Thursday, June 13, 2013

incredible gifts

"It is my belief that in our mad world where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality, and oppression, it is people who are weak, rejected, marginalized, counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals as well as for our world. And it is my hope that each one of you may experience the incredible gift of the friendship of people who are poor and weak, that you too, may receive life from them. For they call us to love, to communion, to compassion and to community." - Jean Vanier

I receive daily Jean Vanier quotes in my e-mail. They are always insightful, but sometimes they just seem to speak to me on a very personal level. This quote happens to be one that I received during our annual Faith and Sharing retreat and it seemed very timely.

For those of you unfamiliar with Faith and Sharing, let me take a quick second to catch you up to speed. Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche (click here to learn more about L'Arche). Faith and Sharing retreats are sort of an offshoot of L'Arche itself, and were started when Jean was invited to speak at a retreat and agreed to do so on the condition that people with developmental disabilities were invited to attend and participate, as well. This model of retreat then branched out all over the world and the first Faith and Sharing retreat in Leavenworth, Kansas was held about 24 years ago and was started by the founding Community Leader of L'Arche Heartland, where I live and work today.

I happened to read the e-mail containing the quote while I was sitting on a bench enjoying the warm weather with J, one of our core members. We had some free time in the afternoon and J loves to sit outside, so we were sharing a bench and just relaxing. As I was sitting there I read the e-mail and I was reminded of how blessed I am to be a part of L'Arche and Faith and Sharing.

At the Faith and Sharing retreat I was surrounded by a group of men and women who accepted me unconditionally. They expressed their love for me openly (and often). They cheered for me when I got up to speak. They asked me to sit by them on couches and at dinner tables. They weren't afraid to be themselves, and they invited me into relationship with them. Just by being themselves, they gave me permission to be more open and honest, as well.

I think often in our society people with any sort of disability are regarded as lacking something. It's as if since something about them doesn't work in the "normal" way, and because they themselves do not fit our narrow definition of "normal," then they must not have any value or anything to offer society. This can cause them to be ignored, sent away or institutionalized, pitied or even ridiculed.

But when we do that, I think we overlook something of great value. We fail to see the gift that a person with a disability is. When we focus on what is "wrong" with someone, we fail to notice and appreciate all of the things that are right. We fail to recognize the gift that that person is, not in spite of what they are missing or lacking, but because of all of the things they are and all of the things they have to offer.

The sense of community that was formed those few days we were all together was really quite amazing. It was a community of camaraderie, of fellowship, of encouragement, and of compassion. There was no competition, but each person's contribution was lifted up and celebrated. People were included and warmly received into the group. Even those who couldn't participate in the same way, who spent most of the time lost in their own thoughts or activities, were lifted up and celebrated for their presence.

You could say that this is because of the work of the retreat planners. You could say they came up with activities or created a safe space for everyone. You could say that it was because of those of us without disabilities who were there to accompany and participate with the core members. And that is part of it. But I believe the main reason is because of the gifts of love and compassion and openness that were present in, and that emanated from, each of the core members and other people with disabilities that were present. And because we were open to recognizing and receiving these gifts, all of us were immeasurably blessed.

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