In 1989, when I was 24, I arrived in Tacoma WA from England to live in community with people who have developmental disabilities. I was thrust into an America I knew only from Hill Street Blues, the television show. Drug deals were going down on the street corner and I wasn’t aware of it. (someone had to tell me). Low slung cars filled with people who were high, blasted loud music out of the open windows. I came to live in a house that was an oasis in the desert that was Tacoma’s Hilltop. I was filled with excitement to make a difference in the world.
On Sundays our household walked the short distance to St. Leo’s church to attend mass. I was not Catholic and didn’t know the many people who seemed to know everyone but me. I always sat next to Bill, a bald, beautiful, elderly man with Down Syndrome who’s eyes sparkled with humor and was ever ready with a cackle of laughter. We sat in a pew near the back and he would study his treasured bible he carried to and from church. Then he’d start to whisper in my ear, pss, pss, pss. So I would return the whisper to his ear, pss, pss, pss. He’d laugh and then look up at the ceiling and pronounce “Oh my darlin’ “ , slide his eyes to mine and giggle. I would shush him to be quiet and then we would start all over again pss, pss, pss, pretending to share secrets. I loved those times, meeting Bill's humor with silliness.
At those times my chest would expand as though my lungs needed a greater capacity to inhale those perfect moments, I felt giddy and silly and accepted. Bill had an inner light that shone bright, he had a magical ability to bring people together and illuminate what was best in each person. He let me be my silly self and I felt myself let go of barriers within me and understood that my purpose wasn’t solely to make a difference in the world, I was here to be changed, a difference would be made within me.
One day at the end of Mass I walked along the pew to leave, someone touched my shoulder and I stopped to look at them. With great emotion they told me that they had been sitting behind me and observing Bill and I , “ I want you to know that today my faith was restored.” I didn’t know what to say, I was young and didn’t know the depths of despair that a human soul can suffer, nor the sudden shift in perspective, to hope, from witnessing simple magical moments. I think I merely said `thank you` and went on my way.
It was many years before I began to understand how profound that moment was. That communication occurs through shared connection and acceptance where words are irrelevant. That being completely present to another person liberates the soul. That if I want to make a difference in the world it won’t be the way I think it will be. This was Bill’s gift, wherever he went he radiated love and illuminated the best qualities of others so they could feel their own goodness. Bill touched many lives and was loved by a great deal of people. On several occasions, when people in L'Arche got married, at the end of the ceremony he would walk up too the altar and walk the bride and groom back down the aisle. He did that at my wedding too, and I think he was the second one to `kiss the bride`!