Her smile filled her face and your heart. She grinned and everyone felt the need to sing. Small in stature with straight black hair, Lorna was born with the genetic disability known as Down Syndrome, which causes developmental disabilities and mental retardation. Though she was not a quiet person–jabbering, laughing and giggling–Lorna was the type of person you could lose in an emaciated minute.
Not that Lorna wandered away or was mischievously hiding, she simply seemed to evaporate into the walls. Lorna was a member of The Special Gathering choir and I was the fledgling director. Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community. It is a community-based program involved in classic ministry: discipleship and evangelism. We have nine programs dotting the eastern coast of Florida and South Carolina.
We also feel that it is important to help educate the Church to the spiritual needs of mentally challenged persons. The choir helps to bridge that gap for us. When the choir sings in local churches, our members show that they have a valid ministry to the Church. In addition, the Church is able to witness firsthand that mentally challenged persons can have a significant, growing relationship with the Lord.
Choir director was one of my first duties when I first came to be a part of Special Gathering. Though I had no formal training in conducting, I took on the position with zeal. While I had years of experience in teaching and speaking, coming to The Special Gathering meant that I became a part of a world that I hardly knew existed. Because the church has not often known what to do with this population, being active in the life of my church had provided perfect insulation for me from the mentally challenged community. I had much to learn and working with a small group in the choir setting was good training.
Secretly, I had wanted to be a choir director since I was a child. I had been in choirs most of my life. I carefully studied the various choral directors’ techniques as I sat under their direction. I evaluated their conducting methods, noting which of their techniques worked and which ones didn’t work.
As teenagers, we were given informal choral conducting classes in my church. As instructed by the class teacher, I would stand in front of the mirror and practice my conducting technique. However, I never imagined that I would have the chance to use the grand gestures.
I came to know and love Lorna during my years as the director of her choir. I always positioned her directly in front of me, in the first row. There were several reasons. First, her amazing face and delightful smile made the choir an instant success with our audience, even before we opened our mouths. Second, her singing ability didn’t accurately match her fantastic smile. I tried to use my body to block some of the monotone chords she produced. The third reason was to help me keep track of her.
I never actually lost Lorna; I just sometimes could not find her. Often we would travel to churches in other cities or counties. Because we have a Covenant Relationship with Central Florida Presbytery and our founder, the Rev. Richard Stimson was raised in Rockledge Church, we sing in many Presbyterian churches, as well as in other churches and community events.
I would load the choir into a borrowed van and we would head out to sing. On occasion that meant going after they had worked all day in the sheltered workshop. We would have supper in a fast-food restaurant, arrive at the church, go to the bathroom, then hurry to find the place where we were to sing. If we were quick enough, I could wedge in a few minutes of rehearsal time. Every time we moved, I counted heads to be sure we had not lost anyone. The choir had 12 members but usually I could locate only 11 heads. “Where’s Lorna?”
“Behind you” was the usual response.
For me, Lorna became the hidden treasure: the great pearl that Jesus spoke of in his parables in the New Testament. In Matthew 13: 44-46, he said, The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. One day a man found the treasure, and then hid the treasure in the field again. The man was very happy to find the treasure. The man went and sold everything he owned to buy that field.
Also, the kingdom of heaven is like a salesman looking for fine pearls. One day the salesman found a very great pearl. The salesman went and sold everything he had to buy that pearl” (The New Testament, A New Easy-to-Read Version).
Knowing Lorna, this interesting parable came to life for me. Often we speak of giving up everything to obtain the great pearl, God’s kingdom. But I came to understand that we give up nothing but our sin and misery. It is Jesus who gave up everything to gain a treasure and a pearl that he considered more valuable than all the riches of heaven. We are his pearl of great price. For me, Lorna became a symbol of the mentally challenged community because, like her, this group of people is often unseen and lost to the world. Sadly, even the church has not discovered the wondrous glamour of this great treasure. They remain a cloistered, sub-culture–moving, working, playing, dancing. Unseen, unknown.
But Jesus knows where Lorna is. He sees and values her great worth. In fact, he gave up everything he had–even his life–to possess her.
Each of us has the opportunity to become his treasure. For the Bible says that all of us are of great worth to the Lord Jesus, from the greatest–such as Lorna with her big heart and wonderful smile–to the least–a silly, novice choir director who couldn’t seem to keep track of her greatest treasure.
Linda Howard is area director of The Special Gathering of Indian River, which consists of two programs, one in Melbourne and the other in Vero Beach, Fla. She is the author of three books, Mothers are People, Too; The Secret Life of a Housewife; and Sons for King Yah.