The road to Daybreak

Henri Nouwen

September 21 was the 16th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest and writer who lived and ministered at Daybreak, a community in Toronto for people with intellectual disabilities. Nouwen is one of my favorite authors. He is thoughtful, insightful and humble in his writings.

It was through reading his book The Road to Daybreak  that I learned of L’Arche, an international network of communities that seeks to support people with intellectual disabilities so they can take their rightful place in our society.

Daybreak is a L’Arche community, where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together.  When I began working in earnest on my book about Uncle Melrose, who had an intellectual disability, I sensed that it was important that I visit a L’Arche community. I wasn’t sure why, I just knew I had to do it.

And so, in the fall of 2009, I visited a L’Arche home in downtown Washington, D.C. , where I was welcomed by the very kind and generous Caroline McGraw. Caroline showed me around the enormous multi-storied house, where each person had a private bedroom.

Feeling out of place

I met all of the folks who lived in the house when we sat down to a meal together. I have to admit, I felt very uncomfortable during my visit. I felt I was intruding in a private home, but each of the “core people” was kind and welcoming. So were the staff members who cooked the meal, set the table and helped the core people eat.

When we finished the meal, we passed a lighted candle around the dinner table and talked about what we were grateful for.  It was a beautiful and tender time. I told my hosts that I was grateful that they had allowed me to come into their home and share a meal with them.

I should not have felt so out of place. L’Arche communities often open up to the public for tours so that neighborhoods, towns and cities can become better acquainted with core people and the way of life inside these group settings.

L’Arche is global

There are only a smattering of L’Arche communities in the United States, with most of them located on the East and West Coasts and in the Midwest. But there are 140 such communities throughout the world – in 40 countries.  The organization was founded by Jean Vanier, a former educator who left behind promising careers in the military and in academia to live and work with people who have intellectual disabilities.

I have tremendous respect for men like Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen, who chose to devote their lives to supporting and helping others. Likewise, I have great respect for my father, who didn’t choose to devote his childhood to the care of his younger brother Melrose. But because their mother had five children and an absent husband, Dad got recruited. He gave up much of his boyhood to help his brother cope with his limitations.

As Dad, Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen found out, working with the disabled is not glamorous, lucrative or easy. But it is worthwhile – tremendously worthwhile.

I’m still not sure why I felt compelled to visit a L’Arche community, but I’m so glad I did. If nothing else, it gave me a picture of what life can and should be like for people like my uncle.