A Place for the Marginalized

Photo by Josh Appel

One of the most outspoken Americans on behalf of the marginalized died yesterday.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver died at 88 years old, far from a marginalized person herself.  Sister of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy, she was also the sister of Rosemary Kennedy, who was mentally disabled—something the family kept secret until Eunice let it out in 1962. In a 2007 NPR interview she said of her sister:

If I never met Rosemary, never knew anything about handicapped children, how would I have ever found out? Because nobody accepted them anyplace. So where would you find out? Unless you had one in your own family.

In part because of her relationship with her sister, Shriver founded the Special Olympics in 1968.  In its 40-year history the Olympics have hosted more than 3 million athletes in more than 180 countries.  Without a doubt, an incredible contribution to our world.

From a place of extreme privilege, she was still able to see the position of those pushed to the edges of society.  People who live with mental and physical disabilities daily feel their lack of “place” in our culture. They don’t fit.

My family discovered this when my dad became a paraplegic and we were all forced to view daily life from a radically different vantage point.  Suddenly we noticed that store aisles are often too narrow or crowded with displays for wheelchairs, many doors are impossible to navigate without assistance, most houses are unenterable, and yes, it really can be devastating when someone who doesn’t need it takes the only handicapped parking space with enough room for a wheelchair-accessible van to lower its ramp.  But these are relatively minor symptoms of marginalization when you consider that my dad already had the privilege that comes with being a white educated male with good health insurance.

I began to think about our own youth ministry.  We were completely inaccessible for someone with a wheelchair, because our youth building had no elevator to the second floor where all of our large-group gatherings met (this is true at my current church, too).  We weren’t all that welcoming for someone with mental or physical disabilities of any kind, really.  And I had never seen it before.

Just like Rosemary opened Eunice’s eyes to the marginalized and my dad opened mine, we all have an incredible opportunity to see and hear what marginalized people have to say and contribute to our lives if we will just notice them.  But isn’t that what justice is about—seeing the needs of the oppressed, but also seeing the people themselves and recognizing their worth in the eyes of God?  This is where transformation begins.

Listen to the NPR report of Eunice Shriver’s death

Listen to an NPR interview with Shriver in 2007