This article was written by Emma CushmanWood, an Interfaith Scholar and President of DePaul University’s chapter of Amnesty International. Emma is a sophomore studying English and Religious Studies.
This past Spring Break I went to Montgomery, AL, for a Service Immersion trip with a group of eleven students and one staff member. The trip was sponsored by University Ministry. While we were there we visited many Civil Rights historical sites and learned about peaceful protest in the Civil Rights Movement. Along with learning about the Civil Rights Movement, we also volunteered. We mostly volunteered at Resurrection Catholic Missions School, but one afternoon we did something different. We went to a home for physically and mentally disabled adults called Milton Road. While I was there volunteering, a wondrous thing happened to me.
When we got to Milton Road, a nun took our group to a room that was across from the community living room. The room had a long conference table, an unused sink and tall grey filing cabinets. The nun who was wearing a white habit began to give us instructions as we stood in a circle listening intently. She explained that we were here to keep some of the residents company. We would each be assigned to a man or woman and would keep them company for the afternoon. She also explained that all of the residents were in wheelchairs and had some capability of communicating, whether that was with the help of a communication device or by nodding and smiling.
As she talked, a skinny black woman rolled in. Smiling, she rolled around the room examining the newcomers in her home. She rolled her wheelchair up to me and smiling took my hand and gently but firmly held it. She rolled her head and smiled a crooked-toothy grin. Her face light up as we held hands. Her hand was soft and wrinkly. As she held mine, she gently stroked it. Her whole body was skinny, anorexic even. She looked like a Holocaust survivor. She was taller than me, but her ankles were the size of an eight-year-olds. She didn’t have almost any hair and she couldn’t talk except for low moans/grunts. But nevertheless she was overjoyed that I was here to see her.
The emotions I felt in that instant were overwhelming. I was at first very shocked. Why would she want to hold hands with me? Why was she so happy to see me? Then I was overcome with grief. She looked almost tortured with how tight her brown skin barely stretched over her bones and little flesh. I then felt guilty. She couldn’t walk. I could. She couldn’t talk. I could. She couldn’t go out into the world and experience life. I could. It really made me think of how fortunate I am. But after grief and guilt, I was overwhelmed with the strongest of emotions—happiness. Of all the people in that room, she picked me to hold hands. She was excited to see me.
After the nun gave instructions, Ella and I went to her room. Her room was decked in pink—pink curtains, a pink bedspread and pink pillows. There were also many frogs in her room—a frog balloon and many stuffed animal frogs. When I asked her if she liked frogs, she nodded her head and smiled. I told her that I drove 14 hours just to see her and her face lit up and she smiled and groaned. She showed me a picture of her parents. Her dad was frowning and her mom covered her face with her hands clearly in shame. No wonder Ella acted as if no one ever came to visit her. No one probably did.
As we watched TV in her room, she continued to hold my hand and stroke it. I have held hands before with my parents, friends and past boyfriends, but this was different. This was deeper and more genuine. It was sincere. There was just something about it that made it special this time. It was like I was holding a hand of a child’s, but with a much deeper connection, a spiritual connection. It was love. A spiritual love. It made me remember a quote by St. Vincent DePaul, “Love gains for us an entrance into the hearts of others.” In that moment, Ella and I had a spiritual connection. Ella gained an entrance into my heart and I gained an entrance into hers.