by David Morstad
There is a photograph I keep on a shelf in my office. To be honest, I don’t really need to display it, because I carry its indelible image in my head. For many years, I worked for an organization that, among other things, partnered with disability support groups in a few developing nations. Most of the time, that partnership entailed some version of helping people move from deplorable institutional settings to better lives in the community. None of those institutions were good, but some were clearly worse than others. The photo was taken in one such institution in Central America. The officials of the facility as well as the government made one condition very clear: Under no circumstances were there to be any pictures taken inside. My late friend, Earl, was a feisty and impish Lutheran pastor whom no one would have described as a particularly excellent rule-follower. Hence, he ignored the requirement completely.
And Earl’s clandestine picture shows a scene that is at the same time shocking and touching.
Inside the walls of this isolated institution, there is another even more isolated room. Inside that room is a cage, perhaps 5 feet square, complete with bars and a padlock on the door. On the cold, bare floor of that cage sits the young man, barely dressed. It is hard to imagine a life more thoroughly dismissed and rejected than his.
Images such as this may simply be a sign that, as professionals and as a culture in general, we are simply out of ideas. It also seems we are willing to tolerate the notion of abusive restraint and seclusion of people as long as we don’t have to see it. Perhaps that is why, in the US, we moved away from locked rooms and other physical restraint in favor the far more ubiquitous practice of pharmaceutical restraint. It’s just as restrictive and socially isolating, but it has a more palatable appearance to a public that only occasionally glances in the direction of people with severe disabilities.
But look closer at this picture, because there’s something more. Seated on the floor, just outside the cage, is a man with his hands extended through the bars, and folded in prayer. The man is neither staff nor volunteer, but simply another inmate of the institution. However hopeless or forsaken the circumstances strike you, his presence is God at work.
You and I have a place in this photograph. Two places, actually. For we are both the boy in the cage and the man on the floor. In the Christian tradition, we are about to enter a week in which we will consider with special attention, a completely unexpected encounter – a savior who entered our world, became one of us, felt our cold and isolated lives, reached into our imprisonment with his own hands, and offered something more. It is a stark illustration of how the word came to us; and how we in turn, through our own presence and with our own hands, might become the word in the world.