In life, Wesley S. Vinner was a tireless advocate for people with disabilities.
Vinner, who was mentally retarded, served on a mayoral committee, often testified before the D.C. Council and Congress, and traveled the nation to push for measures offering protection and opportunities for the disabled.
On a Saturday night last month, a memorial tribute to Vinner, a longtime District resident who died at age 57 in 2004, brought together many of the advocates who worked with him, as well as those he spent much of his life trying to help. The service was at Refreshing Springs Church of God in Christ in Riverdale, which Vinner attended for much of his life.
"He called us to be accountable," said Pastor James E. Jordan Jr. of Refreshing Springs. "He was a man who never gave up."
Vinner was 5 when he was committed to Forest Haven, a troubled District-run institution for the mentally retarded that has since closed. He spoke publicly about the abuses he witnessed there. He left Forest Haven at age 20 and eventually moved into an apartment in Southeast Washington.
Vinner served on the Mayor's Committee on Persons With Disabilities, the D.C. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Advisory Board and the board of the Arc of DC, a nonprofit advocacy group for people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. When President Bill Clinton signed into law the Jeffords-Kennedy Work Incentives Improvement Act, providing health insurance for people with disabilities, Vinner was there, standing next to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Rose Garden ceremony.
At Refreshing Springs, Vinner was so active that some members didn't see his disability.
"I didn't know Wesley was physically challenged. I didn't even know he was white," Elder Brian King told the mostly black congregation during a moment of humor at the Feb. 17 memorial service.
In a moment that surely would have made Vinner proud, the Inspirational Choir and Moroccan Ensemble from the District's Art and Drama Therapy Institute, a day program in Northeast Washington for people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities, had guests clapping and rocking in their pews. The groups have produced a CD and DVD, "Let Us Fly," which was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Missionary Charisma Wooten, an actress who performs at the institute, directed the congregation in "This Little Light of Mine" and a revamped version of George Clinton's hit "Flashlight." She said the words of the Parliament-Funkadelic song fit the occasion.
"Despite one's disabilities, as the song says, everybody's got a little light under the sun," she said.