I’ve never lived with someone who has a disability. What’s this going to be like? My roommates and I waited nervously for our fourth roommate, Jennifer, to arrive. We were all part of the Friendship House, a place that fostered friendships between grad students and young adults with disabilities. So yeah, I had signed up for this—but I was still nervous!
Suddenly the front door flew open, and Jennifer burst inside. “I brought y’all flowers,” she said, her loud voice booming. That’s the first thing she ever said to us—not “Hello,” or “How are you,” or “My name is Jenn.” Simply: I brought y’all flowers.
We thought the “student-residents” were supposed to help the “friend-residents” learn basic adult skills like cooking, cleaning, exercising, and budgeting. So we made chore charts and posted reminders. We cooked dinner together as an apartment, filling each plate with hearty sweet potatoes, roasted broccoli, plenty of greens. But Jenn would have none of it. How was she supposed to grow if she wouldn’t listen to us?
“Jenn, come on! We’re trying to help here!”
“Hey!” Jenn finally shouted. “Stop acting like my mother!”
“We’re not acting like your mother; we’re acting like your friends! Friends give to each other!”
But were we really acting like friends? Or had we tried only to give, forgetting how to receive?
Interview with Jenn
Sarah: What are some gifts you bring to the Friendship House and to your church community?
Jennifer: I bring faith, hope, love, and laughter.
Sarah: What has living at the Friendship House taught you about receiving? What have you received while living there?
Jennifer: [The thing that] living at the Friendship House has taught me about receiving is to be open to it. While living here [I’ve received] love, compassion, and sympathy.
Sarah: Awww! What was the occasion when you received sympathy?
Jennifer: When the UNC Tar Heels lost their football game to Duke.
Sarah: Hahaha. Jenn, you are a fan to the end.
Jennifer: (singing) “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead.”
Something changed when I started to recognize what Jennifer gave to us. She might need our help with keeping track of time or remembering her weekly volunteer shift, and we could give her that extra boost. But she gave to us too—patience, ready forgiveness, and best of all, the gift of her presence.
When one of us was preaching at the campus chapel, she was there. When one of us needed a volunteer for a mission project, she was there. When one of us had a workday at the community garden, Jenn was there as well, despite hating the heat!
She showed up . . . and soon I realized this was the best gift anyone could give.
From the first day we met, Jenn was already giving to us, offering that bouquet of flowers with a flourish. I should have known then that our friendship would be an unexpected gift.
So here’s what I can offer back:
An Open Letter to Jennifer
Jennifer, this is how you’ve taught me to receive:
- When we all went to your family’s mountain cabin for spring break, you showed the way better than any GPS.
- When I was too scared to kill the spider in my room, you did the honors.
- When I wanted someone to walk to the library with me, you were my company. (And when my book was in danger of being overdue, you returned it for me!)
- When it was our apartment’s turn to lead neighborhood prayer, you were always happy to read the scripture for us.
- And when I would wake up groggy and cranky, you would greet me with a far too cheerful “Good morning, sleepyhead!”
Because of you, Jenn, I’ve learned what a gift it is to receive. Thank you.
Sarah L. Swandell is a pastor and a newlywed in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Together with her former roommates, she recently recorded an album of psalm songs inspired by their neighborhood prayers during Lent.
DECEMBER 31, 2017
NEXT DAY STRETCH
CLICK HERE to watch Sarah, Jenn, and others performing in a talent show. Prepare to be awed by God’s quirky, colorful, wonderfully diverse kingdom!