How blind I was

It took becoming a parent for me to realize there was more to McVickar than I ever suspected
March 31, 2004

HIS NAME WAS McVickar.

He sat near the front of the church on the Epistle side and, for a number of months, regular as Christmas, rose from his seat each Sunday during the sermon to visit the lavatory. He'd pause in the middle of the nave, bow to the altar, then continue past the preacher with stilted gait, arms swinging, toward the side door. A few minutes later, he'd reverse the process.

His teeth were a little crooked. They showed often in a smile.

McVickar regularly attended the morning Adult Forum, regardless of the topic, and never missed coffee hour. He'd approach familiar parishioners, perhaps with a cup of coffee tipping toward disaster, maybe with a few crumbs on his chin, usually with an insistent question or comment. These, too, were predictable: Where is priest so-and-so? Is it time for service? Such-and-such a former staff member now is at X location.

I learned to acknowledge the question or comment quickly, then turn back to my conversation with someone else.
McVickar was, in today's lingo, developmentally disabled. Over the years, he lived with family and in various institutions in the area and attended St. Peter's Episcopal Church with a devotion few could match. I suspect many people, however, credited that regularity more with routine than with faith.

It took becoming a parent for me to realize there was more to McVickar than I ever suspected.

I often had heard how we become full members of the church from the moment of baptism. A nice sentiment, I thought, but what can a baby offer?

After my son was born, I learned the answer quickly. He offered "smile ministry." He cheered people up. People I never talked with before approached and initiated conversations about -- and with -- my child. That included McVickar.

For some reason, McVickar and my son bonded. McVickar wanted to know how he was, when his birthday was, where he lived, what he liked to eat. He expressed great concern if his little buddy was home ill and inquired about his health regularly even after he returned to church.

McVickar understood the strain of behaving properly in church. My son's in-the-pew antics, which frustrated and embarrassed me, amused McVickar immensely.

Suddenly, McVickar knew my name. As mother of my son, I had become a more important person to him.
As I discovered how observant and "on-the-ball" McVickar was, he became a more important person to me, too, although I sometimes had trouble understanding his speech.

I learned a bit about his life, his likes and dislikes. I listened to stories, followed with a smile and his favorite phrase, "I'n't that something?"

A few weeks ago, I met our soon-to-be-interim rector. He commented about using written sermons to avoid being distracted by congregants. "Wait till he meets McVickar!" someone said. Sadly, he never had the chance. McVickar entered the hospital shortly after Halloween and died at age 71 on Jan. 10.

Since his funeral, I find myself remembering Jesus' statements about becoming like little children to enter heaven. And I think about what McVickar taught me about respecting the dignity of every human being.

I learned early on not to take children for granted. I remember a parent telling me his children liked me as a baby sitter because I treated them like "little people." And I remember watching my niece at age 1 ½ and thinking, "Wow, kids really understand more than a lot of people give them credit for."

But, perhaps because I prize intellectual pursuits, I suspect I didn't grant full respect to the developmentally disabled. For a long time, I discounted McVickar's true worth.

Now, I remember Harlem watchmaker and evangelist Corrie ten Boom's statement to a Nazi interrogator that the retarded people she cared for "may be worth more than a watchmaker -- or a lieutenant."

Before his death, the clergy administering last rites to McVickar thought he wasn't conscious of their presence -- until they reached the Lord's Prayer. He turned and began mouthing the familiar words through the oxygen mask.

In a world of theological bickering and impassioned protests about who's in and who's out of the church, McVickar simply lived as a child of God and accepted everyone else as God's child, too. He lived a life of faith and remained faithful unto death.

Isn’t that something?