At KNI – HAPPINESS IS A JOYFUL CHAPEL
by STANNIE ANDERSON
"MIDWAY," The Sunday Magazine of the Topeka Capital-Journal
July 26, 1970
“Well, God, here we are! We’re the kids of KNI. We’re all dressed up in our best Sunday clothes.”
Chaplain Robert Perske faced the altar with a simple prayer in the little white chapel at Kansas Neurological Institute. His voice was quiet, reverent, conversational.
The pews were filled with retarded children who had come to worship. Each walked from the wards with one foot dragging, or ran, or hobbled on crutches or was pushed in a wheelchair by friends.
“Here’s what happened to us this past week, God,” Chaplain Perske said. “Mary had a birthday; she’s a year older. Lila’s hurt, because her aunt is in the hospital. So we’re concerned about her, God. Jimmy visited his home last weekend and ate five pieces of watermelon.
“Some of us are in pain this morning; we’re sunburned. Billy’s mom and dad are in the service with him this morning. And, God, please help Chaplain Goergen learn the difference between fireworks and firecracker!”
There surely must have been a silent bubble of gentle laughter inside the adults who were present. But there was only satisfaction on the part of a young retarded boy who felt God would take note that he had watched “fireworks” and not “firecrackers,” as Chaplain trainee Don Goergen mistakenly had said earlier in the service.
Chaplain Perske’s four-minute sermon this Sunday began dramatically.
He brought out a small cloth bag, labeled “A Bag of Laughs.” When he pressed it with his hand, taped laughter – joyous, infectious and wild – filled the small chapel.
Youngsters spontaneously began laughing, too.
“I’ll do it just one more time,” the chaplain told them.
Again the merry laughter flowed out into the room, to the unconcealed delight of the children.
Then Chaplain Perske’s brief sermon centered on the rightness of laughing for joy in the chapel. It is wrong to laugh AT someone, he said. But chapel should be filled with the other kind of laughter – joyful laughter.
“God is on the side of joy,” he said with his quick, warm smile. “God has a sense of humor – and if he does not, we are all lost.”
The KNI chapel is a place of hope, faith and happiness for the youngsters, who have a difficult life in a world that often is uncomfortable dealing with the imperfect.
There are differences in the way the retarded see God.
Chaplain Perske doesn’t dare say to 12-year-old Johnny, “Jesus is the door.” He knows he’ll get an argument.
A word means only one thing to Johnny. It can’t mean anything else.
“No!” Johnny will protest. “Jesus is our friend. Don’t call him a DOOR!”
Johnny’s religion includes belief in a God who makes things grow; Johnny can see that the grass and the flowers are growing.
Johnny believes in Jesus – a kind, bearded man who came to teach about God’s love; Johnny has a picture of Jesus in his room at KNI.
But Johnny cannot understand “the Holy Ghost” or “the Holy Spirit.” This sounds to Johnny a lot like Casper the Friendly Ghost on television.
Johnny occasionally misinterprets what he thinks he hears.
When he returned from his uncle’s funeral he described the graveside service: “The men put my uncle, who was in the box, over a hole with straps across it. Then the minister stood at the end of the box. He raised his hand and said, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and in the hole you go!’”
The ministry at KNI is loving – love that is transmitted by touch, warm smiles and gentle understanding.
Chaplain Perske says the retarded are not mindless beings who feel no pain. They are slow in learning but they have the same joys, the suffering, and the feelings of inadequacy that normal people have.
The talk of the KNI kids, on a recent Sunday evening while sitting on the lawn in small groups, was surprisingly thoughtful and wide-ranging.
“God lives in heaven,” Barbara, 11, said. “You can’t see God, He’s everywhere.” Then her face became puzzled as she wrestled with a question that normal adults cannot answer. “But, how could that be?”
“God is tall and has a beard,” Jane said positively.
John, who had been listening quietly, offered, “I don’t think God likes wards and people being killed. I think God would be happy if everyone would stop fighting wars.”
The youngsters, KNI’s higher-functioning patients, nodded in quick agreement. They sat sprawled on the grass – some crippled; some spastic; others with a harelip or crossed eyes; a few beautiful even with the vacantness in their eyes.
Most of the children believe God likes the kids of KNI.
But being retarded doesn’t mean they are unaware they are different.
“I don’t know why I’m the way I am,” Larry, 13, pondered seriously. “I’ve thought a lot about it. But I just can’t figure it out. I think when people go to heaven they’ll be different than they are down here. I don’t think they’ll be blind or in wheel chairs.”
Larry quickly added, “And I don’t think people will burn in hell. I think they’ll go down there and just go on doing bad things to each other.”
Larry, a Negro, doesn’t think Jesus is white, as he is so often portrayed.
“I think he’s kind of in-between,” Larry confided. “He’s kind of dark-skinned, because it is hot over in that part of the world where he lived. The movie, “King of Kings,” showed him as white – but I don’t think so.”
A teen-age girl asked doubtful, “How could Jesus be the son of God and the son of Joseph, too?”
One group of youngsters was trying to select a name. One child proposed, “Dark Shadows” (the name of a television show).
A young Negro girl looked up with a smile and said, “That name would be good for ME!”
The others giggled and ducked their heads. But one little blonde girl looked at her Negro friend out of the corner of her eyes, shook her head and said softly, “No, not that one.”
Sarah, 14, pointing at the grass before her, said impulsively in muffled speech, “I wish sometimes that God would be here – right at KNI.”
“So do I!” Chaplain Perske responded, with real delight.
A young blind girl sat silent on the grass, her face held so low that only a trace of a smile could be seen on her lips. The shining braids nearly touched the then white hands on her lap.
Sid, a teenager, believes God likes the chapel to be clean. Sid strongly criticizes children who come to the chapel during the week and throw things on the floor, finger the organ keys, or get heel marks on the floor. He’s been known to stop a child from running inside the chapel.
Chaplain Perske, with an understanding smile, said, “I don’t do any running in the church when Sid’s around.”
Laura whispered, “I don’t like nails.”
A little gentle questioning drew from her the explanation that she had seen the huge nails in the hands and feet of Jesus in a crucifix at a local Catholic church.
Susan, who sat crosslegged in the middle of the circle, looked worried. She asked directly, “What did I do to put Jesus on the cross?”
Chaplain Perske listened to her for a while to see if there was something she thought she might have done.
Then – firmly and with great emphasis – he told her, “You did not do anything to put Jesus on the cross! You, Susan, did not do anything!”
“Jesus was the big brother who came to teach us about God,” he explained to her. “Jesus taught that God loves us, and we are part of His family. When people didn’t want to hear that, they killed him. But His truth wasn’t killed.”
Later Chaplain Perske thoughtfully said that perhaps it is heretical to tell Susan she had no part in the killing of Christ.
“But these kids already feel guilty,” he said. “They would be very quick to say they are bad and weak and sinners – and must have sinned against God to be the way they are. But we honestly don’t believe they are to blame for the way they are.
“We cannot make our kids go around beating themselves any more than they already do. God gave them strengths, and he wants them to do the best they can. When they go around saying, ‘I’m bad, I’m bad,’ they can’t live up to their potential.”
Gently he added, “We don’t know WHY they are the way they are. But we believe that God loves them exactly the way they are. And he doesn’t wait until they change into what, he wants them to become before he starts loving them. God is not out to smash them. They are part of God’s family.”
The retarded, when they are with someone they trust, often make delightfully confiding remarks about religion. Some of their theology, admittedly, is a bit mixed up at times. Here are some remarks heard by Chaplain Perske:
Billy, 13: “God sure was a hell of a Dad. Any dad that would get his son killed ain’t much good.”
Nina, 8: (walking up with a magazine containing a picture of the Atlas missile) “Boy! That ought to blow Jesus up!”
Jack, 10: “Adam and Eve ate this apple that God told ‘em not to eat. So God gets real mad at everybody. Then he sends Jesus and beat him up and gets it out of his system. Then he can love the rest of us again.”
Marvin, 16: (while he and Chaplain Perske were hanging a picture of Jesus on the wall) “You know, Chaplain, that’s the only guy in the whole world who never kicked kids.
Sam, 12: (who had five or six kids over in a corner and was giving them the straight dope about the hereafter) “When you die, they put you under the ground. Then when they cover you up, you find two tunnels, and you choose one of them. If you pick the right one, you go to heaven. If you pick the wrong one, you wind up in hell.”
Lucy, 16: She keeps bugging the staff to tell her how Jesus was born. At Christmas time she always asks in a rather sexy way how it all happened. This past Christmas Lucy wanted to know the mechanics: “How did Mary get pregnant?”
Wilma, 12: (a chubby little girl) “Heaven is a place where you can have a-a-a-a-llll you want to eat!’
Jerry, 16: (walking up to a visiting Catholic nun) “Well, hello there. Am I ever glad to see you! You’re the first live Baptist we’ve had around here in years.”
The chaplains must deal differently with the children.
Some have a short attention span. Chaplain Perske often will place his hands gently on each side of their faces and look directly at the, to get them to focus on him.
The overly-active child may run impulsively to the front of the chapel during services. He will be quietly, matter-of-factly returned to his seat, where someone will sit beside him and hold his hand.
There also are the children like Sally – depressed, silent, unresponsive.
“If Sally were to pick up a book and throw it through one of our chapel windows – even a stained-glass one – I’d hand her another book and help her feel free to break one more,” Chaplain Perske said.
When 17-year-old Carl, who has cerebral palsy, said his first word clearly, the chaplains wanted to jump with joy. But they had mixed emotions, too. The word was a four-letter one. But quickly they decided the word easily could be changed to a more innocent one later – and rejoiced in the tremendous gain for the boy.
Not all youngsters at KNI can benefit from attending chapel – perhaps only about half of them. But the chaplains visit wards and do what they can. They must recognize there are limits.
Alan, 20, who is severely retarded, lies in his bed at night. In the morning two aides carry him to a mat on the floor, where he can lie and crawl during the day. He must be fed and changed. The chaplains can do little for Alan – but they do offer their support to the aides, helping them find meaning and purpose in the care they give him.
KNI’s liturgy for children is unique – and constantly changing. There are four Sunday morning worship services: Two Protestant services, one for high-functioning children who will return to the community and another for younger children still struggling with basic self-care; a Catholic mass; and an ecumenical service for young children.
The longest sermon at any of these services lasts four minutes.
“But we work as hard on our four-minute sermons as other pastors work on 30-minute one,” Chaplain Perske said. “We try to make every word mean something to the kids. We try not to be over their heads at any time. And we try not to bore them. We quit when we’re ahead.”
It was the death of a KNI child that literally brought the chaplains down from the pulpit and among their young charges. This worked so well they never went back to the pulpit, except in “the highest moment” of the service. Now they stand in front, close to the children, with a roving microphone.
A KNI Sunday worship service is a beautiful, moving, reverent experience.
Church begins in the wards at 7 a.m. when the aides bathe the children and get them dressed in their Sunday cloths. When KNI youngsters first began coming to chapel, they wore blue jeans and T-shirts. But aides began smuggling nice clothing from their homes: suits, neckties, pretty dresses. Families now supply much of the Sunday clothing.
The pilgrimage to the chapel, too, is considered part of the Sunday worship – and may do the children as much good as the sermon, Chaplain Perske said. It’s a happy, laughing walk – full of anticipation.
There are no frowns or scoldings for children in this chapel. A little retarded boy can run happily up before the service yelling, “Chatlain! Chatlain!” – and be welcomed with a warm smile.
Chapel is a place where the lights vary from brilliant, to dim, to total darkness, except for candle glow. There are bright colors – a blue rug, red dossal curtain and white alter. Even blind children know they’re in chapel – the backs of the pews are rubbed with peppermint oil.
There’s a screen and projector and a public address system with tape deck and record-playing attachments.
Dominating the front of the chapel is a large special altar panel that is rotated.
Each of the panels features a color cartoon of Snoopy, the Peanuts cartoon dog. Each carries some profound statement meant especially for small worshipers: “I am somebody; I belong”; “Love is here to stay”; “things are coming alive again”; “It sure feels good to know you are loved”; and “You didn’t choose me; I chose you.”
Chaplains and the chapel assistants personally greet each child with a hand shake at the services, call him by name, and talk about what has happened to the child during the past week.
About 70 volunteers from the community from every walk of life – secretaries, students, housewives, mental patients from the Topeka mental hospitals, and retired ministers – participate in the Sunday worship services or the small chapel classes that are held during the week.
The KNI children’s liturgy is perhaps much like the liturgy of the early-day worshipers – full of action and movement.
Happiness permeates the chapel as the youngsters sing, clap their hands, shake maracas or pound musical sticks together.
The music is joyously worshipful – and even singing in the Catholic mass is accompanied by bongo drums. Pretty young girls may wander through the congregation during the singing, while strumming on guitars. A short play – or dialogue – or even a dance, with some of the children in wheelchairs, all have been part of the liturgy.
Chaplain Perske and some of his staff have rewritten religious words to many popular and Broadway hits with strong beats and infectious melodies.
The retarded often can memorize a tune, but it has to be repeated over and over again. By using popular hits that the kids will hear repeatedly on the radio, their music learning isn’t limited to Sunday.
But another reason for rewriting words to these tunes is that it is the music of the youth of today, Chaplain Perske said. The songs are short and lively, with few stanzas. But the words are reverent and meaningful.
Simple worshipful words have been written to such times as “Quentin’s Theme,” “Happiness Is,” “Edelweiss,” “Kum Bah Ya,” “It’s a Miracle,” and “I Go My Happy Way.” A moving Easter hymn was written this year from the Beatles’ tune, “Here Comes the Sun.”
The Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Walter Ingling, said the beautiful, reverent mass of the children contains all the essential traditional elements of the mass in community Catholic churches.
There are the colorful flowing robes of the priest and altar boys, communion, and simplified reading from the scriptures.
“There is renewal in worship in the Catholic church today,” the Rev. Mr. Ingling said. “At KNI we’re attempting really to take the whole Catholic theology of the mass and to try to break it down into simple and meaningful terms so the retarded can get something out of it.
“This isn’t an attempt to downgrade either the children of the liturgy. We try to make the mass particularly meaningful in terms of their limitations and to involve them to the degree they are capable of being involved.”
Chaplain Perske said KNI’s innovative worship service tries to meet the specific human needs of the children, help them offer a good worship to God, and maintain the traditions of faith.
“If we’re just pure and simples innovators and forget about the faith of our fathers, we’re irresponsible,” Chaplain Perske said. “On the other hand, if we hang on to tradition only, then we are not changing with the world, and we are not answering the questions that life offers to these kids. So we try to do both.”
The youngsters of KNI have been invited to conduct their special worship service at several churches in Topeka and neighboring cities in the past.
Religion at KNI is sturdy and energizing.
“Grace comes likes fresh air at KNI – we don’t try to manipulate God by our prayers.” Chaplain Perske said, “If we did, all of our kids would say, ‘God, fix my crippled arm … or my crippled leg.’ Or ‘Get me out of this wheelchair.’ Or, ‘God, make me think more clearly.’ So we keep them realistically oriented.
“We are like football coaches at halftime, ‘You can do it! We’re pulling for you!’ We try to think of ways we can get them up and facing life for another week, as opposed to the other viewpoint, ‘Lean back in the arms of God’ and ‘Let God take over and run your life.’ ”
“If we did too much of that at KNI, we could drive some of our kids right back to their cribs. And we’ve had to fight so hard to get them where they are now. So instead we could drive some of our kids right back to their cribs. And we’ve had to fight so hard to get them where they are now. So instead we tell them, ‘God is pulling for you. So use that strength that you have. Celebrate your gains of the past week in this worship service. We’re proud of you – and feel God is proud of you.’ ”