Including the Vulnerable in America's Story

By Mark Rodgers"Because you have no heart and your meanness never takes a timeout."  Amos 1:11 (The Message)In 1939 Adolph Hitler signed a "euthanasia decree" followed in 1940 by the launch of Action T4, which systematically emptied Germany's institutions of the physically and mentally handicapped.  Over the life of the program and the Holocaust, 200,000 of them were killed, as the Nazis piloted tactics used later in the genocide of the Jews, Gypsies and other "undesirables."I was struck while reading the book of Amos that God judges nations for the violence they inflict on the vulnerable, and a survey of our political landscape should be a cause for alarm.  Bellicose rhetoric has turned rallies toward violence, often aimed at racial and religious minorities.  This is not America.This ugly undertone surfaced loudly when Republican frontrunner Donald Trump mocked a New York Times reporter with a congenital joint condition during a campaign rally in November.   As Trumprick-and-bella_06131423252994 was defending his claim that he witnessed thousands of Muslims cheering in New Jersey on Sept. 11, he mocked reporter Serge Kovaleski's physical condition and reporting; the reporter has arthrogryposis, which limits flexibility in his arms.Trump jerked his arms in front of his body while saying: “Now, the poor guy — you've got to see this guy, ‘Ah, I don't know what I said! I don't remember!'"Gross atrocities start small, and usually with the least of these.  But this has not been America.  These are American stories:* Several years ago Rick and Karen Santorum asked me to be their daughter Bella's God Father.  I know what a special girl she is, in many ways because of her Trisomy 18, not despite it.  Both of my sisters have children with special needs, Charlie with Downs Syndrome and Elsa with a rare neurological condition.  Rather than demean them, America has been a nation that affirms a place for them,whether it is through prayers on the campaign trial or classrooms in our public schools.* I was encouraged this month when musician Gaelynn Lea, a 32-year-old classically trained fiddler was chosen the winner of NPR's 2016 Tiny Desk contest.  Her haunting song "Someday We'll Linger in the Sun" is played on a violin held like a cello. Gaelynn was born with brittle bone disease, a congenital disability that has stunted her growth and makes playing the violin tucked under the chin impossible.hqdefault* It is my hope that this summer we will be able to host Le Minh Chau, the subject of an Oscar-nominated short documentary, to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress. The documentary shows Chau, a teenager living in a care center in Vietnam severely disabled by the effects of Agent Orange, pursue against all odds his dream of becoming a professional artist.  We have a history of heart, including toward those who have had to deal with the consequences of our actions.* In 2010 I wrote about an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in which  he interviewed Jeff Erlanger in his wheelchair.  Take five minutes and watch the video of Fred receiving his lifetime achievement award, and you will be blessed.  In America, we stand and applaud those who treat others with civility and kindness.logo-pamphlet-2

* Several years ago, Gordon College launched the Accessible Icon Project, a campaign to update the handicap symbol to a forward-moving icon, thereby challenging how people perceive those who are disabled.  As C. S. Lewis reminds us "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal."  This has been the trajectory of human rights in America, forward-moving, and we have been a beacon to the world because of it.
*The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought & Public Life is hosting an event on April 12 entitled Resisting the "Throwaway Culture": Protecting Human Life and Dignity during which a few prominent Catholic voices will explore how to build a culture of life in the face of the violence we find in today's world that effects the handicapped, refugees, victims of sexual assault, racial minorities and the unborn.
I agree that the mantra All Lives Matter can be a cover for some who want to diminish the reality of the persistent racism that exists in America, but I do want to affirm that Jeff, Gaelynn, Chau, Bella, Charlie and Elsa matter.  My faith teaches that whether a person is able to paint or perform, or just be loved by a parent, they have equal dignity, rights and worth as they are uniquely hand crafted by the Designer of the universe. This was our founders' aspiration when they penned "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."Take note, Donald Trump, by this plumb line we will be judged:"Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"--Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"