Updated: Aug 14
“Creating a world where everyone belongs.” This is on the homepage for L’arche Daybreak, a community in Richmond Hill, Toronto, where disabled and nondisabled people actively co-exist: “At L’Arche, people with and without intellectual disabilities live, work, and learn together creating communities of friendship and belonging. We foster mutual relationships, celebrate the unique value of every person, and strive for a world where everyone can belong and contribute.” Sounds like a 21st century ad for what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God.
During this mental health awareness month, I’m thinking of L’arche’s inclusion and empowerment of people often pushed to the margins because of how their mental disabilities are perceived in a society fixated on curing abnormalities rather than healing communities. Jesus was a healer. People in Jesus’ day thought of healing in broader terms than just a cure. Healing was a restorative practice that helped not only the person on whom Jesus laid his hands or who touched the hem of his garment, but also the community to whom that person was restored. Healing was about restoring relationships and “integrating someone back into social and religious systems,” as Dr. Amy Kenny writes in My Body Is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church.
John Wilkinson points out in The Bible and Healing: A Medical and Theological Commentary that the Greek word often used in the New Testament for healing is ‘sozo,’ which means “to make whole” or “to save.” Jesus’ healing is not so much a cure for the individual as it is salvation for the community. Kenny concludes that it “is not purely about a physical alteration but about reestablishing right relationship between humanity and God and, hopefully, between individuals and community.” In our time and context, that kind of Jesus-rooted healing involves eliminating stigmas attached to mental illness and disabilities we cannot see. That can start with restoring the relationships our society deems pointless.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest and prolific spiritual writer, was the pastor for L’arche’s Daybreak community from 1986 until his death in 1996. In his short book In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen recalls being invited to speak about Christian leadership on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Center for Human Development in Washington, D.C. “As I was preparing my presentation, I became deeply aware of the fact that Jesus did not send his disciples out alone to preach the word,” Nouwen writes, “He sent them two by two.” So, Daybreak sent Bill Van Buren on the trip with Nouwen.
Bill lived with mental disabilities, but could “express himself with words and gestures.” He had recently been baptized and confirmed, and Nouwen taught him what this meant: that he had a new vocation of proclaiming to others the good news of Jesus. Bill remembered this lesson when Henri told him they would be speaking to priests and ministers in D.C. “We are doing this together,” Bill said.
At the event, the two found themselves in a ballroom decorated with golden statues and little fountains. The space full of clergy awaiting a speech from Nouwen had a thick air of formality to it. When Nouwen stepped up to the podium, he said that he was not alone, and that he was happy that Bill had come with him. At this, Bill got up from his seat in the audience, walked up to the podium, and sat behind Nouwen. Each time Nouwen completed reading from a page of his notes, Bill took it away and placed it upside down on a small table close by. This gave Nouwen a sense of ease and support, relieving his nervousness in the podium.
Then, when Nouwen began to speak metaphorically about the temptation to turn stones into bread, which the devil tempts Jesus to do to provide for himself while fasting in the wilderness, Bill interrupted and said loudly for all in the room to hear, “I have heard that before!” Bill wanted all the faith leaders in the room to know how well he new Nouwen, and how familiar he was with his teaching. For Nouwen, however, “it felt like a gentle loving reminder that my thoughts were not as new as I wanted my audience to believe.” The interruption gave a new atmosphere to the ballroom that everyone needed. “Bill had taken away the seriousness of the occasion and had brought to it some homespun normality.” It was a liberating blessing that felt like “sozo”: whole and saved.
Then, at the conclusion of Nouwen’s remarks, Bill asked if he could say something. Admittedly, Nouwen hesitated for fear that Bill “might start rambling and create an embarrassing situation.” But recognizing his fear, Nouwen asked the audience to sit down and listen to Bill. With all his difficulties he had in speaking, Bill said into the microphone, “Henri wanted me to come with him to Washington, and I am very glad to be here with you. Thank you very much.” The audience applauded warmly, and the affirmation released Bill from any timidity he had. As people gathered for drinks, Bill went around introducing himself, sharing stories about his life at Daybreak, and everyone received him with unguarded hospitality.
Stigmas crumbling, and people across the spectrum of disabilities and mental health being restored to communities that have so much more to learn about the lived experiences of our neighbors. This is what healing looks like. This is salvation. This is the kin-dom of God, in Whose image each of us is made.