There is a dull thud as the softball hits the ground. The batter hasn’t hit it very far, but the crowd of parents and caregivers goes wild! The player drops the bat and smiles as he makes his way to first base, where he gets high-fived by a volunteer and waits for the next player to hit the ball before advancing to second. This is Challenger Baseball. It is a league for children and adults who have developmental disabilities. I have been volunteering there as a ‘buddy’ for five years, and I experience God every time I attend.
When I first started helping out, what struck me was how uncomfortable I felt interacting with people who have disabilities. Mother Teresa described her work with the poor as “Jesus in a distressing disguise”. Some of His disguises there were distressing to me. Some players were in wheelchairs, and their legs looked very thin and weak. Some had severe Down Syndrome. Some muttered to themselves and seemed to wander in their own world. One boy was blind, and I could not see his eyes, only blue sockets. I was ashamed that I was uncomfortable. I’ve always believed that people are people. So when I actually met others who had noticeable physical or mental differences from me and that belief was challenged, I did not know what to do. I did not know who to be, how to act, what to say, or how to say it. I didn’t want to be condescending, but sometimes I needed to give instructions. My job as a ‘buddy’ was to stand at one of the bases, wait for the batter to hit the ball, and then guide the player to the next base. Sometimes, I was also asked to play catch with the players in the outfield to help keep them occupied.
After I got used to being there, I didn’t really notice the players’ disabilities anymore. I began to notice something else. It was the parents. I saw how they cheered every player on after they hit the ball. I saw how they sometimes helped their own children around the bases. I saw how much love they had for their children and how beautiful the smiles were on their children’s faces when they got sincere support from the crowd. No one cared who won the game. What mattered was that the players were happy and active. There was something warm and sincere in the way the parents and caregivers cheered on each player. And most of all, in the players, there was never any hint of a lie. Each one was perfectly him or herself. The players weren’t like me. They weren’t worried about how they looked to other people. They weren’t concerned with being judged. They weren’t concerned about who to be, how to act, what to say, or how to say it. They just were. They just acted and spoke. They knew what they liked, they knew how to have fun, and there was straightforward, honest happiness in each of them.
As I kept participating, I stopped noticing the players’ disabilities. I slowly began to see each player’s different personality, and I would try to remember it. That way, I could adjust my energy level to match theirs. I learned how each player liked to be greeted and how they wanted to be high-fived. I knew which ones liked being goofy and which ones were more serious or slow-paced. Slowly, I realized I didn’t have to worry about who to be. I didn’t have to worry about being judged. I could just be.
“Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mark 10:15, NRSVCE). I didn’t really understand that passage until I worked at Challenger. Many of the players are childlike or at the learning levels of younger children. I struggle with trust in God most days. Usually, I get caught up in some worry for the day. “What should I do about this?” “What will my future look like?” “Is there even a solution to this problem?” Things like that. To put it in St. Mother Theodore Guerin’s view, I struggle to remember God’s providence, that God will take care of me in all of life’s circumstances. Worries like these never occurred to the players. They just simply lived. “Your heavenly Father knows all that you need” (NRSVCE, Mathew 6:8). Worry gets in the way of love. How could I dive into the game with the same enthusiasm the players had if I was worried about how I looked?
Similarly, how can I dive into God’s plans for my life with passion if I am worried that He will leave me alone? Working with these fantastic people, I saw how heavenly it is to simply be who God created you to be, and the rest will take care of itself. I saw how beautiful life can be when you love unconditionally, the way the parents and caregivers love the players, and how they love everyone they meet. It helps me to remember that God loves me unconditionally and individually. He knows my personality, my likes, and my dislikes. And He wants me to use everything I have to love Him back by being exactly who He made me be in every moment.