous gems of wisdom that I take away from here. I remember all those special moments that the community shares with us.”
Amazingly, this is the 78th retreat for the St. Louis HEC—all but one has been held at Pallottine Renewal Center. “It’s not that Pallottine may have the ideal physical accommodations as far as handicap access,” says Andy, “but the attitude and the hospitality brings us back every time. They bend over backwards to make us feel at home.”
The retreat is designed to have a one-to-one ratio of able-bodied persons and persons in need of care. Andy says, “That is the whole spirit of the thing and that’s also part of the reason we don’t have people come in shifts.” Because of the three-day commitment, the number of retreats per year have been reduced from two or three to one, but Andy sees a growing future for the program.
“I would like to see the program sustain and grow. I know people don’t know this is out here. I didn’t know myself until somebody asked me to come. And I had to be talked into it! I’ve been back eight times,” he says.
Nearly everyone who attends comes because of word of mouth and Andy would like that word to spread. “I would like to see people know this is here and to take advantage of it. It’s an experience that will change you and needs to be shared.”
Lisa closed her presentation in a way that symbolizes the nature of the whole retreat, with the Good News that God gave in Genesis in the creation story: “On the sixth day, God made man like his maker and God blessed and told them it was excellent in every way.” She reminded all that we are all good in God, no matter what. No labels, no boundaries—all love.
For more information about Handicapped Encounter Christ visit http://stlouishec.com
For more information about hosting a retreat at Pallottine visit http://pallottinerenewal.org/contact/