The three Abrahamic religions share the story of Jacob’s wonderful dream (Genesis 28). As Desmond Tutu tells it in his Children of God Storybook Bible, following a fight with his brother Esau, Jacob fled into the desert to hide. One night, as he slept, he dreamed of a ladder reaching to the sky with angels going up and down. Then God stood beside him and said, “I will be with you and protect you and keep you safe.” When Jacob woke up, he realized “God is in this place, and I did not know it.” So he took a stone and blessed it with oil and said, “This is Beth El, the house of God and the gate to heaven.”
My adult son David, who is intellectually disabled, has played Special Olympics sports for fifteen years. Basketball, softball, on occasion track and field or bocce ball, most recently volleyball. I have attended more practices, games and tournaments—local, regional and state-wide—than I can count.
Over the years I have experienced Special Olympics as Beth El—the house of God. Like Jacob, I see God in this place—which I did not initially expect.
Many people have heard of an incident that happened at a 1976 track-and-field event in Spokane, Washington. A Special Olympics contestant stumbled and fell during the 100-yard dash, and one or two other athletes turned back. They helped the runner to his feet and walked across the finish line together. I regularly see similar moments of grace at Special Olympics events.
The basketball game is nearly done. One player, severely autistic, runs up and down the court at random or stands alone stimming. All the other players are actively involved in shooting, passing and dribbling—except one. Then his team gets the ball, and the woman holding it stops the game. Approaching the young man, she calls “Michael, come and play.” Taking him by the hand, she leads him to the basket, places the ball in his hands and urges him to shoot. He does. Both teams and the crowd of parents go wild with applause and cheers—and tears. This is a holy moment—Beth El, God’s Kingdom of inclusive love is in this place.
It’s the opening ceremonies for the statewide Special Olympics basketball tournament. A disabled athlete enters the darkened arena carrying the torch—she is circled by five uniformed police officers who run with her. The torch is passed to other runners, but the officers stay close by, accompanying them around the perimeter to the lighting of the flame. I wipe away tears and contemplate the Special Olympics logo, depicting five figures in a unifying circle. I am seeing the reality of how the world is meant to be: the weakest and most vulnerable surrounded and assisted by the strongest and most powerful. Beth El on a Friday night in Bloomington, Illinois.
David is up to bat. Truth be told, he’s one of the poorer players with an uneven batting record. Then Nate walks up to the chain-link fence behind home plate. He’s one of the best players, often delivering home runs. The contrast between Nate and David is striking, but there he is cheering David on. “Hey man, you can do it!” he shouts. The ball is low, but David swings … and misses. Rats! Nate is undeterred: “Watch for your pitch!” he encourages. “You can do it.” This is, once again, Beth El.
The difference between proficiency and deficiency evaporates—there are simply two team members, two equal persons, two fellow human beings, two friends. A snatch of scripture floats through my mind: “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The next ball is in the strike zone: David hits it square, drops his bat and makes it to first. Yay!
Many Special Olympics events take place on Sunday mornings, making them for me a particularly poignant experience of koinonia—communion, sharing, fellowship. At competitions there is very little ‘us-versus-them’ animosity. Of course we hope our team wins, but each side cheers the successes of the rival team and laments with “good try” when things go wrong. Athletes, parents and family, coaches and referees—we’re one community, all in this together.
This is God’s Dream, Desmond Tutu says: “God dreams about people sharing. God dreams about people caring. God dreams that we reach out and hold one another’s hands and play one another’s games and laugh with one another’s hearts. God dreams that everyone of us will see that we are all brothers and sisters. We are family because we are all God’s children.”
This is the Beth El blessing I receive so often at Special Olympics. It’s also the Beth El challenge—to show God’s faithful love to everyone, without exception.
- We are—as individuals, faith communities and a political society—called to act like the woman inviting all the Michaels in our community, ‘come and play.’ Let us take you by the hand and help you participate to the best of your ability—for you are one of us.
- We are called—individually and collectively—to be like those police officers extending safe-keeping and hospitality to people in need. Let us surround you with mercy and justice—for you are one of us.
- We are called—all of us—to become Nates who see no one as our inferior but embrace each person as our equal, despite our differences. Let us build you up with words of encouragement and actions of support that sustain your flourishing—for you are one of us.
We are made for the togetherness which Special Olympics exemplifies. It’s Beth El, a parable of ubi caritas—where true love is, God is there.