For one week this past spring, students from an all boys Catholic Highschool in California that came and did an immersion with us. They ate dinner with the homes, went bowling, ate Salt & Straw, and did lots of cleaning, lawn care, and painting at the new Beaverton house. They come every year and donate their time and resources to L'Arche Portland. The following essay is a reflection on this experience by student Seamus Caslin.
The Portland immersion was a unique opportunity to see the connections between different groups of marginalized people because it was one of the only immersions that worked with more than one population. In the mornings, we worked at the morning hospitality program at St. Andre Bessette Parish, where the homeless could get a meal and stay in a safe place for a few hours. I worked serving food and handing out hygiene items to the guests, as well as simply welcoming them and having conversations with them. In the afternoons, we worked for the L’Arche community in Portland, serving those with intellectual disabilities. We either spent time with the members of the community, or worked on fixing up a new house that they had recently bought. Spending time with the community was certainly a more rewarding line of work for me than taping walls or doing yardwork, which is what I did at the new house. But, all of the work we did on the trip helped people in one way or another, which made it all worth every minute.
All of the insights I had during the Portland Immersion can be summarized by one word: relationship. Relationships were the main focus of the services at both St. Andre Bessette and at L’Arche. St. Andre Bessette made a point of handing out name tags to both the volunteers and the guests, and all of us made a point of calling the guests by name when interacting with them. The use of names in this fashion was the seed of a true relationship. Calling people by name changed my view of the guests from “homeless people” to just “people.” The L’Arche community was also intensely focused on the idea of relationship. The very first thing we learned at L’Arche were the “Pillars of L’Arche Spirituality”, one of which was “Authentic Relationships.” L’Arche communities are guided by the idea of people with disabilities and people without disabilities living in relationship with each other. Through my time at L’Arche, I got to experience those relationships, and even began to form some of my own with people like Adam, Ben, Rebecca, Erin, and many more.
The lessons I learned about relationship extended a bit farther than simply experiencing a few authentic relationships. I also learned some striking philosophical truths about the value of a person. During a prayer reflection at the L’Arche community, one of the volunteers noted that society only values people who contribute. We live in an intensely capitalistic society, so people are only seen as really human if they have jobs, make money, and are productive in the economy. This is one of the reasons why the intellectually disabled, who are often unable to work, are marginalized. Our group focused on this idea quite a bit during our evening reflection. Yes, society only values those who are productive, but there are other sources of value available. Mr. Lai brought the idea full circle by arguing that all people—the people at L’Arche, the guests at St. Andre Bessette, allpeople—have value because they can form relationships. Everybody’s happiest moments always come because of a relationship with someone else. Anybody can contribute to those moments, which is one of the reasons why everybody should be accepted as they are. Relationship is what is important; not productivity or value to the economy.
A different set of relationships also colored my learning experiences in Portland. The relationships that I formed with all the other volunteers I met showed me the person that I wanted to become. The people that we met all made tremendous sacrifices to live their lives in service of others. Jacqueline and Rachel, who worked at L’Arche and St. Andre Bessette respectively, took a whole year out of the prime of their lives, right after college, to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Kelsey, who was another worker at L’Arche, chose working in the community as a career, not just a short volunteering stint. Brother Joe, who worked at St. Andre Bessette, even decided to become a brother, just so he could more fully dedicate himself to service of God and others. All of these people were models of the kind of life that I want to be able to live someday. Making relationships with good people makes you better yourself, and I truly felt the effects of each of the volunteers that I met.
Scripture and the Catholic tradition also yield important insights about my service in Portland. In his teachings, Jesus alludes to many of the same ideas that I experienced during the immersion. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims, “Though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” (Lk 12:14). This insight is very similar to my own insight about relationship. One’s life does not consist of possessions or of economic value. Instead, it consists of relationships, and to deny someone these relationships is to deny them their basic humanity. The ideas about humanity that I learned are summed up in one of the themes of Catholic Social Teaching: Life and Dignity of the Human Person. The Church believes that every person is created equal by God, and therefore that every person deserves the same basic dignity. Society often tries to ignore that dignity. We ignore the dignity of homeless, and the drug addicts, and the mentally ill, and the intellectually disabled. We ignore the dignity of anyone who seems somewhat different from us. The Church teaches that such a mindset is morally wrong, and after experiencing such joyful relationships with these people, I agree wholeheartedly.
What I saw in Portland inspired me to try to make a change. Yes, authentic relationships are the key to accepting the marginalized into society, but, in the end, something more needs to be done about the issues of homelessness and disability. There are many services in place to help these groups, but they need money to function. The homeless need job opportunities and affordable housing. None of this can come from just relationships. Therefore, for my advocacy project, my plan is to write letters to the mayor’s office. One letter will advocate for the homeless, attempting to alleviate the effects of the homelessness crisis faced by both Portland and Sacramento, especially through affordable, long term housing. Both cities offer very little in between a tiny single room occupancy and an expensive apartment, so increased low-income housing could greatly help the homeless population. My second letter will advocate for adults with intellectual disabilities. While programs for people with intellectual disabilities aren’t run directly by the government, the city can and should give money to programs like L’Arche. These programs change the lives of adults with intellectual disabilities, so increased funding for them would be hugely beneficial.
So much of my Portland immersion experience revolved around the idea of relationship, and I cannot overstate its importance. My relationships with Adam, with Ben, with Rebecca, with Michael, with Kelsey, with Jacqueline, and with everyone else that I met were the backbone of my immersion experience. Relationships humanize people, and allow them to more fully realize their sense of dignity. Relationships are one of the sources of the intrinsic value of human beings. Relationships are the key to ending the marginalization that plagues our society today.