By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
MOUNT PLEASANT — It has been more than a year since Jared Smith parked his power wheelchair inside St. Alphonsus Church to celebrate Mass.
This Lent, each pew bears a symbol of Jared’s love for his faith and his friends.
Small, wooden crosses — sanded and polished with love by Jared — hang from ribbons of purple tulle between the pews. Each cross bears this message: “Jesus said take up your cross and follow me.”
Jared, 27, has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that causes progressive muscle weakness and sometimes, as in Jared’s case, intellectual challenges. He lost his ability to walk about 15 years ago.
At risk of contracting a severe COVID-19 infection, Jared has been participating in Mass from home with his parents, David and Janet, since the pandemic began in March 2020. They knew Jared missed his church friends and combatted occasional bouts of boredom, so they found a way for him to keep busy and reach out to his friends. “We want to focus on what he can do, not what he can’t do,” Janet Smith said.
Jared has long enjoyed working with small objects, his parents said. In the past, the Eagle Scout has polished grommets from American flags burned at Boy Scout flag retirement ceremonies, and given them to veterans. When the Smiths came across small wooden crosses in a Trappist Caskets advertisement late last year, they thought cross making might be another good project for Jared.
The crosses were a family affair. The walnut lumber came courtesy of the farm of Jared’s grandfather. David cut and smoothed two pieces for each cross, which fit together like “Lincoln Logs,” David said. Jared glued the crossbars, sanded them and applied a light coat of varnish. He finished them off with beeswax for an extra shine and tied on ribbons and a note.
While working, Jared “was thinking about different people he was missing,” his mother said. Jared made about 80 crosses. The family drove around one evening before Christmas and tied them to the doorknobs of Jared’s friends.
One of these friends, Lynn Fedler, serves on the parish’s environment committee. Jared made one cross for her and one for her husband, Tony. “I thought it was the sweetest thing,” she said. While blocking off pews with purple tulle for Lent earlier this year, she felt something was missing; the crosses came to mind. “I messaged Janet and asked if I could have 23 little crosses. They showed up on my doorstep within an hour or two. That was exciting!”
The message attached to the crosses, “Jesus said take up your cross and follow me,” is a perfect Lenten reflection, said Fedler, who sees the message lived out in the Smith family. “I look at the family; I can see the devotion they have to him.” She knows their daily life is not easy but “they don’t make it look like a struggle.… It’s a blessing to see a family that is there for each other like that.”
Jared’s parents say his positivity rubs off on them. When doctors diagnosed Jared with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy in early childhood, David struggled to cope with the expected challenges and the possibility that Jared might not survive into adulthood. Alcohol became a vice. “I always prayed for Jared’s healing, but he didn’t need healing — I did.” About 15 years ago, David prayed for God’s help. “It was like God put his hand on my shoulder, and I’ve never had the urge to drink since. He lifted (that burden) off me so I could do what I had to do and take care of Jared, so I could enjoy and be with him.”
Janet said her son’s optimism, perseverance and acceptance of his condition is inspiring. He participated in Boy Scouts, earning Eagle Scout rank, and in 4H throughout school and recently served as best man in his best friend’s wedding. “I think there is no one who has a more positive outlook on life than Jared,” his mother said. “Some people will ask him if he wishes he could walk and he says, ‘No.’ He’s just thankful he has a great power chair!”
Janet said Jared’s needs have grown with the disease’s progression. He awakens in the night because he cannot turn over on his own. “Those are just things you take for granted. We’re Jared’s hands. We’ve learned a lot from him about serving others, and we’ve gone beyond the point of ‘why us,’” she said. Jared “never complains.”
The family, which includes Jared’s two younger siblings, looks forward to returning to Mass once they are vaccinated and it is safe to do so.
Fedler said the parish misses seeing the Smith family in church each week. She sees the crosses as a way to remember them and to recognize Jared’s handiwork. “I think it’s nice to give him that honor. I think he deserves that.”