Mohamed slipped into the pew mid-way through the service at our Presbyterian church. My husband Wally, son, Joel, and I scooted over to make room for him. Joel grinned and grabbed Mohamed’s hand. As they laced their fingers together I was struck by the beautiful contrast of skin tones. Joel’s complexion is peaches and cream, while Mohamed’s is the color of burnished mahogany.
My mind raced back to the time of turmoil five years earlier, when the simple but frantic prayer, Help, God! was constantly on my lips.
While raising three sons I prayed this prayer often. When our youngest, Joel, who has autism, hit his teens, these words passed my lips five, ten, sometimes twenty times a day. Autism was hard enough. Did we have to deal with manic swings, sleepless nights, panic attacks, and aggression, too?
Our entire church joined us in prayer – the Tuesday night “prayer ladies,” the e-mail prayer chain, the pastor, and the various small groups we were involved in.
As the saying goes, God moves in mysterious ways. In other words, what you ask for may come to the door in a package you never expected.
Because of the extent of Joel’s disability, he was eligible for “supported living” through our county Board of Developmental Disabilities while still living at home. We worked with a county-approved agency to find staff to come into our home and support Joel with daily living activities – recreation, meals, bathing, and getting ready for bed. My husband Wally and I desperately needed a break after so many years of intensive care-giving.
And so the interview process began. Of the people we interviewed, good matches were at best 1 in 10. I can’t even count the number of people who came through our home. They were either too old to keep up with Joel’s need to be on the move every minute, too out of shape to chase him when he bolted, or too immature. Too hyper. Too timid. Too loud.
Finally, on what I've come to see as a God-ordained day, the agency sent a man named Mohamed. A handsome man from Mauritania, Africa, he had a firm handshake and a visible mantle of peace resting on his broad shoulders. Joel trusted him immediately, and pulled out one of his many photo albums. They sat together on the couch, paging through the book. Mohamed smiled and pointed to one picture after another.
“Who’s that? There you are with your dad at the zoo. Is that your dog? What’s your dog’s name?”
“Yes!” I thought. Finally, a match we could all live with.
“He might be on African time,” my husband warned. Wally has spent a lot of time in Africa on mission, and learned in many of the countries in which he ministered that Western time – time lived according to the clock – is not always the most important time. Like most people with autism, Joel falls apart when his day doesn’t unroll smoothly and predictably. We needed a staff person who could be counted on to be there when Joel got off the bus each day.
I explained to Mohamed the importance of being on time for Joel’s comfort, not just for the sake of the clock. He understood immediately, and always arrived a few minutes before Joel’s bus pulled up to the house.
It turned out that African time was the perfect time for Joel. Mohamed came from a culture where life unfolds at a much less hectic pace. Unlike Americans, Mauritanians tend not to suffer from hurrea – the hurry disease. With Mohamed, there’s time to sit on a park bench listening to the birds; time to people-watch at the mall; time to just hang out at Parky’s Farm, feeding the horses or throwing bread to the fish in the pond. Over time, in Mohamed’s company, Joel’s anxiety began to ebb.
“Do you go to church?” I asked Mohamed one day.
It had been years since Wally and I had sat through an entire worship service as a couple, and it had recently occurred to us that we could possibly ask for support at church.
“I’m a Muslim,” Mohamed answered. “I attend the local mosque.”
It was 2002, not even a year after 9-11. I knew beyond a doubt that Mohamed was a good man. But … a Muslim?
I gulped before asking the question.
“We need help with Joel in church on Sunday mornings. Would that be a problem for you?”
“That would be fine,” he smiled. “We both worship the God of Abraham. I can worship in your sanctuary as well as in my mosque.”
And so began a relationship that’s lasted fourteen years. We’ve come to see Mohamed as a member of our family. And as lonely as he is for his family still in Mauritania, Mohamed has come to see us as family as well.
“I like my Mohamed. He’s my brubber,” Joel said at least once a day when he was still living in our home, pointing to a picture of the two of them that hung on the refrigerator door. And when Mohamed heard from his family in Mauritania, they often asked how his “little brother Joel” was doing.
Fast forward to today. Joel is 32. Mohamed is approaching 50. Joel has his own home now, and Mohamed is his live-in companion. Mohamed is up for an award from our county this year - an award for Best Support Staff of the Year. I'm praying he wins it, because in our book, he IS the best. Because of his calm and easy demeanor, because of his patience, because of his perseverence and his loyalty, Joel is living his dream life. He's an active member of his community. Neighbors come to tea. Friends come to accompany him on walks around the neighborhood. His church community embraces his gifts. He's part of the Best Buddies Friends Choir at Miami University. He exercises at Miami University's Rec Center several days a week. He shops for groceries at our local Kroger. This life trajectory, with major improvements in behavioral issues, would not have been possible without Mohamed's steady, caring presence.
I’m still struck by the beautiful contrast in skin tones when Joel grabs Mohamed’s hand. I’m struck as well by the mysterious ways of this God we love. What if we'd turned Mohamed away because he was a Muslim? What if he'd said no to attending church with Joel because we are Christians? I'm reminded of Hebrews 13:2 (KJV):
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.