Much has been written in recent years about how civic participation in America has declined. We are more selfish, more narcissistic, more individualistic and less bonded to one another, and to our communities, than we ever have been. There is something to this critique, though things are a good deal more nuanced and mixed than we sometimes imagine. In any event, here’s a terrifically encouraging story about the underlying strength of America.

The Richmond Times Dispatch reports that a 9-year-old boy, Robbie Wood Jr., vanished on a family outing Sunday in the north-central part of Virginia (Hanover County). Wood is severely autistic and has no verbal skills; Hanover County Sheriff David Hines said the youth has “absolutely no awareness of his personal safety concerns.” In response, we’ve seen a massive search effort, with more than 1,000 volunteers trained and dispatched into a 2,000-acre search area.

When word got out about the plight of Robbie, hundreds of people turned out at Kings Dominion to volunteer to help look for him, with the line of citizen-searchers snaking through the parking lot. By Thursday an estimated 1,500 volunteers showed up.

According to this account from ABC News, “carrying walking sticks and wearing yellow reflective jackets, the searchers began lining up before dawn to be taken to the forest where they were to look for Robert Wood, Jr. ‘I have an 11 year old, and if the situation were reversed, I would hope people would be out helping me look for her,’ said a man named Don who stood in line for hours in the parking lot of an amusement park to take part in the effort to find the boy.”

This is a tremendous tribute to the decency and compassion of the people living in north-central Virginia. These are precisely the qualities, the “habits in the heart,” in Americans that de Tocqueville found so impressive. For thousands of people to set aside huge chunks of their day and week to search for a child they have never known tells us something very good about these Americans and the country from which they come.

But there’s one other element to this story that needs to be said. If Robbie had been diagnosed with a severe disability while he was still in the womb, there would have been tremendous pressure on his parents to abort him. He would be seen, in the eyes of the world, as too imperfect, too flawed, too much of a drain on his family and society, and even without worth. And yet here we have thousands of people searching for a child who is so severely autistic that he has no verbal skills. They clearly believe Robbie Wood’s life has worth, that as a child of God he has inherent dignity, that even the weakest members of a community has value, and that even a severely autistic child can be deeply loved.

In his book, Something Beautiful for God, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, “I have never experienced so perfect a sense of human equality as with Mother Teresa among her poor. Her love for them, reflecting God’s love, makes them equal, as brothers and sisters within a family are equal, however widely they differ in intellectual and other attainments, in physical beauty and grace.”

That is a truth we’re seeing on display in Hanover County, Virginia.

An update: A tweet from CBS News reports, “A Virginia autistic boy has been found alive after going missing for six days.” What a lovely way to begin the weekend.

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