Julia Luneau, 17, is not one to just sit in a church pew. As people arrive for Mass at St. Joseph Church in Conway, she’ll often stand by the holy water font to bless them, share a hug or instinctively know when someone needs to be prayed over.
“One guy before Christmas was standing in the back, an older guy. She put the love and hug treatment on him. He walked away with tears in his eyes,” said her father, David Luneau. “About six weeks later, he came up to me and said, ‘I just want to tell you how much your daughter means to me. She was an angel from God; I wasn’t feeling like God loved me but she brought that to me.’”
Unafraid of what people think, Julia shares Christ’s love.
“She’s special needs, but I think in her spirituality she’s pretty much ahead of the game,” her father said.
Julia, the youngest of six children, has Dravet Syndrome, a rare genetic dysfunction of the brain, a form of epilepsy that develops in otherwise healthy infants. Years of medications caused intellectual delays.
According to Pew Research Center, citing the 2015 U.S. Census, about 40 million Americans, or 12.6 percent of the population, live with a disability. Arkansas is one of the six states with the highest percentage, at 17 percent.
People with disabilities are too often left in the shadows of parishes, but many have unique gifts to share in the life of the Church.
Walking up to the altar at St. Mary Church in Hot Springs, Grady Smith has a joyful spring in his step, despite his leg brace. A quick bow, looking up toward the crucifix, he said, “Man, I’m telling you, this altar is so pretty.”
Grady, an only child, was born 10 weeks premature and contracted fungal meningitis, the rarest form, leading to cerebral palsy. Thanks to years of therapy, he stays active from playing baseball to singing in the church choir. Altar server coordinator David Peters suggested about a year ago that Grady try altar serving.
“That was a dream come true to hear someone say, ‘We want your child to participate,’” his mother Carrie Smith said. “… Every week he wakes up saying, ‘Is today the day? Do I get to go today? Do I get to participate with the altar team today?’ He has this enthusiasm for it that you just don’t see very often.”
Peters said Grady “doesn’t carry a cross or do some of the other functions, but he loves being up there. We schedule him and treat him like everyone else.”
Grady said he loves every part of altar serving, even high-fiving parishioners as they process out. “People come up to us that we don’t even know, they may be visiting Hot Springs or looking for a new church or wanting to come back to the Church, and something about him just resonates with people,” Smith said.
Peters said lay ministry leaders should not assume that people with disabilities cannot serve.
“He’s a child of God. It doesn’t matter. We all have handicaps, some we can see, some we can’t. If somebody wants to do that, it shouldn’t be my position to say you can’t serve on God’s holy altar,” Peters said. “Go up and ask them if they want to help. Most of the time the accommodations you have to make are minimal … I think sometimes we’re afraid to ask. We just think, ‘Oh well they can’t do it.’ We just assume it. They want to contribute just as much, if not more, than anybody else. They have so much talent you wouldn’t believe.”
David Ray, 12, also has a heart for service, bringing the gifts up to the altar during St. John School Masses in Russellville.
“He has a very strong reverence. I think the first time I saw him take the gifts up, it was a pretty touching thing to watch. Just the way his little friend was walking with him; he stared at it and walked up that whole aisle and Father Jack (Sidler) was just looking at him with such love,” said his mother Susan Ray. He is the youngest of six children and has Down syndrome. “I knew he knew that he was doing something really important and special; you could see it in his face.”
Though not very verbal, Ray said he is a “reflection of God’s love” and people are often drawn to him.
It’s an inspiring thought in the face of the startling statistics: in the United States, about 6,000 children are born with Down syndrome each year and 67 percent of pregnancies with a prenatal diagnosis are aborted, according to the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
“I don’t really see David differently than my other children. I try to accommodate him differently, but I don’t see him differently as far as his spirit,” she said, adding they’ve experienced “compassion, patience and just acceptance” at both the school and St. Augustine Church in Dardanelle.
“I think one thing I’ve learned with my experience with him and watching his experience with the sacraments is that children with disabilities are created to receive God’s blessings and graces just as all children are born to do,” she said.
Kelly McClintock is used to being the “little lady” at St. John Church in Hot Springs, admitting that “right now, I’m the little lady with blue hair,” she laughed. The 53-year-old has served in several ministries, from catechist to cantor, and has worked for 10 years as the church secretary.
She is the third generation in her family born with Pseudoachondroplafia, a rare form of dwarfism. McClintock and her brother both have dwarfism, while her two sisters do not. Her husband and son are both average height.
McClintock said because of her 4-foot-1 frame, she has challenges using the stairs, less accessible bathroom facilities and some assume her intellect is less or “they’ll speak to the person with me instead of me.”
Because of the lack of available accessible parking — sometimes people without a tag take a spot — she has had to miss Mass before “because the parking was too far away and I was by myself.”
Despite moments of frustration, there are people who get it.
“One year I was serving as godparent to a family who was coming in at Easter vigil, it was time to light the Easter candle” and Father Erik Pohlmeier, then pastor of St. John Parish, “lifted the candle off of its stand so I could light the candle. An accommodation was made on the fly.”
She wishes people would “understand I’m literally a person just like them with the same hopes and dreams and fears and annoyances that might come to them.” McClintock said people with disabilities are either very introverted or extroverted and it’s rare to find someone in between.
“I think we need to understand the isolation that people with disabilities can fold into and to reach out without being condescending. And that is a very difficult thing to do,” she said. “Be willing to shake someone’s hand. If they don’t have the mobility to shake your hand, they’ll let you know.”
Kay Smith, 74, director of religious education at St. Bernard Church in Bella Vista, has lived with the effects of polio since she was 10 years old. However, after therapy and surgeries, the married mother of four lived most of her life without anyone noticing her disability.
Since moving to Bella Vista around 2005, she has organized adult faith formation programs, a Bible study and has served as DRE for about eight years.
Still “extremely independent,” Smith has used a motorized wheelchair since 2008 after her doctor suggested she “might be happier.”
“It turns out, he was really right. I zip around,” she said.
“I do just about everything I want to, but what people don’t realize is you have to figure out another way to do it, whatever it is you want to do,” she said.
Even though she can open a door unassisted, she’s a fan of accessible doors and ramps, though many parishes just have steps.
“If they have a problem they should go to their parish and explain what they need,” Smith said of people with disabilities. “… What everyone needs to know is we’re no different from who they are. We have all the same needs and in my situation I just can’t walk. In someone else’s situation, they may not be able to talk or whatever. We have the same needs and want to be recognized.”
While society can often be cruel and judgmental, Catholics are called to be loving and accepting, but sometimes people fall short.
Like most teens, David Luneau said his daughter “likes to surf on the computer, she’ll get on YouTube, listen to music and sing. She likes books. She’ll take a book to bed with her. Even if there’s no pictures in it, she’ll take it and turn the pages.”
Julia easily makes friends at her public school, restaurants and in the parish, but there are times she hasn’t been included in some ministry activities and occasionally encounters a negative reaction to her kindness.
“Our daughter knows when it’s a welcoming place,” he said. “She doesn’t want to go back if it’s not. They understand love, they feel rejection.”
From the looks of pity when David was a baby to the occasional bad reactions from hugs to a stranger, Susan Ray chalks it up to ignorance and fear.
“It can be discouraging as a parent. There are definite lows. Our children have learned so much from David and I just pray they carry that on and keep spreading it to the world,” she said. “I just challenge people that don’t have a disability in their life just to be accepting of it and to see life as a gift. If you see life as a gift, it’s easier to see every life as a gift.”
Kay Smith said when she first got her wheelchair 10 years ago, “People wouldn’t look me in the eyes. They were embarrassed and didn’t know how to handle it,” admitting society has evolved some. “… It’s always really nice if somebody holds the door for me. Little acts of kindness are very appreciated.”
In the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, it states persons with disabilities and their families are “valued members of the faith community. By their example and testimony they can play an indispensable role in witnessing to the inherent dignity of each human life.”
“We need to know that we can talk about pro-life issues all day long but reaching out to the person who looks or walks or speaks different is a huge pro-life issue. That’s how we can show love,” McClintock said, adding that 80 to 90 percent of children with dwarfism are aborted in a family with no history of the disability. “I always think about Zacchaeus when he climbed the tree. (Jesus) asked him to repent, forgive his sins, but he didn’t heal him. Sometimes our physical difference or disability is our cross we’re supposed to carry for a reason and maybe we can realize that more by reaching out to other people.”
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