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Down Syndrome and the Gospel of Disney

For decades, I’ve believed that Disney was a means by which God connected with my 31-year-old son Edward (who has Down Syndrome). God is a God who makes wooden people real, sees beauty in Ugly Ducklings, and swims to the ends of sea to find those who are lost (Nemo). God is inclusive and shows no partiality (Zootopia), heals generational trauma (Encanto), and can even help you fly (Peter Pan)!

Through so many stories, Disney has helped Edward experience what he could never abstractly understand. In a parable-like way Disney stories have helped him see an unseen God. And I’m so very thankful.

Knowing how much Disney has shaped Edward, we had high expectations for our visit to Disneyland last week. We decided to tell him about the trip on the day of our flight. For weeks, Fran and I were filled with delight at the good thing that we had prepared for him. We kept saying to each other, “He has no idea!”  And we couldn’t help but wonder if God felt the same kind of anticipatory delight toward those he prepares things for and loves—all the time!

So, we headed out to Disneyland—not so much for the rides but for the characters.

Knowing how cognitively young Edward is, we were pretty sure that he thought he was meeting the ‘real thing’ when he met Jessie. First, there was a look of surprise as she noticed Edward, then the hug, and then a beautiful interaction over the Woody doll that Edward was carrying (that he carries every day of his life). Two non-verbal characters connecting with joy.

Later that morning, Edward met Mickey and they hugged

for what had to be 45 seconds! I had a surprisingly emotional response and was almost in tears. What was it in our son that inspired him to hold on that long? What was he feeling, God?

A friend later told me that Disney characters are instructed to never be the ones to initiate breaking up a hug. What a God-like policy!

When Edward met Cinderella later in the day (after a two hour wait… which we were tempted to opt out of… but Edward would not leave… even though his legs were trembling with fatigue) a magical moment played out. There were three characters in the castle that day (Ariel, Elena, and Cinderella).

While Edward was excited to meet the first two, when he peeked around the corner to see Cinderella, he was beside himself—shocked and overwhelmed with delight.

I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised. Edward has watched the Cinderella story hundreds of times—replaying the dance scene with the prince over and over again. We’ve walked into his room and caught him in tears watching the scene. So, for Edward to see Cinderella face to face? He was in his glory! First, she held both of his hands and greeted him, calling him Prince Edward. Then she danced with him (including a twirl). After the photo, Edward floated out of the room.

I don’t know what it’s going to be like when we finally meet God face to face, but I have to think that it’s going to feel a little like this Cinderella moment—recognized with delight, received hand in hand, and then the dance!

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