It was the night of the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner at our church.
As the pastor’s wife, I am generally required to attend these sorts of things with the unspoken expectation to always smile, be nice, and glow with the joy of the Lord, even if I have to, dare I say ... fake it. I was running late that evening, overwrought with juggling three kids, sports practice, and a cranky baby. My plastered-on smile thinly hid tears of frustration leaking out my nose. As I stood and perused the room full of familiar faces, the tension in my spirit only clogged my throat more. I felt like an intruder interrupting a play in the second act. The crowd was engaged in conversation and gaiety and I felt like I was barging in with a bag full of awkward. I stood on the outside, trying to find the right moment to break into the group, but none seemed to be forthcoming. Then I saw him, a boy with an apparent disability, obviously struggling to find his place, and something in my heart connected, his outward instability mirroring my own inner turmoil.
I sat down next to him and smiled, possibly the first of the evening with any real emotion behind it. The seats were close and our shoulders brushed when I scooted in my chair. He looked up at me and frowned, his large eyes expressing scorn at my presence. In a cheery voice, I stuttered, “Hello!”
Instead of “hi” in return, he groaned, “ughh,” and rolled his eyes, disgust dripping from his every breath. Stunned, I could only laugh. Peals of tension rolled away in a glorious moment of self-deprecating humor. Not that I would ever show it, but I too, have moments when I want to turn and run the other way from people; his complete transparency was a treasured gift. There was no guile or charm about him, just raw emotion spewing from his soul.
His mother jumped in and apologized profusely. “Our son has Asperger's syndrome” she whispered in explanation. Both the mother and father appeared exhausted and overwhelmed. I noticed they had two little boys sitting next to them as well. Their weary faces told a story of resignation and personal agendas relinquished that I couldn’t even imagine. My little pity party quickly faded in the light of their self-sacrifice in caring for a child with special needs.
I nodded my understanding, but was determined not to leave, even though I could sense her apprehension regarding her son’s erratic behavior. Just then, one of my favorite ushers sat down on the other side of the boy. He started to talk to him, just jabbering really, anything to try to help relax the boy’s parents. He told the boy that I was the pastor’s wife and that I used to volunteer with high school students. The boy covered his ears. He went on and shared with him how I had helped start our church with my husband. This time the boy yawned. My usher-friend shrugged his shoulders and looked sad, but somehow I knew I wouldn’t break through his walls with an assortment of credentials.
The boy turned and faced me. “So what do you do now ... right now?” he asked.
His question caught me right in the middle of bite of pasta, which slipped off my plastic fork and landed on his right foot. “Well,” I said, willing to throw caution to the wind, “Sometimes I like to throw noodles.” And I launched another one at his left foot.
The boy burst into laughter along with the rest of the table and a gentle wave of release rolled over us. His protective walls came down and he suddenly he began to chatter away, allowing us for a short time, to enter his world. He told us all about his love of McDonald’s desserts and how Korea had the best dessert menu of all. His mom jumped in and shared that he had memorized every McDonald’s menu in the world, country by country. Clearly brilliant, opinionated, and passionate, he was both, at once, delightful and overwhelming. But for a brief moment, his mother relaxed and let go of her tension, sitting back and joking with his two younger brothers.
The boy’s father came back to the table with an enormous piece of carrot cake for him. He gently placed it in front of him with a plastic knife and fork and smiled at him. In one swoop, the boy inhaled half the cake. The father's smile quickly disappeared. “Slow down, bud! Use your fork and knife!”
But the boy did not like to be reprimanded and he grabbed the knife like a dagger and stubbornly resisted his father. In a battle of wills, the boy reluctantly cut the remaining piece in two and shoved them both in his mouth. Trying not to tremble, the knife only inches from my face, I dared not move an inch. With lightning speed his father grabbed the knife, cleaned up the frosting smeared all over his child's face and sent him off to explore the church. His mom trotted after him, glancing back with an apologetic look. The father collapsed into the chair and rested his head in between his hands, exhausted and embarrassed.
“You know you are doing a great job, don’t you?” I said.
His eyes filled with tears and he whispered, “I don’t know. He’s better at home. He feels safe there.”
Our eyes met, acknowledging a difficult situation at best, recognizing that sometimes there are no words. I could see his fierce and unconditional love for their first-born son mixed with sadness, disappointment and struggle. His wife came back to the table and the little boys ran off to play and watch out for their brother, another reminder of how their whole family was affected by Asperger's.
“Does he ever get lost?” I asked, noticing how he would become entranced by an object and take off at full speed, only to have his attention caught elsewhere a moment later.
“Not usually,” they said in unison.
His mom laughed, “Then again you don’t see us exactly running after him.” They smiled at each other, an inside joke perhaps, all the more tender to the observer because of their apparent love for each other.
“But he always comes back,” she said with exasperation and acceptance.
Then we took communion together, a group of broken people, acknowledging our Savior’s sacrifice.
I watched them pack up the boys and head home. Neither of them had been chosen as one of the volunteers to be publicly affirmed in front of the crowd that night, but then, their offering to the Kingdom and the church wasn’t a loud one. It was a quiet and daily surrender, a desert journey of faith that these two humble Saints had said “yes” to. In the light of their obstacles, I was amazed that they continue to show up, to volunteer.
And, as I gathered up my own little flock for the night, my heart encouraged and challenged by the sacrificial love of this family, my burdens didn’t seem quite so heavy anymore and my church felt like home once again.
A version of this essay was originally published on Everyday Christian.