“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is a question asked of those who remembers that day. What fewer people know is that wherever they were when Kennedy was shot, that is also where they were when C.S. Lewis died. (Aldous Huxley that same day too). Similarly the attention of the entire world was riven the day Princess Diana died in a Paris car accident. Less reported on that same day was the death of Mother Theresa of Calcutta (by now, however, both are “saints,” albeit one a pop secular saint and the other a canonized one in the Roman Catholic Church).
For some of us, we experienced something similar last Friday evening when Facebook lit up with the news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing even as a dear friend of many of us, Barbara Newman, succumbed to a fast-moving cancer that she had been battling for only a couple or so months. As I posted on Facebook Saturday morning: the nation lost a judicial giant but the church lost a spiritual giant in the person of Barb.
For those of you reading this who were not privileged to know Barb as a friend or colleague, she was a woman who had dedicated her life to helping children/people of all abilities be included in schools, families, societies, and most certainly in the church. She was a pioneer at the Christian Learning Center (now known as All Belong) and worked for many years at Zeeland Christian School in areas related to special education and inclusive classroom environments.
Barb became a partner with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship quite a few years ago. All of us on the staff marveled (again and again) at her passion, her vision, her contagious enthusiasm, and her winning pedagogy by which she could move people from knowing almost nothing about Universal Design for Worship to knowing a whole lot about it after having absorbed Barb’s teaching for just 60-90 minutes.
Barb’s leading image was the puzzle piece. We are each of us a puzzle piece in our own right and we are each of us also made up of smaller puzzle pieces. There are green pieces and pink pieces, representing our strengths and our weaker abilities respectively. The latter represents those parts of our life where we need someone else’s puzzle piece to help make us more complete. And everybody has both. Barb did not see disability in a child but other abilities, including stuff those “disabled” children were good at that everyone else needed in their lives to be complete. Nobody is all green. And most certainly no one is all pink.
Barb was endlessly creative in helping those with other abilities to participate in classes and especially in worship. I remember the presentation in which Barb would don a large apron that was covered in Velcro. She would stick various squares to different parts of the apron, each square representing an emotion or a reaction: a happy face square and a scared face square, an enthusiastic square and a question square.
Children and adults who had difficulty expressing themselves verbally could respond to Barb and/or to a larger worship service by tearing off the square on the apron that represented what they wanted to communicate. And if anyone had difficulty singing in worship, Barb had colorful streamers on sticks for waving in the air in praise of God. If, as Isaiah once pictured, we can imagine the waving of tree branches as the trees of the fields clapping their hands in praise of God, Barb’s streamers waving in the air did the same thing, providing an unspoken but joyful “Hallelujah!” for all to see and join in with.
In recent times and after Barb’s father suffered from dementia prior to his death, Barb turned her incisive insights in the direction of helping also those suffering from dementia better to worship God and study the Bible. When my wife invited Barb to a committee meeting that was working on revising a worship resource for those with dementia, Barb quickly wowed the group with what she had figured out through helping her own father read the Bible, pray, and worship. Barb just had that effect on people: she was such a deeply thoughtful and utterly pious person that just about her every insight and idea was arrestingly beautiful and fitting.
In a religion class each of my kids took in high school they had a writing assignment titled “The God Glimpse.” They had to spend a couple weeks on the lookout for things that reminded them of God’s presence and then write about what they saw. Some pastors have adapted this idea for younger people in church, asking them to take pictures during the week of something that reminded them of God and the presence of God’s kingdom and then send them to the pastor. Some pastors project these images to set the tone for worship or to punctuate a point in a sermon.
In her own way, Barb Newman was a walking God glimpse. Not just her own person but the work she did, the tender way she enfolded the other-abled who found Barb consistently magnetic and trustworthy, not to mention all the ways Barb unleased the creative potential in oft-marginalized people to participate in worship and in life generally in lyric ways. Barb was far too young to be taken from us, and I don’t understand why she is gone from us. But we can all pray God will use us to carry on her work so that, as her organization puts it, it really can be true that “All Belong” in Christ’s church and in the kingdom of God we can glimpse through them.