Opening Day for a Retired Pastor

Instead of church last Sunday, the first Sunday in September, official “Opening Day”, the kickoff of a new program year which I always looked forward to and dearly loved, I did something equally uplifting and inspiring, maybe more. I attended the Chicago Try Athlon, sponsored by Chicago Special Rec, a division of the Chicago City Parks and Recreation Department. All the activities of Chicago Special Rec are designed for children, young people and adults with special needs. My granddaughter, Rachel, a beautiful 18 year old with Down Syndrome, participates in Chicago Special Rec programs and on Sunday was in her third Try Athlon. Since I have no professional obligations on Sunday morning I drove to a city park in west Chicago to watch Rachel compete and to be part of her cheering section.

Shabbona Park itself, in a residential neighborhood of classic Chicago bungalows, is remarkable; a large field house with a full gym and  swimming pool, rooms for meetings and activities, a spacious green with ball fields and tennis courts, walking and running paths. It is an eloquent expression of Daniel Burnham’s vision of the city as a place of communities and neighborhoods, boulevards and parks, where all citizens share responsibility for the common good and welfare. I worry a lot that the sense of community, common responsibility and common good is under siege today in the midst of rampant individualism and , in the political arena, an unpleasant obsession with cutting any expenditure with the adjective “public”. Chicago’s parks are a kind of miracle.

The Try Athlon, like its namesake, involves three events: a four lap 100 yard swim, a 2 1/2 mile bike ride and a 3/4 mile run. Participants do the swim event first and then are guided outside to the bike path by wonderful volunteers and Park District employees. There were maybe 75-100 participants, all ages and with different needs. It appeared that each had a personal cheering section and support system, family and friends. I have been with Rachel and her parents enough to have discovered that families of special needs children and adults experience a lively and caring community among themselves. Everyone knows everyone and the special needs family members. They see one another at activities for their family members and at the Try Athlon everyone cheers for and encourages each participant.  Rachel’s claque were all there, parents, brother and sister, aunts, uncles, a six year old cousin and a grandfather.

We sat in the pool balcony and cheered as Rachel swam her four laps, looking up at the balcony with every other stroke, smiling at us. She came in second behind a mature, well-muscled 30 year old man and our family all had to suppress our innate competitiveness and impulse to shout, “Get him Rach!”

Some of the participants rode authentic racing bikes and sped through the course. Others rode ordinary cruisers and some, including Rachel, pedaled three wheelers. Cheering sections positioned themselves at different points around the course to provide encouragement for all the riders.

Then came the run, the final leg of the event, and I was already exhausted myself. Rachel got off her bike, hit the ground running and almost bounced onto the track. Contestants slowed down and walked as needed, although not much, and stopped for water breaks. We noted how each had a spurt of energy and speed when they approached their own cheering section.

Rachel finished strongly with a gorgeous grin on her face, accepted the medal the official placed around her neck and raised her arms joyfully just like an Olympic Gold Medal winner.  I had trouble catching the moment on my camera because of the tears in my eyes.

It is a hopeful commentary on the human prospect when communities gather around and care for their smallest, weakest, most vulnerable. In the car on the way home I kept thinking about the day Jesus welcomed the children and told his disciples that the little ones were, in fact, a pretty good portrait of the Kingdom of God.



  1. Chris Leonard says:

    Your words are so moving. Having spent 33 years with these children,
    perhaps I missed some of these lovely sentiments.

  2. David A. Donovan says:

    God’s definition of “perfection” is vastly more expansive than our own. Thanks be to God for Rachael!!

  3. Deanne Snedeker Medina says:

    Thanks John. Being a daughter, stepdaughter, sister and sister-in-law to four Presbyterian pastors (my sister-in-law having just finished her term as the Moderator of Chicago Presbytery), I have heard your name often. But I never knew that you had a grandchild with DS. I have a daughter, Mila, who is 11 and also has DS.

    I’m so glad you got to experience this with Rachel. Our community is a community made of up unique individuals made up of every ethnicity, socio-economic status, religious or political affiliation and our own professions. It is at events like these, that we unite and those differences or barriers fall away as we come together to celebrate our kids. I was just reflecting on this yesterday and thinking how I have such an amazing network of friends that I likely never would have met if I hadn’t had Mila. These children give us so much more than we can ever hope to give them.

    People have often said to me, “Special people are given special kids” but I must disagree with that statement. The truth is that special kids make ordinary people special. When I look at Mila, I see all of God’s grace in her and I feel incredibly humbled to have been given such a gift.

  4. What a blessing Rachel is! Karen Johns

  5. Rachel, You rock! Congratulations on your great Try Athlon! Your whole family rocks too!

  6. Awesome story!

  7. Bonnie Schuessler says:

    For my daughter at Lambs Farm for 32 yrs. I am always reminded of Edna Massimilla poem:
    HEAVEN’S VERY SPECIAL CHILD – A meeting was held quite far from Earth!
    It’s time again for another birth. Said the Angels to the Lord above, “This Special Child will need much love. His progress may be very slow, Accomplishment he may not show. And he’ll require extra care From the folks he meets down there. He may not run or laugh or play; His thoughts may seem quite far away. In many ways he won’t adapt And he’ll be known as handicapped. So let’s be careful where he’s sent. We want his life to be content. Please, Lord, find the parents who Will do a special job for You. They will not realize right away, The leading role they’re asked to play. But with this child sent from above, Comes stronger faith and richer love. And soon they’ll know the privilege given, In caring for their gift from Heaven. Their precious charge so meek and mild, Is Heaven’s Very Special Child.”
    (It was a pleasure meeting your daughter in law yesterday and sharing our thoughts about the privilege given us with our special children. ) Bonnie Schuessler

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