Called To Remain

Written by Michael Bonikowsky
Jun 2, 2019

“If we enter into personal relationships
with those who are weak and lonely,
– not just to do good to them but to be with them
then we enter into a personal relationship with God.
And as we begin to celebrate life together
so we discover the heart of God.”

– Jean Vanier

 

When I was thirteen I asked God for a calling. I longed to be sent somewhere, anywhere, where I could do a great work for him. I longed to travel beyond the borders of my small Ontario town, and make a difference, any difference. In the silence of my bedroom I strained to hear the voice that would send me, and waited for the vocation I was promised would come. But the only voice I heard was my mother’s, calling me to get downstairs before I missed the bus. The only place I was sent to was Second Period gym class.

It was in that gym class that I met Jason. Jason had Asperger’s Syndrome, one of the manifestations of Autism Syndrome Disorder. He had no social awareness, no filter. He did all the worst things a person can do in a Grade Nine gym class. He stared too long and stood too close. He said the wrong thing at the wrong time, and always very loudly.  He was far too free with his laughter and his tears. He assumed the friendship of all, and raised no walls around his open heart. In a culture where the highest ambition was to go unnoticed, Jason was anathema. And so he became, of all the pariahs a high school contains, the most rejected.

Our teacher made Jason my partner for the semester, and so became the voice I had been waiting to hear. It was a call I neither wanted nor recognized, but I had just enough of Christ in me not to reject outright.

As the semester passed that call grew steadily clearer within me. My relationship with Jason began to extend beyond the mandated 80 minutes of gym class. I began to sit with him at lunch and join him in the library where he spent his breaks. Sitting with Jason, I learned the meaning of loneliness, of isolation, of otherness. I also learned how easily those dark spells can be broken by the simple, intentional presence of another human being. A friendship formed between us that lasted beyond the end of the semester and he returned to the segregation of the special education classroom where he spent the rest of his time at school.

“It was a call I neither wanted nor recognized, but I had just enough of Christ in me not to reject outright.”

Jason introduced me to the rest of that class, a separate nation more removed from the high school mainland than its most ostracized clique. As the grades went by I spent more and more time among its inhabitants: kids with Downs’ Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy, autism and acquired brain damage. I discovered the world of the Other, there outside the city walls, and the great and unique beauty, the incredible joy and the courageously borne grief that exists there. I saw the deep wounds that daily rejection causes, and how easily that pain could be eased by even the smallest acts of empathy. I was welcomed in a way that I had never been welcomed before. I received gifts I had not known I needed.

Meanwhile, my graduation drew nearer, and I believed I had still not heard my calling. I began to search with increasing desperation for my opportunity to be A History Maker, in the popular parlance of the time. Would it be in politics? In professional ministry? In my journal full of awful poems?

The fateful June came and went. I graduated, and left Jason and his classmates in the same classroom they would occupy until they “aged out” at the age of 21. I left them behind in our small town for the biggest city I could find. I entered a Christian university, trying to force my way into the vocation that seemed to have passed me by. I tried social work. I tried philosophy. I tried literature and academia. But I was becoming more lost, not less, spinning my wheels and begging a God who seemed to have forgotten me to call me somewhere, anywhere.

While wandering in these widening circles, increasingly broke and desperate, a friend mentioned to me that an organization that supported people with developmental disabilities was hiring. Remembering the peculiar joys of Jason’s class and having exhausted all other options, I applied and was hired.

“I saw the deep wounds that daily rejection causes, and how easily that pain could be eased by even the smallest acts of empathy.”

As soon as I walked through the door of the group home I knew that I had come home. It was brutal, exhausting work, full of heartache and conflict and unanswered questions. But more than any of that, it was holy. Here was my calling, unrecognized and ignored for so many years, now ringing loud and clear through the secret places of my heart. This was a place where I could serve, and give of myself in the ways that I had longed for. But more than that, and so unexpectedly, it was the place where I was served and given to in a hundred necessary ways I hadn’t known I needed. We healed one another’s hurts. It was then that I realized that my friendship with Jason was, in many ways, the best and truest part of my life. It was the voice of God calling me home, to him and to my true self.

“It was then that I realized that my friendship with Jason was, in many ways, the best and truest part of my life. It was the voice of God calling me home, to him and to my true self.”

Seven years ago I returned to our small town, and applied to work for the agency that supports Jason and his classmates as adults. Once again, our lives are shared with one another. We work together, and rest together. We celebrate birthdays together, and weddings, and funerals. We mourn and we rejoice together. We welcome our children and bury our parents, together. We who were young together will now grow old together. Our lives are shared, and God willing they will continue to be shared, until we bury one another and enter into that truly common life.

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