By Kathy Berken
I just finished reading Dan Barry’s expose in the New York Times (online, March 9, 2014) about the decades of abuse suffered by men with cognitive disabilities right here in Iowa in the small town of Atalissa, southwest of Clinton, where I lived and worked at The Arch-L’Arche in Clinton, for nearly 10 years. In his story, “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse,” Barry describes how more than 30 men were forced to work in a turkey processing plant for little pay, little care and much abuse. It broke my heart. I could barely imagine the hell these men endured at the hands of their bosses, if only because I could identify with the possibility of what could go horribly wrong when living and working closely with adults with disabilities.
The men have all been rescued and most are now retired, living either independently or in group facilities where they are well taken care of. Thank God.
Here’s the part where the Holy Spirit enters in. As I have practiced the ancient Benedictine prayer known as Lectio Divina, I have often been surprised at my response to the Scripture passage that I am reading. Lectio is a four-part process that involves a slow, deliberate and thoughtful reading of a chosen verse or story in the Bible. Your aim is not to study, but to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the passage right here and now. After your reading, you meditate on it, entering into the scene or ruminating on a word or phrase that appears to you. You offer a prayer, and finally you contemplate the entire process, allowing meaning to enter in, regardless of what appears.
The last time I used Lectio Divina, I was shocked to discover that the person who appeared most strongly to me in the story of the bleeding woman who dared to touch Jesus’ hem asking for healing (Mark 5 and Luke 8) was not the woman. Instead, I identified more with the faceless bystanders who were pushing towards Jesus. I entered the chaotic scene and found myself being annoyed at the woman for interrupting the Master while he was preaching. Whoa! Where did that come from? Something to think and pray about for sure.
I thought about using the process of Lectio Divina for readings outside of Scripture. God speaks to us in many ways, and there is no reason why I cannot read a story, meditate on the circumstances, pray about the situation, and contemplate what it all means.
So I did that with the story from the Times. I was moved by the people in Atalissa who did their best to befriend the men, even if they did reek of turkey guts, even if they did want to hug you too often, even if they did keep saying the same things over and over. When I first read the story, I assumed I would identify as the grandma who made them clown costumes, but instead I felt more intrigued about the Corner Tap and imagined being there. I smelled the odor of dead turkey on the men’s clothes. I saw their rotting teeth and filthy, uncut fingernails. I interacted with them, made small talk, listened to their stories. But what surprised me was how helpless I felt to change the system that caused these problems.
In the passage from the New Testament, I heard God telling me to accept the person in need of healing as she asks for it in her own way. In the “Times” story, I heard God telling me to do what I can to help just one person in need if I am unable to effect systemic change. The Holy Spirit gets through to us as only God can, providing spiritual growth in many ways, not only through Scripture.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)