Remarks from the 2015 Benefit Celebration, 10/17/2015
I moved into Neahkahnie house a year after finishing college. My experience of school had been that of a measured expectation of performance and ability. I was my intellectual capacity and my ability to articulate that knowledge into concise argument—preferably, a convincing one.
The implicit message that we are our creative capacity, our ability to produce or perform, is not exclusive to the college experience. “You are your achievements!” is a message that permeates society. How many of your colleagues stop by your desk to say, “Just want to let you know, all of this work aside, you are a marvelous person. Just as you are.”
I remember speaking with a priest and good friend after college and very shortly before entering L’Arche. I was lamenting a very felt burden of expectation and at a certain point in the conversation he turned to me and very gently said, “Michael, you’re a good man.” I had a volatile reaction. I rejected his words out of hand and stated that he didn’t know my motivations or my past and that he had no basis for saying such a thing.
Being precedes Becoming
Nine months later I sat on the Neahkahnie porch with Rodney Gabriel. My entrance into L’Arche had been a challenging transition and had exercised my heart and my mind in ways that were often exhausting. But that day on the porch, Rodney offered me a lesson that was both transformative and freeing. We sat in silence in the sun watching the activities of the park and the neighborhood traffic. And apropos of nothing, Rodney turned to me and said, “You’re a good man.” The words were tied to nothing. I was simply present on the porch. And they were no more true than the words of my friend nine months earlier, but they were tied to a realization that my community and this 85 year old man had worked furiously to instill in me: Being precedes becoming. Rodney was not weighing the merits of my intellect, my capacities, or my achievements. His simple invitation that day was to be. To simply be.
You. Are. Good. That is the heart of L’Arche. Who you are this very day is preceded by one thousand acts of love and hate. And do not forget that what precedes all of that mysterious and chaotic becoming, is the quiet, beautiful, good of your being.
And yet... We must not neglect the becoming.
Two great events occurred in 1964.
First, The most comprehensive Civil Rights Bill in history was passed, which saw that there are those of our society who face unconscionable systemic and institutional oppression. The bill and all of its supporters announced to the world that an individual’s opportunity, equality and freedom to “become” must not be restricted based upon that individual’s race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.
It was a beautiful message and an indication of society’s recognition that we are not well if we are not whole.
Sadly, the monumental piece of legislation did not include the civil rights of those with disabilities…
But the second event of 1964 (as many of you know), occured in Trosly, France, where Jean Vanier invited three men with developmental disabilities to live with him and in so doing, founded L’Arche. And in a similar way to the Civil Rights Bill, that early community announced to the world that people with developmental disabilities must experience opportunity, equality, and the freedom to “become”. And that becoming happens through relationships, through community, and through integration – the true recognition that the part is essential to the whole.
Now I have three great events that occurred in 1987. Maybe only two if we’re not counting my birth.
The First. The United States Justice Department sued the State of Oregon for the violation of human rights at Fairview Institution in Salem. For those who are not familiar with the history of Fairview, it was founded in 1908 to house those with intellectual and developmental disabilities in this state. I needn’t give you a detailed history but know that the conditions were appalling, the buildings were overcrowded and understaffed and what the Justice Department found would ultimately lead to its closing.
But that same year, something else opened: L’Arche Portland is founded by a handful of people – Dorothy Coughlin, Paul Lipscomb, Pat Dillon and Rob Hoisington – people who recognize the desperate need of people in this state for a community, for a home, where the gifts and desires—the being and becoming—can be freed, and in turn, free others. The founding of L’Arche Portland was a sign of hope.
Call to Action
You see, Fairview didn’t close until 2001, fourteen years later. In 2002 the Governor of Oregon offered a public apology to the atrocities that occurred behind the walls of the institution including a forced sterilization program that remained in place until 1983.
The freeing and transformative revelation that I feel so blessed to have been gifted on the porch of Neahkahnie house a year and a half ago would not have occurred had Fairview remained open and unquestioned by society. Rodney Gabriel has transformed so many lives. Many of those sit before me now.
And yes, there is still work to be done. Just this year, Oregon was sued once again for its treatment of adults with developmental disabilities for unfair labor practices in sheltered workshops all across this state.
And yes, there is room for L’Arche to grow. We live with the mission of announcing the gifts of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And that was essential at a time when so many of those with disabilities were behind the bars of institutions and incapable of making their voices heard. But our mission must grow. Ladies and gentleman, while advocacy is important, L’Arche must also exist to support the Core Members of our community to announce their own damn gifts!
And it’s happening. This week Ben Miller and Faythe Aiken gave a presentation at a conference in Vancouver, B.C. on the importance and use of data in self-advocacy.
And for years Marilyn Petrezelli and Tamara Yates have stood before those who would listen to share the beautiful message of inclusion and the hope they have each found in community.
And what I have realized most recently is that the heart of what occurred in 1964 and 1987 still exists today – a recognition of the beauty in each and every being, and a consuming desire to see that beauty shared with the world.
Rodney Gabriel, Ben Miller, Marilyn Petrezelli, Cindy Leonard , Joni Smith, Adam Richards, Robyn Dowell, and Erin Wheeler have a message of hope that we desire to see shared with the world.
Donors, you are hugely important to the mission and support of this community.
But above all, we are in need of partners. Partners recognize and embrace the spirit of integration: that the part is essential to the whole. We need to be surrounded and supported by a community that recognizes the gifts of each and every human being. The goodness of each and every human being. And that our work is to announce those gifts and that goodness. And to tear down those walls that would say otherwise. Together.