An institutional funeral too often becomes a service for the burial of human secrets. A few years ago I held services for a mentally retarded patient with severe brain damage who had suffered through one day of pain after another until, at the age of twenty-one, his body had screamed “enough!” Only the father joined me in this service; the mother had more important things to do. On the way to the cemetery, I asked the father whether this boy had been his only child. Proudly he showed me pictures of his other two sons, both in college. I asked, “And how do they feel about the loss of their brother?” In a matter-of-fact voice he answered, “Oh, they don’t know they had a mentally retarded brother in an institution. We never told them.” I wish I could say this was an extraordinary attitude, but it is all too common.

A secret, according to the dictionary, is something that is “put apart, separate, hidden from others, revealed to none or few.” This is how many mentally retarded persons are treated throughout their lives. Every age has its special way of handling those who are “different.” In medieval times the retarded were objects of ridicule; many were drafted into the cruel position of court jester. More recently, many of us can remember the “village idiot” or moron and how we helped play cruel hoaxes on him. In this age of enlightenment we no longer play jokes on the mentally retarded; we simply hide them from view. They become a secret. How often we read the tragic account of a mental retardate locked in a room by parents who zealously guarded their secret. Sometimes after a retardate has been institutionalized, the family move, so they can make a new start and pretend the absent member does not exist. A hospital is sometimes instructed to send all letters to the family in plain envelopes.

A child need not have a normal I.Q. to realize that he has been kept a secret by his parents. I well remember Gloria, a teen-age patient whose mother died suddenly. I went to her and told her of the death as gently as I could. Instead of tears, her face formed hard lines; in place of a quiver in her voice there was a sarcasm I hadn’t heard before as she said, “Why should I cry? I didn’t even know my mother!”

Nineteen per cent of the population falls under the minimum normal I.Q. of 90. Roughly speaking, then, one out of every five persons is mentally retarded, either by brain damage (which can be helped but not cured) or by cultural deprivation (which can be solved through education).

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In the past, the Church has treated the mentally retarded as strangers. It has often disturbed me to realize that the Church can discover an unknown pagan tribe in the heart of New Guinea and yet seem completely unaware of the mentally retarded in the very shadow of its steeples. Surely the soul of a retarded child is of equal worth with the soul of a jungle pagan. The difference is, I suppose, the element of glamour.

For the past ten years, I have been greeted in one of my ward services, by a young man who keeps telling me he is soon to have a visit from his family’s pastor. So far this pastor hasn’t visited him; if he did, however, he would probably bring more joy than he could bring to a dozen Sunday-morning congregations.

In fairness to the Church, we should say it is a sleeping giant that is slowly awakening to its responsibilities in many areas of life. Mental retardation is more and more coming to its attention.

Three years ago, in an attempt to learn just what the churches were doing in this matter, I surveyed eighteen Protestant denominations, both conservative and liberal. The results of my little survey (sixteen of the eighteen replied) were quite revealing. Several denominations may well take pride in their accomplishments. Others have a long way to go. Still others have yet to make a start. I will not mention any denominations by name; the name matters little. What is being done, or left undone, is the important thing.

One official gave me the idea that his denomination, one of the larger ones, would like to do more but that interest was lacking at the local-church level. He said: “It has fallen to me to invite correspondence from parishes desiring to institute a class for the retarded. I haven’t heard from anywhere near 100 parishes.… If we have [mentally retarded], their presence is the best-kept secret in the church.” The only thing this large denomination was doing was to send a representative to the National Council of Churches’ Committee for the Christian Education of Exceptional Persons, which was working on a curriculum for the mentally retarded.

I would be the last to discourage united effort in curriculum development, but perhaps we should take inventory. Perhaps we are spending too much time and effort developing a specialized curriculum that very few of the mentally retarded can understand, let alone read.

Nearly all the denominations had one or more clergymen working as full-or part-time chaplains in institutions for the mentally retarded. But what support were these chaplains receiving from their denominations? A typical comment was: “State institutions should receive more than local support. We received a request from the————school, where the Protestant chaplain happens to be a member of our denomination, and discovered to our chagrin that none of our activities had budgets that could be stretched to cover this request.”

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I was appalled at a brisk statement from a representative of a major denomination that is making remarkable strides in human relations. In regard to mental retardation, he said: “Denominationally, we are doing nothing.” He went on to say that the church was working with the NCC on curriculum development.

But several denominations had shifted into high gear and become leaders in work with the mentally retarded. Two had developed their own curricula and were using them with good results. One of these had also produced a filmstrip on how to start special classes for the mentally retarded. At least two other denominations were developing their own curricula for church-school classes. In one large denomination, 300 churches were working with mentally retarded. At least two denominations had a seminar for ministers and a workshop for teachers. Another was holding special religious-education classes and day-care programs for retarded children.

A very high percentage of the denominations were cooperating in projects with the National Council of Churches and with local councils. Among the cooperative projects were these: the Connecticut Council of Churches had prepared some material for institutionalized retarded teen-agers; the Minnesota Council of Churches had held a number of two-week laboratory schools for teachers of retarded persons; the Greater Philadelphia Council of Churches had a pilot Sunday school for mentally retarded children.

The denominations that were assuming leadership in the field owned and operated several homes for the mentally retarded. Perhaps this was the key to their success. They dared open doors to those who found no welcome elsewhere.

The survival of the Church depends upon its interpretation of the word others! The Church cannot include the retired and exclude the retarded; it cannot include the lawyer and exclude the delinquent; it cannot include the doctor and exclude the mentally ill. The Church must be all-inclusive—not only in name, but in action.

One well-known preacher tells of watching a group of refugee children at a registration desk. His attention was attracted by a little girl with uncombed hair and tattered clothes. When the man at the desk asked her, “What’s your name, little girl?,” through her tears she replied, “I’m nobody’s nothing, I’m nobody’s nothing!”

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The mentally retarded want to be remembered by a church that has too long forgotten. They have a longing to belong. And they do not deserve to be considered “nobody’s nothing.”

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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