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Elisha Reimer
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Elisha Reimer

Excommunicating the why

Media | When references to Jesus hit the cutting-room floor, we all miss out on the bigger story

Issue: "Terrific and timely," June 29, 2013

Journalism 1 and 2 at Newton (Mass.) High School in the late 1960s: the only journalism courses I ever took, and just behind typing in the eighth grade as the most valuable I ever had. The journalism teacher, Jacqueline Wollan, was a smart and willowy 26-year-old. All the guys were in love with her, and she taught us the six lovely questions reporters ask: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? 

This leads to a story. Down syndrome kids are highly endangered: Parents abort nine out of 10. Justin and Tamara Reimer did not abort theirs: Elisha is now 16 years old and has given his name to the Elisha Foundation. The Reimers started it in 2005 with the goal of encouraging families that include “special needs” humans.

Elisha Reimer is Eli to his high-school friends in Bend, Ore.—and he has many because, among other talents, he has a great smile and the ability to give joy through hugs. Eli loves Jesus, narrates Bible stories, and in March became the first American with Down syndrome to hike to the Mt. Everest South Base Camp, 17,598 feet above sea level. The objective, in Justin Reimer’s words: “God’s glory and the gospel going forth to the disabled.”

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Eli’s story had enough human interest to push three Los Angeles television stations to interview the Reimers upon their return to the United States. Those interviews led to many more, including one on NBC’s Today Show. All good, and you can see a live interview on YouTube, but his dad reports a disturbing pattern in taped interviews: Justin Reimer would give the who what when where of the trek but also the why—to glorify God and show that Down syndrome kids have value—only to see show after show edit out, in Reimer’s words, “any Jesus-related reference.”

One example from Reimer’s memory, so the words may not be exact: Interviewer asks, What is your takeaway from this great adventure? Reimer responds, God who created the Himalayas in all their grandeur also created my son uniquely. … God has a purpose in disability and can display His great works in and through disability. (Since anything you see in WORLD in quotation marks is an exact quotation, I’m putting these statements—none of which made it onto the broadcast—in italics.) 

One more example: Interviewer asks, Justin, what was it like for you as Eli’s dad to see him accomplish this historic feat? Answer: I couldn’t help but to think of how God has been so good to us in giving us such an amazing blessing of a child. … I was overjoyed at God’s grace to us. None of that made it into the broadcast interview.

And so it went. Reimer wanted viewers to understand even a possible why for Eli’s disability: God created my son with one extra chromosome and through that He is using Eli to touch thousands of lives. That statement also hit the cutting-room floor. Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey told me last year about a similar spiking of the spiritual (“Worship on the mound,” July 28, 2012).

What would Jacqueline Wollan have said about that avoidance of why? When I decided last month to write a column about the Reimers, their adventure, and their media experience, I thought about my high-school journalism teacher for the first time in years. Last time I had seen her was 1968. Where might she be now, 45 years later, if still alive? What would she think about excommunicating Jesus whenever an interviewee mentioned Him?

I googled and—surprise—immediately found Jacqueline Wollan Gibbons. Same person? Yes: teacher at Newton High School. The reason that detail was readily findable: The Denton (Texas) Record Chronicle ran her obituary on March 28, 2013. 

I was five weeks late. The obituary noted: “Jackie was a writer, poet, musician, teacher and reformer, whose goal was to reduce anger and fear and to increase love. She served her family, church and community in various capacities, including the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.” 

Hmm. Maybe she wouldn’t have cared about the Elisha Foundation and Justin Reimer’s particular why, since Unitarians do not see Jesus as God—but I suspect she still would have left in those references to Jesus. They’re a crucial part of the story, and she loved stories.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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