After trundling from church to church in our small northern New Jersey town years ago, my then-five-year-old son and I learned a vital lesson firsthand: America is, and always will be, one nation under God.
My boy’s deafness, Asperger’s syndrome, and OCD had offended some churchgoers who rejected his distracting “bad behavior.” Their judgment and rejection was unacceptable to me — my sister and I had been raised as High Episcopalians and relied upon God to overcome failures and tragedies common to many families. My sister, for example, overcame substance abuse issues partly by becoming a born-again Christian.
So when I explained the plight of my little family to my sibling one summer afternoon, she was aghast.
She handed me an audio CD of gospel music from a choral group called The Praisers. Oh, I thought, she’s trying to encourage me! But there was more. The recording label on the CD showed my sister’s employer at the time, Polygram Records, Inc. And The Praisers’ composer, arranger and soloist was an evangelical pastor from a church in Orange, New York, not far from me, called Redeeming Love Christian Center (RLCC).
“Go there,” said my sister, smiling. “My pastor knows these people, and you’re not going to have a problem — except that you guys will be among about 12 Caucasians in a congregation of 6,000 African-Americans.”
The next Sunday, I pulled my car into RLCC’s football field-sized parking lot. I noticed at least 30 men directing hundreds of cars into parking spaces. My son and I were greeted with warm smiles and offered assistance out of the car.
Once we entered the lobby amid African-American families of all ages, no one stared or gawked at my son and me. A young usher guided us into the enormous church. He asked where we’d like to sit and explained that for newcomers with special needs children, exceptions were always made. When I explained this to my son in American Sign Language, he pointed with excitement to the first row. Once comfortably seated, he was enthralled by the technical equipment: lighting fixtures, sound systems, TV cameras, and musical instruments on stage.
My little son was also charmed by the lovely girls and women of all ages arrayed in colored dresses, fancy hats, and lovely jewelry. That’s when he turned to me and said, “Mom, you have to dress up more.”
As more people took their seats, I noticed many kids with special needs: Some were wheelchair-bound, others were variously developmentally disabled. As the service was about to begin, an obligatory silence spread over the crowd — except for my son.
At that age, anything can set young children off. He simply could not and would not sit still. Within seconds, however, a young woman appeared with a low stool, upon which she sat and began signing to him. She introduced herself as a certified ASL interpreter and said she would be there for him from beginning to end. Afterward, it only got better.
He was riveted by the worship service: the lights, the waves of movement, people’s hands held high in praise to the Lord with animated facial expressions — the latter so much a part of deaf culture.
At one point, during the worship service of music and song, I couldn’t help myself. Tears streamed down my face as I sang along. And when the offering basket was passed down the aisle, my son placed a dollar bill inside as the interpreter gave him a high-five.
My son concentrated on the pastor’s sermon and was permitted to take part in the communion service. The closing worship ceremony rocked the house as 6,000 people sang along and even danced — and we happily joined in.
My son and I remained with RLCC for a year. In that time, he matured while attending the children’s church services with the other kids (and his interpreter). At the same time, I grew up, too — learning much from the pastor’s sermons based on the Holy Bible.
Afterward, I converted to Roman Catholicism, having found a wonderful home in a small parish thanks to the guidance of The Mission of Franciscan Sisters in our town. Later, my son did the same.
Still, it was that year long ago that I found my greatest love — God — without whom I would’ve lacked the ability to give as generously as those 6,000 faithful African-Americans. They saved the very lives of these two white folk: a single mother and her special-needs son.
The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet and columnist in Arizona; she is also a regular contributor to LifeZette.