A Story of Inclusion
I was first attracted to the picture. It looked like a school dining room. In the foreground was a young, white, redheaded, adolescent guy and across the table sat and older African-American man. The older guy looked like he was eating pizza, but I could not tell what the younger boy was eating. It was clearly lunchtime in the cafeteria. I am not sure what it was about the picture that drew me into the scene.
I was ready to move on to other articles. But my eye caught the caption above the picture and I stopped to read it. It proclaimed, “FSU’s Travis Rudolph Eats with Boy with Autism, Inspires Powerful FB Post.” Maybe I spend too much time on sports, but I immediately knew it was a story about a Florida State University athlete. I assumed it was about a football player. For a long time FSU has been a football powerhouse. But it is also a program that has flirted with trouble. Some of us who are cynical about college sports suspect that not all football players at places like FSU are true student-athletes. Too many of them go to college as a stepping-stone into becoming a professional football player.
My attention was captured. Quickly I moved to read the accompanying article written by Thomas Duffy. His opening line was catchy. “Sometimes, it’s the little things that are most powerful,” he pronounced. I wholeheartedly agree. Soon the context for the picture was provided. The FSU football team decided to visit a middle school. Duffy continues to inform that junior wide receiver, Travis Rudolph, opted to join Bo Paske for lunch. Bo has autism.
Learning that makes a huge difference. I can guess that Bo would have sat alone throughout the lunch hour if Travis had not decided to join him. This simple act of inclusion---Travis including Bo in eating lunch---inspired Bo’s mother to post an extended message on Facebook. Reading that post was very touching. The mother’s words drip with pathos. Rightly, she is concerned for her son. Middle school is bad enough in its own right. For example, she comments that Bo “doesn't seem to notice when people stare at him when he flaps his hands. He doesn't seem to notice that he doesn't get invited to birthday parties anymore. Maybe his autism shields him from minding such things.”
Bo’s mother did not know about the lunch partner Bo had until a friend sent the picture and told what happened. She says, “then I had tears streaming down my face.” As I read on in her post, her words touched me, too. She acknowledges, “I'm not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I'm happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten.”
A powerful act becomes a powerful memory. And the power of memory means every time Bo’s mom remembers that action, the action becomes true again. I assume she never met Travis Rudolph, but she does not have to know him to call him an “incredibly kind man.” There are many reasons to like this story, but part of the power of the story for me is the racial piece. Remember, Bo is a white boy and Travis is an African-American.
Sadly, the pernicious racism of American culture still prevents too many of us from seeing African-Americans---men and women---as “incredibly nice.” It’s a great symbol and story of inclusion. The final line I quote from Bo’s mother adds a great conclusion. She states, “This is one day I didn't have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes.” Travis is a hero.
All he did was have lunch at a middle school because some coach decided it would be a nice thing to do. The problem with putting it this way is it belittles every aspect of the act. It would be like saying Jesus had supper with some of his guys! In fact, I like the analogy of the Last Supper and Travis sitting with Bo over a meal. Who is to say the lunch with Travis was not a sacred moment?
I like the fact that in the story I read there is no comment about why Travis did it, what he thought, etc. He did it. The boy was alone and Travis befriended him. He included, which is so different than being excluded---the fate of so many of us. Surely, it was an act of care, which might have become compassion at the point when Travis knew Bo was different. Travis is a hero to Bo’s mom. Travis is a model of mercy and ministry to me.
Every human being longs to be included, cared for and loved. The best spiritual traditions promise to do this. It’s not always easy or convenient to do. We fail for a thousand reasons. For whatever reason Travis models behavior that succeeded. He included. He cared and, maybe even, loved a little. I would like to think I would do this, but I am not so sure.
Travis challenges me to step it up and encourages me that I can do it. I can be spiritual; I can include anyone---for lunch or anything else. Thanks Travis!