Sometimes God takes us on a journey that we are often not aware of. This past fall my wife and I were cleaning out parts of our basement. Under the stairway we found my old briefcase that I used during my first of two tenures as a student at Calvin Seminary.
A Difficult Time
The first time I was a student was in 1987. I had a very difficult time. There were no accommodations possible in higher institutions of learning and little was done to help the students with disabilities to succeed in learning.
In most of my experience, learning in school took place in special education classes, later in academic support in college. Such classes were remedial and often without earning credits. The goal was to help you to move forward, but you were already far behind.
It didn't help matters when the seminary, as well as the college I attended before, put me on academic probation. The admissions board at the seminary had serious doubts that I could uphold the standards of seminary without being a drain on the professors. I had the same concerns.
Educating a person with disabilities is a challenge. A few professors were up to the challenge, and some were not. I had hoped to study towards a degree in church history. That path was closed to me. It was decided as such due to concerns that the necessary accommodations were not possible.
I was admitted as an unclassified student on academic probation. Did I also mention the initial attempts to apply to the seminary were rejected? I took three appeals before the seminary conceded to let me try, and try I did. I knew I was wildly out of my league on so many levels, but I never doubted my call to be there. I worked as hard as I could to stay for the time I was there. I always felt I belonged there, but never felt welcomed.
Eventually I was permitted to pursue a masters in church education - a two year degree. It was thought that if I could handle it then I would be allowed another chance at working towards a degree in church history, and we would discuss accommodations at that time.
It took me four years to complete a two year degree - four year uphill battle.
Back to the story of the briefcase. My wife and I were just married a year when I applied to the seminary. It was also around my 27th birthday; my wife gave me the briefcase as a gift. She was proud of me. The briefcase was brown vinyl with gold hardware. The locking mechanism was also gold and I had set the combination at 927(our anniversary date is 9-27).
The interior of the briefcase had deep pockets and ample space for books and papers. I used the case everyday while I was at the school and on my field assignments.
Four years was a long time. It seemed a lot longer than it probably was. By the time my studies were through I had no prospects for employment and was very tired. I was ready to leave the life of seminary.
On the last day of seminary, I cleaned out my mailbox, took the letters and tuition bills, and stuffed them into an academic book catalog, also in the mailbox, and put them in the pocket of my briefcase. The briefcase went home with me, sat next to my desk and began its twenty-two year task of gathering dust.
The briefcase moved with us over the years and eventually ended up in the basement of our current home. As I brought the briefcase upstairs, its usefulness was apparent. It was dirty, ripped, and rusted in its hardware. It was destined to go in the trash.
Discovering Two Old Letters
I noticed that it still had something inside. I decided to open it and go through the contents.
It was stuffed with old blue books, rejection letters from churches, old book catalogs, and tuition bills. I also found the acceptance letter I had received in 1978 telling me that I had been accepted to Calvin College for the '79-'80 school year. This was after my parents were told by my high school guidance counselor to discourage me from thoughts of attending college. It would be a "waste of money".
I kept the letter with me all though my schooling to always remind me that it was always possible.
At the bottom of the case was the book catalog. Inside, among the other papers from my mail box on that last day, was a letter from the field coordinator of the seminary with his response to the exit interview I had given a month before graduating.
Most of the letter was me telling him stuff I thought he wanted to hear. A skill I got very good at, much to my shame today, as a coping mechanism to survive the hard reality of seminary where I never quite felt able to completely fit in.
But it was the first sentence of the last paragraph that hit home in the way that only grace could. The words were:
"It appears that Peter's strongest gifts are in the direction of ministry to the disabled."
I had only a passing interest in disability ministries at best. I was just beginning to accept my own disabilities at the time. Whatever I had planned with working with those with disabilities was minimal at best. Certainly at the time the Church was not ready for it. Any attempts to bring attention to it were muted by other concerns of the time.
Someone else saw something in me that I did not yet see. Here in this letter, through the unread word of all those years I had not yet begun to see the path God was taking me on until this moment.
The rejections from churches, the odd jobs, subsequently spend eighteen years working as a direct care provider for disability network and, my eventual dismissal from that network at the age of 50.
Discovering A New Call
When it came time to reevaluate my life and decide on a new course my pastor had come to me to encourage me in going to seminary again. My response was a loud and hearty "NO!"
He persisted, seeing something I did not, and I relented. Mainly just to satisfy him. I went and saw a Professor of Pastoral Care who introduced me to program regarding pastoral care and its MA degree. This time they had policies for persons with disabilities in place.
Suffice it to say by the end of the visit I had begun the process of applying for the seminary. Again I was a student.
This time not only did I know I belonged there, but I was also welcomed there.
Again I was a student. This time I was having the time of my life.
I graduated last May with a degree in pastoral care and now work as a campus pastor with an emphasis on pastoral care to students with disabilities. I have never been more certain of my calling as I am now.