by Sister Susan Mitchell, former Community Leader
Twenty five years of sharing life with Rodney Gabriel—what a roller coaster ride—what a challenge—what a privilege—what a gift. Rodney filled the opening for a new core member at Nehalem House when our founding core member, David Maeyaert, moved on in 1993. I and assistants Rob Hoisington, Eileen O’Reilly, and Tricia Curley—along with the other founding core members: Joni Smith, Cindy Leonard, and Mike Peterson—helped welcome Rodney to our community. I have journeyed together with Rodney literally and figuratively since then.
Rodney and I, with Tricia, moved to a rental home in Gresham in 1994 while Neahkahnie House was being built. There the three of us welcomed Sharon Doane from the state institution in Pendleton to join us. When Neahkahnie House was completed in 1995, Rodney, Sharon and I were the first to live there. Rodney and I shared life in community until I retired from L’Arche in 2013. I was honored when I was asked to be a part of helping Rodney move to his new home at Redwood Adult Foster Care six months ago where I continued to visited him regularly. It was such a gift to have spent time with Rodney there the afternoon of his death.
A description of the mission of L’Arche Portland on its website captures the dynamics of my experience with Rodney:
We start by building an environment in which relationships of trust and openness can flourish. This growth takes time, but the more we give ourselves to it, the more we find ourselves transformed by the friendships that emerge. Into what, you might ask? Into more authentic versions of ourselves. The masks come off, and the real you and I appear to be received and celebrated. This kind of love, radical in its simplicity and day-to-day-ness, is the sign to the world of what is possible.
Those first years with Rodney were not easy ones for me or for the others who shared life with him as we struggled to get to know and understand each other. We thought we were doing Rodney a great favor by giving him a family-like home with his own bedroom, only to find several times during those first months that he had moved all of his belongings out of his room and into the front yard during the night. It took a long time for L’Arche to become a true home for him. Gradually Rodney found that we valued him and his gifts of helping out around the house—sweeping the floor, vacuuming, emptying the garbage, mowing the lawn. His first vocational setting discovered his gift with watercolors and soon his paintings were decorating our walls and used for making greeting cards. At the rental home we appreciated Rodney’s care for our new core member, Sharon Doane, and the ways he watched out for her. Rodney’s vulnerability and insecurity from the loss of his family in childhood and from the wounds of institutional living continued to express themselves through challenging behaviors. At the same time, his authentic self was emerging through the transforming power of love.
And my life, too, has been transformed through my friendship with Rodney. His love and acceptance of me with my vulnerability and my challenging behaviors have helped me to become more fully my authentic self. Thank you, Rodney, for welcoming me, and so many others, into your life. Thank you for being my teacher and my friend. Your spirit and your love will live on in my heart always.