I went to junior high school with a girl named Kathleen O’Donnell. Our families went to Sacred Heart Catholic Church together. Good people. Kathleen had a heart of gold. She was kind to everyone. Even though her kindness was not always reciprocated. Since birth, Kathleen suffered from a skin disorder called Psoriasis. The easiest way to describe this disorder is all of Kathleen’s skin looked like she was severely sunburned, and she had hundreds of dried scabs all over her body. Early on, some of our classmates were mean to Kathleen, calling her “scabby” or “peeled tomato”. When Kathleen got teased, her big brother, Rich, stepped in. Folks learned – if you messed with Kathleen – you’d walk home with a black eye!
Many students were afraid to touch Kathleen. Including me, at first. Maybe we thought her disorder was contagious. I had certainly never heard of Psoriasis. One day I sat next to Kathleen at Mass. During one of the prayers, the congregation all held hands. And I held Kathleen’s hand for the first time. I didn’t catch a disease that morning. Instead, I made a new friend.
I went to college with a guy named Chad Harris. He and I Iived in the same residence hall. I lived in 120 Garrett Hall. Chad lived in 142. You couldn’t miss Chad. He was the quadriplegic that cruised around campus in a chin controlled battery-operated wheel chair. One year earlier, Chad dove head first into three feet of shallow water. He broke his neck and became paralyzed from the neck down.
One day I ran into Chad’s step father, Ray, in the bathroom at Garrett Hall. He and his wife were staying at a nearby hotel caring for Chad while he was living on campus. Ray asked me if I wanted a part-time job as a caretaker for his son. I’d never met a quadriplegic before, let alone cared for one. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated.
Chad and I were in the same fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon. When he would come over to the fraternity house, the brothers and I initially didn’t know how to greet him. Hard to shake hands, high five or hug a guy who can’t move any limbs.
For the next four years Chad and I became the best of friends. We went to Spring Break down at Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Backpacked throughout Europe after we graduated. I fed him – bathed him – clothed him. And when I wanted to greet Chad, I learned to just pick up Chad’s hand and drop it into mine – the ultimate high five!
I write this BLOG while doing a short-term mission trip with Many Hands for Haiti (www.mh4h.org) in Pignon, Haiti. Over the last few days I’ve witnessed poverty like I’ve never seen before. 10.5 million people live in Haiti. Many live in extreme poverty. 59% live on $2.00 a day. 25% live on less $1.25 per day (World Bank, 2012). Many are living with no electricity or plumbing or running water or health care. Their homes have dirt floors and are made from sticks and mud.
Before I flew down there on Sunday night, I checked all my vaccinations. I started taking Malaria pills. I packed six cartridges of Purell hand sanitizer in my backpack. The first day I squirted Purell in my hands after every time I shook hands with a Haitian – fearing I would get sick. Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive.
But I just fell in love with the Haitian people. In the midst of all their poverty – all their strife – and their appalling living conditions, Haitians are some of the most joyful and beautiful people I’ve ever met. I learned that happiness and material belongings are not directly correlated. They have nothing. Yet, they have everything – love. By the second day, I chucked the Purell and was hugging and shaking hands with every Haitian I was blessed to meet.
We have many hands. Some are chapped. Some are paralyzed. And some are poor. But we all have hands to love and serve others. Hands to be someone’s friend. Hands to be someone’s caretaker. Hands to feed the hungry. Hands to build someone a home. Hands to give someone a hug. Hands to give a high five. And hands to even give someone a black eye!
During this holiday season, I hope we all can love more. Give more. Serve more. Hug more. High five more. And not be afraid to chuck the Purell and hold hands more!