Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 52:7-12) transports me to 1860s San Francisco, where the first “Ugly Laws” were established prohibiting “unsightly” or “disgusting” looking people from appearing in public. The Ugly Laws spread to most major American cities, and were largely aimed at keeping disabled people from begging on the streets or showing up in restaurants. I learned about Ugly Laws a couple of years ago when I met Rich Pimentel, the disabled Vietnam veteran who is largely responsible for repealing the Ugly Laws and for getting the Americans With Disabilities Act passed into law. When a bomb blast in his 1969 tour of duty left him almost deaf and suffering from tinnitus, he came back to the U.S. and found it difficult to make friends, save for Ron, a person suffering from cerebral palsy whom no one else could understand. When the two of them decided spontaneously to celebrate Ron’s birthday by going to a pancake house at 3:00 one morning, they were met by a waitress’ comment of “disgusting” and were forced to leave (by the police, who were acting on the Ugly Law). That set in motion years of organizing work that culminated in the passage of the ADA, as well as a seismic cultural shift that now enables us to view persons with disabilities through an entirely new set of lenses, seeing beauty in place of disgust.
I thought of Rich Pimentel today when reading the prophet Isaiah, who spoke to a setting when Israel’s own disabled veterans (the Babylonian exiles) were coming home and finding a hard time re-acclimating. Isaiah was preaching to a people so primed for proclamations of peace, for wholeness and restored lives, that when the good news came their hearts burst into song. They were so enamored by the envoy of peace that even the unsightly parts of the preacher’s body seemed attractive. How beautiful are the feet is a phrase you rarely apply to adults. Baby feet are cute and even smell good, but I haven’t seen many pairs of pleasing paws on grown people in my time. The bony, knobby, calloused, corny and bunioned nature of feet no doubt led to the popular curse I heard a lot as a child, kiss my foot! Feet are generally worse for wear, as we can see from all the “ugly celebrity feet” lists, and I would imagine Isaiah’s mountain-hiking evangelist would be no exception. To quote a Bill Baldridge song, I expect both his dogs were barking when he came home at night.
Once the barefoot bearer of good news came around with his announcement of peace, the Message Bible tells us that God rolled up His sleeves and got to work in a very visible way, bringing hope to people society had cast off. This is a perfect image for Rich Pimentel’s life. When he got back from Vietnam and found that no one would hire him or admit him into college because of his wounds, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He created opportunities for amputees and cerebral palsy sufferers and other “invisible” humans to begin showing the world the strength of their will for justice and fairness. Pimentel’s life story is told in the movie The Music Within; the title comes from a childhood teacher who once quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes to his class: Most people go to their graves with their music inside them. That is, most people go through life without ever discovering their calling, their genius, their passion. Folks like Rich Pimentel have made it their life’s work to help people of all shapes and sizes and abilities get in touch with the music inside, and to find the “instruments” to play that music. I think that’s what Isaiah had in mind when he anticipated the reaction to his long-awaited and much-needed declaration of peace and salvation: they would burst into song. The kind of salvation and peace the messenger brings when the law of grace is enacted causes people formerly known as ugly to bebop along with a beauty that enriches all of our lives.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “World Peace.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.