Bobby wasn’t like any other 10-year-old boy. Bobby had the face of an angel but the temperament of a devil. Bobby was a beautiful child. His blond hair and blue eyes together with his alabaster skin, pointed toward his Scandinavian heritage. At first sight, Bobby appeared to be the kind of child that any congregation would be proud to count as a member. But, Bobby’s physical appearance was deceiving and Bobby’s presence in church was not welcome. Bobby didn’t go down to Sunday school classes with the other children. The Sunday school teachers had tried to include Bobby, but after several parents threatened to withdraw their children, they asked Bobby’s parents not to send Bobby anymore. So Bobby stayed in the sanctuary with the adults. Most of the adult members tried to tolerate Bobby’s presence but for some, Bobby’s presence was simply unnerving. Bobby is autistic. Sitting and behaving in church was impossible for him. As long as we were singing hymns, Bobby was happy. He would catch the rhythms of the music and rock back and forth and sing. He never sang the same words as the rest of the congregation. But it was clear from his movements and the sounds that emanated from his lips that Bobby was singing. The trouble was that Bobby never stopped singing when we did. When his parents would attempt to put an end to Bobby’s song, he would flail about and sometime throw himself on the floor.
Now there are some churches where flailing about and throwing one’s self to the floor would be interpreted as a sign that the Holy Spirit was at work. But in this little Lutheran church, the reaction of the worshippers to Bobby’s outbursts made it clear that they feared that Bobby was possessed by spirits of the evil variety. Oh, they would never have come out and said that Bobby was possessed by demons, they just acted as if he were. Bobby’s favorite part of the service was communion. I think that he enjoyed the opportunity to walk up to the front of the church and kneel at the altar. When the Pastor would place a communion wafer in his hands, Bobby would giggle with glee. Bobby never ate the communion wafer; he would just hold it up to the light and smile. The communion wine was another thing altogether. Sometimes Bobby’s mother would try to help him drink from the common cup. Sometimes Bobby would dunk his wafer into the intinction cup and slop wine everywhere. At other times Bobby would be so preoccupied with his wafer that he just let the cup pass him by. On a good day Bobby’s behavior only made people uncomfortable. On a bad day, Bobby’s behavior embarrassed some, offended others, and sometimes outraged many.
I remember being summoned to an extra-ordinary council meeting. The meeting had been called to deal with the complaints and concerns of several long time members of the congregation that had decided that Bobby’s presence could now longer be tolerated at worship. The people who were complaining were not bad people. They were fine upstanding members of the congregation who found themselves unable to deal with Bobby’s presence in their midst. During the meeting we agonized over what to do. Continue reading