Bogdan Senyk, from L’Arche Ukraine, grew up under a government that denied his existence because of his disability. In this episode in the #AsIAm series, Let The Birds Loose, he explains his method of civil resistance: JOY.
By Alba Orsi
I have been visiting Joni for 6 years at L’Arche Portland. We used to meet at the Hands on Hands festival and Dorothy Coughlin encouraged me to visit her and become a friend. I knew we had a feeling for each other from a difficult time in my life. I had been crying in church - my hands covering my face - and she stopped in front of my pew, sat down next to me, grabbed my hands in hers, and looked intently at me until I stopped crying and had to turn and thank her.
I was somewhat apprehensive the first time I came to visit. I am a very verbal and articulate person; how was I going to communicate with Joni? How I was going to be with her and how we would spend the time when I could not articulate my ideas or ask about her likes and dislikes? How could I entertain her when I did not know what her cognition was capable of doing? But Joni is a great teacher. I learned that I just had to listen to the non-words she had for me. Here is a list of the lessons and guidelines on what matters in life, learned from Professor Joni.
Alba Orsi has volunteered with L’Arche Portland since 2009-10. Long before meeting Joni and the L’Arche Portland community, Alba learned of L'Arche and was influenced through the books and theology of Henry Nouwen. When she discovered that he had visited the Portland community, and seeing his picture at Nehalem House, Alba felt that her involvement in L’Arche Portland was serendipitous and designed to make her grow.
By Doug Westberg (former L'Arche Portland staff member and current volunteer)
We were having one of our community celebrations at Neahkahnie House. Both houses were gathered and I had brought my keyboard to sing a song or two, including one that I wrote for L’Arche. At some point I looked up from my singing and my eyes met with Ben’s. He was smiling the most beatific smile, unabashedly enjoying the music, like he’d just received the best news he’d ever had in his life. The effect on me was profound. I’ll never forget it.
The other day, I participated in evening prayer with Tamara, Marilyn, and Joni. Joni sat next to me and held my hand during the whole thing. When Tamara asked Joni what her “rose” (something good that happened to her) was today, Joni, who is non-verbal, pointed to me.
When one of the core members appreciates me like that, it penetrates to my soul. I want to say, “No, no, I don’t deserve this, I’m not around enough, I’m just an occasional visitor.” I worked in the L’Arche office for 10 years and attended dozens of celebrations and events, but I never lived in one of the homes. But even now that I’ve haven’t worked there in several years, and only occasionally pop in with a casserole, Joni, Marilyn, Adam, Erin, Ben, and the others still treat me like family.
It does something to you, to be loved like that. Most of us so-called “normal” people don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable to other people unless we’ve gotten to know them very well. We don’t show our whole selves to people we don’t know. We don’t unabashedly show our gratitude for their presence. We don’t openly show that we are thrilled by their giftedness. We don’t walk up to them for no particular reason and give them a hug.
If we did let ourselves do that sort of thing, we might be rejected. We might be thought strange or unstrung. Our appreciation might not be returned. But when you’re given love like this, it opens you up. It gives you permission to return it. You can almost feel the emotional muscles aching from underuse. It demands that you let the wall down, and feel, and show your feelings. This is especially adventurous for an introvert like me.
But when you allow yourself to be vulnerable like that, to love spontaneously, to feel unabashedly, it makes you stronger. It gives you the strength to show your feelings a little more spontaneously the next time, or to another stranger. It gives you the strength to reach out, and to be affected. You grow as a person. You become a little more fully alive. It happened to me at L’Arche and I only worked in the office.
Doug Westberg worked in the L'Arche Portland (then L'Arche Nehalem) office from 1999-2009. He has continued to be engaged with the L'Arche Portland community as a volunteer, bringing dinner to Nehalem House once a month and offering his gifts of music and friendship in many other ways.
L'Arche Portland hosted our 2016 Supporter Appreciation Day at Neahkahnie House on January 30. Over bagels and coffee, we shared how each of us has been engaged in this community of people with and without intellectual disabilities, what we love about L'Arche, and our hopes for the future. It was a dynamic and diverse group, including founding members, core members, assistants, family, board members, and new volunteers. We gave thanks for those who could not be present with us in person. Every supporter left with a small token, a framed Jean Vanier quote on a Rodney Gabriel watercolor: "God does not call us to do extraordinary things, but rather to do ordinary things with extraordinary love."