It was with much excitement that about five years later I heard about a small group of people interested in creating a community of welcome and belonging for people with and without intellectual disabilities, headed by Dorothy Coughlin and Paul Lipscomb. The call for community that Dorothy had first voiced continued to roam around my head and heart, even after I had been away from Portland for a few years. When I came to a community planning meeting in early April of 1986, I immediately sensed a great energy for creating “a place to call home,” especially from Pat Dillon, a past assistant at the Vancouver B.C. community.
The excitement of creating a community was magical during that time! Sharing dreams about what Nehalem might look like, talking with L’Arche assistants from other communities, an incredible afternoon with Jesuit Fr. Bob Jones exploring mission and community, and a letter from David Maeyaert’s mom asking for a place for her son all resulted in renting a small house in inner SE Portland with David and Pat. Six months later, after a near miraculous coming together of hard work, generosity, and continuing vision, we moved into Nehalem House.
The only way I can describe welcoming everyone into the house is that it was the same feeling as coming home from the hospital with new life. Excitement, confusion, fear, a complete humbling sense of how do we do this? We focused mostly on meals as a way of creating community. We would plan meals together, decide on what prayer reflection to share, and find ways to welcome the supportive yet small extended community to eat with us. The formation of community was a daily koan or an open life question to each one of us: How do we live life today? How can we be present to each other? How do we celebrate community? At Nehalem house I learned how to ask and answer these questions, and I still ask these questions every day...
I physically left my L’Arche community with the excitement of marriage to fellow assistant Eileen. We celebrated our wedding with our three families: the Hoisingtons, the O’Reillys, and L’Arche. There was a Covenant retreat in Portland during that time- we still have fond memories of a contingent from L’Arche India celebrating with us! I also had the chance to build a new community in an elementary classroom each year.
Leaving the community was challenging emotionally, but dinners, meetings inviting extended community, and the camaraderie and piney freshness of the tree lot helps keep us connected. It is so nice to get to know new assistants from time to time, and since we moved further from Portland, the occasional opportunity to reconnect with L’Arche Portland brings back that call to community.
33 years later, this past summer, I felt that old but familiar desire for L’Arche community again. I attended a L’Arche picnic at Overlook Park, and was amazed at...how young the assistants were? Yes! But I was mostly amazed by the same welcoming attitude, the same focus of attention toward creating community between people with and without intellectual disability. I met two assistants who had a close relationship with Joni, and was struck with how similar their relationship with Joni matched mine and Eileen’s with Joni 30 years ago. I felt a conscious, vocal recognition of the mystery of being in mutual, caring relationships with each other. Finally, I met people that were hoping to become a part of the community, feeling that same call that we all have experienced and said yes to, open to what that brings. L’Arche Portland, a place to call home.