It was 1985, on a cool damp fall evening, with the typical chaos abounding in our little blue house nestled under the trees off an old dirt road in Marbury, Alabama. On one side of the house were the “house parents” and their 3 children. There were 9 of us on our side of the house, in a living space of approximately 1000 square feet – with five bedrooms, (2 girls in each), and our counselor in her own room. All of us shared 1 bathroom that comfortably accommodated 3 at a time…but of course on nights like this everyone was trying to do their hair and make-up at once and as expected, there was plenty of emotion to go around.
I was nineteen and living in a program that was at that time, set up for troubled young women to help them turn things around before life’s consequences became any greater. Most of my housemates ranged in age from 13-16 and had come at the direction of their parents. I on the other hand, had come from having been in two different institutions at that point, for the treatment of addiction, as well as mental health and behavioral issues.
For the most part we never left a safe zone radius of: the house, the fields where we grew much of our own food and the Pastor’s house/church, (which were under the same roof). It was a good period in my life, though at the time and on this particular evening, (so early in my residency), it did not yet seem that way to me. I was still quite angry with the fact that I’d made such a mess of things, that I was living with a bunch of girls and that my every waking moment was filled with “God talk”…something I had been and continued to be resistant to.
All that being said, it was somewhat exhilarating to know that we were going out to an event, due to the fact that such outings were few and far between. Finally we were all ready and loaded up, with a mild tension that lingered among several of us. I can recall staring out at the countryside as we drove, with my forehead pressed against the cool glass of the window and opting for personal silence on that trip, to instead dwell heavily upon the regret and guilt I was filled with for having ended up where I was, rather than being in college like my peers back home had done. Arriving at our destination, (a medium sized church in Montgomery, AL), we headed to the downstairs where we would be having fellowship, food, worship and listening to a speaker.
In my recollection of that night’s event, I only remember a few things: I remember feeling uncomfortable with the amount of people present and the fact that they were a bunch of “church people” – my anger and self-pity growing with each passing minute. I remember the all-consuming thoughts that there was no hope for me and that I would never measure up to those people who were all around me and I remember one significant event that occurred following the music…that I never saw coming.
I enjoyed the worship time, having always been a lover of music. The lights were put at a comfortable level and we started with very upbeat songs, to which everyone clapped and sang – something very different to me from the traditional “hymn” music and rigid protocol I’d grown up with. It then transitioned into softer music with very thoughtful lyrics. I noticed that many people seemed to allow their guard to go down, as they would close their eyes and raise their hands into the air. I recall being both intrigued with their willingness to physically make themselves so vulnerable and being unyielding in my own determination to NOT follow their lead, as I was very much locked into an instinctual need to never show weakness (even if only perceived). Though enjoying the music, I recall feelings of self-pity and hopelessness only growing, along with an overwhelming desire to get up and leave the room…and that is when it happened.
Just as I visually located the door I would attempt to exit out of, a man came onto the small stage with a big smile and commanding voice and began to tell us that we were in for a very special treat. He shared about the person who would come up next as having been a member of their congregation since he was a young child and that he was a blessing to everyone who knew him. He said, “When someone talks to Thomas there are two things that can’t be avoided: Knowing how MUCH he loves the Lord and the fact that you can NOT walk away from him without a smile on your face”. Listening, I cynically thought to myself, (from my stupor of self-loathing), “Oh great – I get to listen to yet ANOTHER person talk about how perfectly happy their life is because of God.”
As the pastor began to move left from center stage, extending his arm outward in introduction, I saw to the right that people were moving and then observed an electric wheelchair coming up the ramp and onto the stage. As the occupant of the chair came into view I recall feeling stunned, confused and a little angry – thinking to myself that “they shouldn’t be making this poor guy come up there”. In the chair was a young man probably a few years older than me. He was very thin, with thick glasses and his body was severely contorted and moving involuntarily, as his neck and head strained to the left. Another man positioned him at center stage and adjusted the microphone for him, as Thomas ever so slightly waved the fingers on his left hand at the audience and smiled. At that point several people began clapping and cheering “Thomasssss!!!” The lights were dimmed over all of us and one bright light shown down on Thomas. He pointed one finger towards the side stage and the music began – Amazing Grace. As he began to sing, it was very difficult to understand his words…but in short order – that didn’t matter.
Listening to Thomas sing, my mind shifted from an awkward discomfort of watching someone so severely affected by Cerebral Palsy, to being overcome at witnessing someone who was not religious, but visibly in love with God. As Thomas sang he began to openly worship in front of everyone – raising his hands as best he could, with his eyes closed – smiling – tears flowing down his face as he sang, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me – I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see…”. The hardness in my heart began breaking with each moment that I watched him – the pureness and sincere joy and peace of someone who had every right to be angry, bitter and hopeless. I remember my head dropping as I wept. It felt like something ran through my body, shoving out the horribleness that had taken up residency for so long and I experienced my first moment in years of utter peace and contentment beyond my comprehension. After Thomas sang, his father stood beside him and read to everyone his son’s story – which was one that had moments of anger and defeat and how he came to know God and experience change and purpose.
Certainly there was indeed a purpose – and that night for sure, I knew that his purpose in part was for me. Though I rode home quietly with my head against the car window, as I had earlier that evening, I no longer felt the consuming coldness and isolation I had for so long nurtured, but instead allowed myself to feel the goodness that had entered my heart and to ponder all that had happened. Something changed in me that night: hope replaced hopelessness and willingness replaced obstinateness. From that day forward all thoughts about leaving the program were gone, and in the months and years to follow, I would come to personally understand the mystery of Thomas’s miraculous joy – being ever thankful for that one fall night so long ago in Montgomery, AL.
©2015 Rebecca Balko