Recently, I traveled to Toronto for the annual gathering of my Dominican brothers and sisters. Although we have only four days together each year, we spent one of those days visiting various ministries that look after those on the margins of our society. Some of us visited soup kitchens, some went to homeless shelters, and some spent time with nurses who provide care to the people of the street. I had the chance to visit L’Arche Daybreak. I knew a little about L’Arche because I had read a good deal of the work of Henri Nouwen, who spent his last years there.
L’Arche Daybreak consists of eight homes operated for its core members: adults with intellectual disabilities. These disabilities include Down’s Syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy. Some core members use wheelchairs, some are blind and some do not communicate through speech. The homes also include assistants and a house leader who live with the core members and share the ordinary daily tasks of living.
While there, I had the opportunity to see Nouwen’s library and sit in the private chapel in the Cedars, the home where Nouwen lived. I could’ve spent all day there, but would have missed the real wonders of the place.
We had a chance to visit the Woodery, a wood shop where 12-15 of the core members work each day. They make a broad range of wood products for residential and commercial purposes, including wooden storage crates, stakes, and educational supply items. In the craft studio, the core members make pottery, candles, and hand-made paper cards. Their work, including ceramic crosses, is simply stunning.
L’Arche also has a dance troupe called The Spirit Movers, who perform throughout the wider community. Using the gift of sacred dance, the core members demonstrate that people facing a variety of physical and developmental challenges can teach all of us about God’s welcoming love.
Now, I’m a lawyer by trade, which means that I have a post-graduate degree in cynicism. So, when I go to places like this, I’ve been trained not to necessarily look for the people to whom I’m directed. Rather, I look in the corners, to see what’s happening there. And every place I looked, I saw an unambiguous outpouring of acceptance and love. Somehow, the grounds of this place and all the people had been overcome by a pandemic of joy.
When I arrived, one of the assistants showed me an icon drawn by one of the core members. The icon was titled Heart of God, and was drawn by a man named Tom Krysiak. It shows Jesus with his arm around Tom. The other arm is sort of dangling there in space and the assistant had asked him what was happening in that part of the picture. Tom replied, “That’s for you.” I was astonished, and couldn’t believe that I ever thought the word “handicapped” could describe these people with even a superficial accuracy. In this icon, Tom had demonstrated a broader understanding of the Gospel than I’d encountered in many of our churches.
Later that day, we met Tom in the craft studio where he was working. When Tom learned that we were with a religious order, he asked us if we would pray for him. We assured him that we would and asked what he would like us to pray for. He replied, “I want to become Superman.” We told him that we had already seen some of his artwork and were pretty much convinced that he already was Superman, but would pray anyway.
I had the impression that somehow Nouwen’s gentle, generous spirit had survived him, and that it had completely infected L’Arche Daybreak and survived his death. In a world preoccupied with achievement, classification and success, the L’Arche community somehow manages to embrace our common struggles, accept our differences and rejoice in the gift of every life. When I left that afternoon, I walked away with the feeling that I had seen a glimpse of the Kingdom, and it was more wonderful than I could’ve imagined.