By Sara Hinojosa
I had always known a God. My father was raised Catholic, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen him in a Catholic church. My mother, on the other hand, is a devout Christian and raised my older siblings in church. Their faces were well known in the community and some of their closest friends were made at Sunday schools, youth groups, and Bible studies.
They all moved out by the time I was in kindergarten and I couldn’t say when they last stepped into a church building.
Maybe a wedding or a funeral.
I came into the picture much later and never experienced church in the same way. As a tiny, restless child, I was forced to sit quietly as the adult service droned on. Whoever this God-being was wasn’t doing anything to capture my attention. Yet, I never doubted his existence. He was always very real to me, just not all that exciting. Maybe if I were a few decades older and enjoyed sitting for hours listening to a man talk about sin and wickedness in the same flat tone, God would’ve been the guy for me.
Having no other choice, I sat, slumped in the chair, eyes to the ceiling, feet not yet reaching the floor.
Years later. New church.
I hadn’t ever been here before, but I didn’t expect much based on past religious experiences. It was small, not much more that a room with a few chairs. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t there for a sermon. Not there to get preached at. I made my way through the crowded room to the volunteer table.
A small sign in the entrance read, “Respite Night:” a night in which children and adults with mental disabilities, such as autism, came together for dances, holiday parties, or other church events, depending on the season.
A stranger greeted me with a smile, telling me I was assigned to be with a little girl named Brooklyn for the next few hours. She was nonverbal because of a rare genetic disease called Sanfilippo, but her personality shined through and her happy eyes and rosy cheeks were able to express exactly what she was thinking at any given moment.
At 5 years old, Brooklyn lit up the atmosphere with her smile. The spring sun warmed us as she held my hand and danced and laughed as the group sang.
I can never find the words to describe the undeniable love that I felt in this place. This was like no other environment I’d ever been a part of. I grew up in a city whose residents seemed incapable of kindness and in churches that practiced hate toward any person that didn’t meet their narrow standards. This had been the first time I had felt a sense of community and a pure love that didn’t discriminate. If this love I felt reflected what God was then I knew I wanted more of it.
In the time I’ve worked alongside people with autism and other varying disabilities, I’ve gained a new sort of faith. I met dozens of people in this community who seem to know a creator personally, in a physical form. No doubt about this creator’s existence is present. This belief has made a home in my head because of the love that I’ve experienced in this community. It’s not a list of rules to follow and it is the furthest thing from the shame that is so often seen in religion. This love is what I’ve come to know as God.