From 1976-81 I served as the Senior Chaplain of the Enid State School. It was a time in our history when most folk with developmental disabilities where kept away from living in our communities, and for lack of a better word, they were institutionalized. It is easy from our current perch to caste judgement on this reality but the facts were that we, as a society, were just doing the best we could. I remember very fondly the time that I served with these remarkable folk.
In 1976 I went to Dr. Fred Craddock, Dean of Phillips Graduate Seminary, to tell him that I had accepted this position. I was basically ‘hemming and hawing’ about my ambivalence in taking my shiny new graduate education and serving in a context where actions speak louder than words. In a manner that only Fred could produce he said, “Mark, you need to go out there and make the Gospel real. If you can make it real there you can make it real anywhere”. In my five years there I did my best to make grace tangible.
It was 1979 and I had been able to hire five student chaplains who were attending Phillips Graduate Seminary. They were an amazing team. Each one of them were assigned one of the five units at ESS. The units were each focusing on a different segment of the over 1000 residents who lived there. Unit 1 was comprised of folks who lived their lives in hospital beds and wheelchairs. Unit 2 were ‘ambulatory non-verbal’ folk. Even as I write this I feel the pain of the crude and dehumanizing way these people were treated. My chaplain who was assigned to Unit 2 was a young woman named Lynn. She asked for an appointment with me. She sat in my office and looked me straight in the eye as she said “Mark, you are a very great boss and you are empowering us to do very special things. But, I feel like you give your personal time to the ‘high-functioning’ residents. I need your support and presence at Unit 2. Damn, she nailed me. I said, “You are right. Let’s figure out how I can be more helpful”. We cooked up a youth group from Canna Cottage.
Our first outing was to take the 12 of them fishing at a pond which was on the huge property that made up ESS. It was before the day of phone cameras, but the pictures I have in my heart still live. It was chaos, fishing line and tackle in the trees, residents in the mud and yes, a few really nice
bass and perch. This outing became a regular event and they became known as the CANNA FISHING CLUB. Every week we took them on various outings and we truly became a community. Yes, they exhibited all sorts of quirky behaviors and when we showed up in the Enid community folks would try not to stare or would even evacuate. As for me, they became a part of my life.
In November of 1979 I was facing my first Thanksgiving alone. Recently divorced, my two kids were going with their mom and her family out of state. Lynn had shared with me that not one of the Canna Fishing Club were going home for Thanksgiving. On an impulse I said “Will you help me put on a turkey dinner at my house for them”? “You’re on”! So we decided to have a Norman Rockwell setting in my little ‘single dad’ gingerbread house. We borrowed two tables and 14 chairs from ESS. We used real china and serving dishes. We even had place cards for folks who could not read. I cooked a 24-lb turkey and Lynn made three pies. Game on.
The ESS bus pulled up at my home and they came out in single file. They guys were wearing coats and ties and every gal was in a dress. There were some giggles and looks of bewilderment, but smiles were everywhere. We all got around the table, which took up both my living room and dining space. There were a few familiar shrieks, and hand clapping. Then Lynn and I brought out the food. Mind that I had never once eaten with these folk. I admit I was prepared for hands grabbing dressing or mashed potatoes… I could not have been more mistaken. We joined hands and Lynn prayed (she was their chaplain). She was also a brilliant theologian. I can’t remember a word but my heart was filled with gratitude on the very first holiday I experienced without my kids present. I cried… and Eddie a young man who had never spoken a word in his life patted me on the shoulder. The heart is not measured by an IQ test.
May your table have space for those the world might write off. Happy Thanksgiving,🍁 🦃 🍽 day.
Onward and Upward, Mark
PS. “Dr. Craddock I am not sure if I made the Gospel real, but those folk sure made the Gospel real for me”.