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God’s Real Name: On Rescues, Ableism, and Unexpected Empathy

By Kim E. Nielsen

  Man sitting at MLK Jr. Memorial Library, courtesy of Alexander Barth via Wikimedia Commons

“Do you know God’s real name?” asked the man. By appearances I judged him to be homeless; by the smell of his breath I judged him to be drunk. He stood next to me at the row of public library computer terminals. He’d started by telling me that it was his birthday, and that he was having a bad day. I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, and I’ve had bad days… So I wished him a happy birthday and expressed hope that his day would improve. My day was not going that great either. My presence at the library was due to a desire for a palliative in the form of a murder mystery (and in hope of avoiding less healthy alternatives).

Then the man asked me about God’s real name. He politely and sincerely told me that he also knew the real name of Jesus. He proceeded with a long narrative explanation about which I have no memory. I didn’t listen.

I wanted out of the conversation. I quickly ran through my internal catalogue of semi-graceful ways to do so. Nothing came to mind. There was no internal index card for what to do in this situation.

Oh, but salvation! My cell phone rang. My daughter’s face beamed at me from my screen, identifying her as the caller. The astute young woman, I assumed, had seen me from across the library and was calling to rescue me. I excused myself from the birthday man’s presence. He wished me a good day.

“Where are you?” I asked, looking around. “At the back of the DVD section,” she replied. How could she see me from there? Had she gone back there to hide her laughter at my predicament?

Turning the corner, I saw her sitting on the floor. My daughter looked up at me sheepishly. She’d bent down to pull a movie from the bottom shelf and had fallen to the floor with a gentle plunk. With weak muscles and a mobility disability, she couldn’t get up. She’d called me to rescue her.

The reciprocity and unexpected nature of our rescues initially delighted me. While my daughter had not noticed my on-going conversation, her (literal) call for help answered my (unexpressed) call for help. My assumption had been that she sought to help me, not that she sought my help.

Leaving the library, supporting my daughter while she negotiated the gentle slope designed for wheelchairs but that ironically makes her walk more treacherous, I saw my library theologian. He chatted with other assumedly homeless men, all of them appearing to bask in the sunshine, and waved at me. I waved back—still self-satisfied and basking in the lesson about my daughter and our rescue of one another.

The day, however, as it simmered in my consciousness, increasingly discomforted me. My limited circle of reciprocity, my limited imagination of reciprocity, shamed me. The library theologian’s reference to God had left me assuming him to be psychologically and cognitively out of sorts, despite my own identity as a person of religious faith, and despite my identification and friendship with others considered psychologically and cognitively out of sorts. My own ableism, my own class squeamishness, and bigotry, my interpretation of his religiosity as distasteful insanity, had led me to dismiss the man. I had excluded him from our joint rescue plan—indeed, had understood him as something to be rescued from—and ignored his offer to gift me with help and rescue.

I hope that his birthday improved; though I had not helped it do so. Nor had I learned God’s real name.



Kim Nielsen, photo by Morgan TuffKim E. Nielsen is the author of Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller and A Disability History of the United StatesShe teaches in the School of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.