Photo: Louise and other residents at Shalom House, part of Peaceful Living in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. Photo by Kristen Kidd Photography
This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “The dignity of bodies.” For more stories on this theme, see the February issue of The Mennonite.
It is often too easy for many of us to overlook the dignity of the human body. We observe children running, playing or dancing. We work in offices and attend communities of faith where the majority of people move about freely, gliding down the halls with apparent ease. Yet, even amid a culture so focused on the physical, many of us take our bodies and the bodies of others for granted.
Eleven years ago, I began to understand the dignity of the human body. It was Christmas 2008, and my first day on the job involved getting two men with intellectual and developmental disabilities out of bed and ready for the day. This included cooking breakfast for them, helping them pick out their own clothes and guiding them as they dressed. Both men were over 50 years of age, and both were non-verbal. One was also blind.
In the evening came the showers. I can remember feeling a sense of somberness as I prepared for the task. I had never showered another man before. With hesitation, sensitivity, and sobriety I performed my task. I did my best to notice the non-verbal cues that indicated if I had not washed well enough or missed a spot. I worked with these men for two years. Every evening when shower time came, I took pause and intuitively knew that caring for another’s body was serious business.
You may be familiar with 1 Corinthians 3:16, which reminds us that we are “God’s temple,” and that “His Spirit lives in us.” This alone is reason enough to “take serious” the body, and to give it the reverence and respect that it inherently deserves.
The adults with disabilities we serve at Peaceful Living have taught me there are other reasons to dignify the body.
I no longer work as a direct support professional. I now serve in a leadership role for Peaceful Living, a nonprofit that supports and cares for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I regularly spend time with residents by sharing meals with them and attending church services and community events with them.
Recently, at one of our residential Bible studies, I approached one of our non-ambulatory, wheelchair-bound women. In spite of her abnormal overbite and contorted body, her joyful smile and welcoming eyes reminded me that housed within this physical shell is a beautiful human being named Dawn. While her body is indeed the temple of the Holy Spirit, it is also the temple of a human being—a humble, vulnerable, humorous being that calls us to approach with trust, openness, reverence and dignity.
Another one of my friends is Dan. He has taught me the body is also the temple of gifts. Housed within the body of Dan is the gift of hospitality. In the summer of 2008, Dan invited me to attend the Sunday morning Catholic mass he attends. A mutual friend of ours, Jake, also attended with us. Together we watched as Dan greeted parishioners and ushered and directed latecomers to open seats. When the service was over, he introduced us to his longtime friends and invited us to join them at a local diner for breakfast. When we arrived, we found the tables configured for a large group of people. It was evident Dan was among friends he had known for decades. Jake and I were welcomed openly into this loving and closely-knit group, and thanks to Dan, we experienced true belonging that day.
Within Dan’s temple also resides the gift of mercy. As 2018 ended, it was evident that my mother-in-law was in her last days. I shared this with friends and family. A few days before she passed away, I sat in my car feeling somber and reflective as I waited to enter the local grocery store. Just before I got out of the car, my phone rang. It was Dan.
“How is your mother-in law?” he asked. I sat quietly holding back the tears as he waited silently.
“Not good,” I said.
“Sorry to hear that,” he said. More silence.
She died just a few days later. Even now, I choke back tears when I think about how Dan was the only person to pick up the phone and call to ask about an important person in my life who was dying. I know my other friends and family members cared, but it was Dan who picked up the phone and embodied compassion and empathy. I honor him for that. I honor the body in which these qualities and gifts reside.
I am reminded every day that not one of us is perfect. We need each other desperately to fill in the gaps and make us whole. In the beautifully written and profound passage of 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, we are reminded that while we are individuals, we are also one body, mysteriously connected and bound to one another. Paul writes: “When one suffers we all suffer. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. We are to honor those in the body of Christ who seem lesser in the eyes of the world.” We are to dignify them, every part of them, heart, mind and body. When one person is absent, we are incomplete.
There is only one you. No one else has exactly the same spiritual gifts, passions, talents, personality, experience or perspective you have. Without the distinctive “you,” something is missing. Within the body of all of us–including Dawn, Dan and Jake–lives a bundle of fullness, God’s most precious creation, you. Some day this physical body will decline and die. In that moment, who we are within will reside eternally without bodily limitations. Until then, let us honor and dignify our bodies to the fullest.
Leland Sapp is CEO of Peaceful Living, an organization committed to creating belonging for as many as possible.