It has been quite a few years since I have seen God in church.  Some people would lead you to believe that church is the only place a person can really find God, or really see and experience him, but I beg to differ.  Honestly it’s almost harder for me to find God IN a church setting.  I’m sure that says something about me, but I also don’t think I’m entirely off-base either.  I think God wants us to seek and find him in ALL places and people and things in all of creation.  He’s not a God to be boxed in by four walls and a particular set of doctrine.  To quote CS Lewis, He’s not a tame lion.  So in finding myself missing God in church, I’ve been forced to open my eyes to finding evidence of him in other places.  There are many days when agnosticism creeps in and I wonder if he’s even there at all, but then I Spy something, or someone, that makes it blaringly obvious that yes, God exists, and why, look, here he is, all but announcing himself with a flashing neon sign.

I want to write about one such situation today, and in doing so I’m going to do a little bragging on my amazing cousin, Samantha.  She’s 23 years old and in talking with her this summer, I was smacked in the face by the presence of God.  She probably has no awareness of this…I don’t know a lot about her spirituality but I’m pretty sure she’s not going around thinking she’s evidence of God and God’s love…unlike some people who seem awfully confident about that in spite of evidence to the contrary.  Anyway.  Sam.

Sam was born the summer before my senior year of high school.  I remember my sister and I were so pumped because we finally had a girl cousin!  I also clearly remember driving down to Connecticut with my mom to visit her and my aunt in the hospital, because it was the first “long” trip (about 3 hours) I’d been allowed to drive on the highway.  Over the years we’ve been really close…I have always been particularly close to my Aunt Terry (her mom) and I’ve always made a special effort to spend time with Sam and her 2 brothers whenever I was home in NH.  When I first started having kids, Sam was in high school, and she even came down and spent a couple weeks with our family in the summers over a couple of years.  My daughters are crazy about her and she’s been a super sweet older cousin and role model for them.  It has been a total joy to be a part of her life as she’s gotten older too…it’s great to hang out and relate to her on a “grown up” level now.

All that would be great just as it is, but what really struck me this summer as we visited was listening to her talk about her job.  Her senior year of college, Sam took an internship at the New England Center for Children.  This led to a job offer after graduation, and she has started her second year of work there this fall.  The New England Center for Children is (directly quoted from their webpage):  “a private, nonprofit autism research and education center dedicated to our mission: to transform the lives of children with autism worldwide through education, research, and technology. Our vision is to be a global leader in the provision of effective, evidence-based educational services for the millions of underserved children with autism and their families.”  They offer a variety of residential and day treatment programs for kids on all areas of the autism spectrum.  Sam works with a group of teen boys who are in the residential program.  Kids who for a whole host of reasons can’t live with their families anymore.  Their families come visit them and they can get off-campus passes sometimes, but these boys live the majority of their lives there at the NECC.  Sam works with them on a daily basis helping to teach appropriate behaviors, to try and eliminate undesirable behaviors, to teach basic life skills and care of themselves, with the ultimate goal being one day to live in a group home type setting, where they can perhaps get a job and care for themselves on some level.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “yeah, this is great”, but there are lots of people all over the world who do this type of thing.  But I look at my cousin, this girl I’ve known since she was a baby, and not only have I seen her grow up to be a terrific woman, but she has grown up to be someone who is kind and compassionate and is dedicating her days to helping those who most people in the world have forgotten, who most people don’t think about.  These kids she works with aren’t Max from “Parenthood”…she has to wear her hair up and under a hat so there’s less to pull.  She wears layers of clothing to ward of bites and hitting.  She isn’t a big girl, and she’s putting herself out there with teenage boys who are much stronger than she is.  She is trained in restraint to keep herself and the kids safe.  Some of them can’t speak, some of them are self-injurious.  They act out in ways that are, honestly, dangerous to themselves and those around them.

But what really hit me was listening to her talk about them.  Each kid, she knows them all by name, knows who they are.  She SEES them.  You can tell by the way she talks about her job and her “boys” that this isn’t just some job to her, that it matters to her that their lives are valued and improved by the things she and the NECC are doing for them.  I was asking her questions and at one point I asked what happened if they age out and they aren’t capable of living in a group home or other independent living type situation.  The answer was, well, they likely spend the rest of their days drugged up on a psych ward in a hospital setting.  As she explained that, mentioning this or that boy and their struggles, she totally was choking up and could barely talk about it for a minute.

And that, quite honestly, is where I saw God.  I saw the tremendous love of God working through my cousin Sam.  These are kids who most people don’t give a second thought to.  And if we do think about severly autistic kids it’s more in the vein of “Thank God that is not my kid.”  Talk about “the least of these.”  If you saw them out in public and witnessed an outburst, tell me you wouldn’t judge their parents, or leave as quickly as you could.  These are kids that most people do not give a damn about.  But Sam, and all the other folks she works with, have made it their mission to make their lives matter.  To give them some sort of a life, as best they can.  To see them and know them as names, as people, not just as some case to be solved, a problem to fix or ignore or sweep away, to see beyond the diagnosis to the person that is inside.  I mean, what could be a better picture of the message I believe Jesus came to earth to share?  Of love and acceptance and healing and wholeness.

Now, I’m not trying to make Sam out to be some sort of saint…she’d be the first to say she’s not and I know she’s just a regular girl like anyone else in a lot of ways, with her good days and bad.  But again-this is just like God-working through imperfect people, broken people, even people who do not acknowledge him-to bring about peace and acceptance and love and beauty here on earth.  For all the bad and evil and horrible stories, there are stories like this, stories of people doing MORE, being more, saying that they don’t just accept that this is the way it has to be.

And to me, that is more proof of God’s existence that any church could possibly provide.