I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.
There was some debate about how to best serve Derrick.
It was not always as obvious as one might think. For instance, paying for his lunch on Sundays seemed like the loving thing to do. However, Derrick’s biggest problem was probably not his mental challenges, but rather his weight. I mean, I am admittedly someone who could afford to lose a few pounds. But Derrick could afford to lose me, or my entire weight. He had difficulty walking, and couldn’t even stand for too long without “resting”. I was genuinely concerned that he would likely die at a young age due to weight-related problems.
I tried to gently suggest to him that he should consider getting more exercise, and eat dessert less often. Though he did not get upset at the suggestion, he also did not seem concerned with changing, even when I talked about the risks from diabetes and other such diseases. The best I could do without hurting his feelings was refuse to buy dessert with his meals and purposefully park far away from the entrance, knowing he would walk with me to the car. Otherwise, I was at a loss: how do you tell a 5-year-old that he is fat?
There was also the issue of his super-friendly, affectionate nature. People who did not know him were sometimes put off or even frightened by this unusual, touchy-feely stranger. When Derrick started showing up at weeknight singles events, the young adults pastor had to sit him down for a talk about what was or was not appropriate.
Later, on the way home, Derrick started asking me questions about whether it was OK to hug. I tried to explain to him that hugging was fine between good friends, but that I would never hug someone I had just met and would not hug girls unless they initiated it. I suggested he ask permission before hugging someone, but reassured him that he was an adult and that I trusted him to make his own decisions.
Two days later, he called me to ask what the word “decision” means.
The sixth straight time the phone rang with Derrick’s number on the caller ID, I finally answered. I had been hoping he would get the idea that it was not polite to call at 11:00 on a weeknight. But perhaps it was an emergency, after all.
“Um…this is your good buddy, Derrick.”
“I was wondering…are…are you coming to my Christmas party?”
“Well, probably, Derrick, but…when is it? I mean, it’s probably close to Christmas, right?”
“Well, that’s 3 months from now. So, I imagine I’ll go, but I don’t really have my calendar set that far out yet.”
“What are you going to wear?”
“What am I going to wear…to the Christmas party?”
“Well…I don’t know, Derrick. Clothes, probably. I’ll wear clothes.”
As the months went on, I started to feel like I was alone in my ministry to Derrick.
There were originally 3 or 4 friends at church who would share the load of driving Derrick to and from events and paying for his meals or other expenses. This pool of help was cut down quickly when two of the friends bought new, smaller cars, and found that Derrick could no longer ride with them.
Since I was apparently the most willing to help, Derrick started turning to me as his first option. The problem was, though I might have been willing to help, I really didn’t want to. Honestly, I didn’t even like Derrick. He was an annoying guy. With his ultra-heavy stutter and nonsense questions, conversations with him were a practice in patience and endurance. He never had money (even though he worked at Goodwill and obviously could afford to eat during the week), and it took over an hour of my time every time I made the round trip to his house to drop him off. And since many people—and especially girls—were uncomfortable around a “special” guy who sees no problem with hugging strangers, helping Derrick didn’t seem to help my popularity at all.
I rarely ever offered help to Derrick, for these reasons, but sort of made it my unofficial policy not to turn him down if he asked. I simply felt that was the right thing to do, and I always tried to do the “right” thing. Internally, I debated whether Derrick was purposefully taking advantage of me, or if his mind was too child-like to even conceive such a plan.
Either way, the situation led to some occasional bitterness on my part. What was I getting out of this relationship? I was doing good works, because surely that’s what God wanted me to do, but where were my rewards? As the pastor liked to point out during Sunday sermons, the reward for acts of service seemed to be only…more service.
Those were my thoughts as I went to Derrick’s annual Christmas party for the first time. I was not looking forward to it, but Derrick had been looking forward to it for months, and after about the 12th time he invited me to it I decided it would probably hurt his feelings if I didn’t at least make an appearance. Besides, who else would go to the party? The location alone, at the run-down house Derrick shared with his grandmother in the worst part of town, would be enough to scare away most people who valued their lives. If I didn’t go, I was worried Derrick might not have anyone show up.
Sure enough, when I arrived there were less than a handful of people there. Only a couple of guys from my church—the two who were willing to help with Derrick, but couldn’t fit him in their cars—and a long-term friend of Derrick’s named Brandon. Brandon was basically a louder version of Derrick; they were very similar both physically and mentally, but Brandon was even more outgoing and responded to every statement with a half-yelled “For REAL?”
“Yeah, Brandon, for real.”
“For REAL for real?”
“Um, yes. For real 3 times, even.”
As the night wore on, though, I was surprised to see more people show up. People I had never even met. People who were, well, normal, at least to the extent I was normal, or anyone who would venture into West Dallas at night for a special ed Christmas party. For instance, there was a contingent of college students from a Dallas Catholic seminary, who knew Derrick through some kind of West Dallas outreach program. Also, 3 or 4 tall African-American men showed up together to wish Derrick a merry Christmas. I asked them how they knew Derrick.
“From church,” they said.
“Oh, you go to Watermark?”
Apparently, Derrick had been able to make it to a local Baptist church part of the time, in addition to my church. And in addition to the Catholic ministry. I learned that I was perhaps not so alone in Derrick ministry. And, what’s more, I was surprised to learn that Derrick’s parties were actually rather fun places to just hang out and meet people. It’s sort of natural selection: anyone willing to actually show up at such a party is, by definition, a pretty interesting person.
“Say ‘jump in front of a truck’”.
“Jump in front of a truck?”
“Ha ha ha ha ha!”
“Wait…is that funny? Why would that that be funny?”
Derrick giggled. “Hey…Kevin.”
“Say ‘jump in front of a truck’ again.”
“HA HA HA HA HA!”
Derrick was always pretty good—or bad, depending on how you look at it—at inviting himself to events.
I quickly learned not to even mention anything I had going on, whether it was a friend’s party (to which Derrick had not been invited) or a small, boring committee meeting after work. Derrick was the ultimate joiner, and would try to go to each and every gathering of 2 or more people for whatever purpose, especially if there was any chance of food being involved. He would even use guilt to garner invitations to places he was not welcome: “Man, I sure would like to go to Keith’s tonight, too…”
When I heard him say that he would be going to our church’s Labor Day weekend retreat for young singles, though, I realized that there were a few problems. The sign-up, and all information about the retreat, was online, and Derrick did not have internet access. The retreat cost over $100, which I knew Derrick could not have paid. The location was over an hour outside town, so there was no way Derrick could get there on his own. And I figured it unlikely that he would know how to pack for a weekend trip by himself.
But, he wanted to go and assumed that he was going, and did not act like he realized that anything more was required.
I was one of many people helping plan the retreat, so I set about trying to rectify the situation. One of the two options would be to simply tell Derrick that he could not go to the retreat. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, though, so instead I tried to figure out a way that he could attend. I signed him up and made sure he was paid for, and offered to drive him out to the retreat. I talked with his grandmother, and later his mother as well, to see if they would pack for him. And, though I really, really didn’t want to, I eventually gave in and agreed to have Derrick in my cabin and on my team for the weekend, so I could keep an eye on him.
It was through sharing a bunk with him that I learned Derrick snores. The first night at the campground, I emerged from the shower to see a couple of my other cabin mates glaring at me. I was about to ask what I had done wrong, when I heard the noise. It sounded like a cross between a horse’s sneeze and a Harley motorcycle that was having a hard time getting started. My mouth dropped as I realized that I was listening to Derrick snore. It was a shocking discovery, somewhat akin to finding a new species or witnessing a world record being broken; because, even though I come from a family of snorers and sleep apnea, Derrick’s snoring was easily 3 times louder than any snore I had heard before.
My friends were glaring at me, it turns out, because they blamed me for the noise that was forcing them to sleep outside. I was the one who had brought Derrick, so I was responsible. I hadn’t even wanted to bring him along on the retreat, and had only done so because I thought it was the right thing to do. And now my attempt to do the right thing was losing me friends.
I figured there would be a similar problem with Derrick and my other teammates, and worried about whether they would accept him. The “teams” were groups of 10 – 12 who would meet throughout the weekend, and at times compete in various games to accumulate points. I am competitive by nature, and wanted to win. But, I knew that would be unlikely with a liability like Derrick on the team.
Well, perhaps “knew” is a bit too strong of a word.
At one of the first general sessions, when all 300 people gathered in the same room, the MC on stage showed a video that was a parody of the old “Saved by the Bell” TV show. After the video, he posed a trivia question to the audience, with points awarded to the first team to correctly answer: name two of the six actors on the original “Saved by the Bell”. A couple of people headed up the aisle to the front to answer. But then, like a blur, I saw Derrick, moving faster than I thought was possible for someone his size, running up to the foot of the stage. The MC was amused. “Oh, you think you can name one of them?” he said, and handed Derrick the microphone.
Derrick cleared his throat. “Mark…Paul…Gosselaar!”
The crowd let out a cheer, and the MC reached for the microphone. But Derrick wasn’t done yet.
Louder cheers from the crowd.
Between cheers, Derrick stuttered through the entire cast, in the same order they were listed at the start of every episode. He even finished it off with the oft-forgotten seventh person listed in the opening credits, “and…Dennis…Haskins…as…Mr. Belding!”
The crowd went absolutely wild, as the MC sheepishly took back the mic and awarded our team some obscene number of points on behalf of Derrick’s performance. I sat dumbfounded, as I watched Derrick become an instant celebrity.
I had been doubtful that Derrick would be able to find full acceptance in this group of church yuppies over a 3-day weekend. But he proved me wrong. Acceptance? Derrick became the retreat hero.