I met Jeff 17 years ago. I took notice of the way he spoke. It was an unusually slow drawl; his elongated vowels slid up and down in pitch somewhat unnaturally, but were always precisely punctuated with perfectly placed, overly enunciated consonants. There wasn’t a single sound missing, yet understanding him was still difficult…at first.
Jeff and I first met at Special Friends Camp and got to know each other even more later as I worked in the group home where he lived with 7 other men with intellectual and physical disabilities. I have always loved talking with Jeff. His speech may be slow and sound somewhat labored, but I don’t mind; I actually like it. His pace demands intentionality. To talk with Jeff, you really have to want to talk with Jeff. Chitchat and small talk, being brief and lacking in substance, are lost on Jeff. Each word and each minute in conversation with Jeff is valuable, and he has learned to make the most of each.
Kenny lived in the room next to Jeff at the group home. They were good friends, but when it comes to speech, they were opposite. Jeff’s slow drawl was no match for Kenny’s quick sharp sounds, but Jeff’s extensive vocabulary was in stark contrast to Kenny’s utilization of only 2 words…“yeah” and “nah.” Oh, Kenny could make plenty of sounds, but his forms of “yes” and “no” were the only words he ever spoke. Nonetheless, Jeff loved talking with Kenny, and (seemingly as a courtesy) he only ever asked Kenny questions that could be answered with yes and no.
I stopped working in that group home, but still saw Jeff each summer at camp. A few years later, Jeff moved out of that group home and stopped coming to camp. It had been years, but Jeff surprised me this last July; he was back at camp!
During the week, I had a few minutes to talk with Jeff. Luckily for me, Jeff is still just as good as ever at cutting to the chase. Our conversation was slow, but again, Jeff made the most of it. You see, I had always just assumed that speaking must have been a source of pride for Jeff…you know, something to treasure because of how hard he worked for it. Something he could claim as his own…something well earned. But as our conversation casually turned to his old friend Kenny, Jeff taught me a lesson about things that are “earned.” At one mention of Kenny, and though I have never told Jeff any part of what I think about how he talks, Jeff, with all the simplicity that true friendship requires, said, “I wish I could give Kenny my voice and I could be like him for a day.”
I froze. There was no contributing context to this comment, but I have come to learn that an out of the blue comment in a conversation with Jeff is really a glimpse into the one thing most important to him at that moment. His display of selflessness was neither off-the-cuff nor fleeting. It was proof of who Jeff is.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Philippians 2:1-4
Jeff, I wish I could be like you for a day.
Minister of Music
First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN