We had a very interesting experience at a recent wedding. There were a lot of people there with cognitive disabilities – more than what you would typically come across in a large group of people. The experience completely blew me away and gave me a peek into how the world
could should be.
First, a brief word about how this came to be. The bride and groom live and work in L’Arche communities. These are places where people with typical abilities and cognitive disabilities live and work together. It is not an aide-and-client relationship; rather, there is immense respect for everyone’s abilities and everyone works together, each according to his ability. So, when it came time for this beautiful couple to wed, it was only natural that they would invite their extended “families” – those with whom they lived at L’Arche and others they met while working there.
We were greeted at the door of the church by a gentleman who has Down syndrome. He was handing out programs as well as hugs. This was causing a bit of a hold-up at the door, so I watched, nervously, to see how people reacted to this offer of physical contact. Without fail, people hugged him, smiling ear to ear, and then moved on into the worship space. No hesitation, no avoiding it – they welcomed it. Immediately, my curiosity was piqued.
People of all abilities sat side by side in the church. One of the members of the L’Arche community sang a song. During a prayer, many shouted out their well-wishes for the couple. Time and space were provided for these friends from L’Arche to worship, participate, and celebrate on a scale I have never seen before.
I was gobsmacked. In a good way. The only experiences I’ve ever had with jubilant outbursts and hugging have been watching others shy away, shake their heads, and be generally unsupportive of this “non traditional” behavior. But not at this wedding. Instead of strange looks, I saw smiles and hugs and people going out of their way to give the sign of peace. Instead of impatience, I saw love and acceptance.
We have never been in a situation where disability was totally normal, where it wasn’t seen as disability at all but rather just a different way of being. Yes, we have our local Down syndrome group – but somehow this was different. I think it was because there were so many guests not part of “our world.” People who may not have understood or loved or appreciated or accepted. But they did.
The homily also gave me something to think about. The priest spent some time talking about different relationships that we as human beings like to nurture. He said that we place a good deal of emphasis on the marital relationship and suggested that other types of relationships can have just as much value. He suggested that you don’t have to be married to have someone in your life who reflects your beauty back to you.
He’s absolutely right.
I look at my marriage with hubby and I am sad sometimes to think that Rowenna may not be married. But now that I think about it, aren’t I focusing on the wrong parts of my marriage when I project my worries on Rowenna? It is absolutely possible for her to develop a loving relationship (within or without the bounds of traditional marriage) and possible for her to find someone who will reflect her own beauty back to her. Isn’t that really what we want, regardless of ability? People who love the truest part of ourselves? People who look past our foibles and weaknesses and see into our very hearts?
These friendships and peer relationships I observed at this wedding showed me that this might be possible, and the priest’s homily planted a little seed of hope in my brain. Don’t get caught up in the logistics and the rules and the tradition of it all. Focus on the meat of a valued relationship. Nurture friendships. Believe that Rowenna will someday have meaningful, beautiful relationships with others – with people of all different abilities.
These people we celebrated with were not disabled that day. My daughter was not the odd one out. The disabilities were not so apparent because the day and the location and the attitudes all revolved around the idea of inclusion. No, not inclusion. That’s the wrong word. That implies an allowing. This was more like…just being.
And it was so cool. I will carry this memory with me for a long time.