“Yeah, Tim, we’re gonna be friends.”
And then Tim jumped up from his chair and hugged me, smelling of smoke, hair from his ponytail hitting my face.
Tim (not his real name for legal purposes) is schizophrenic. And one of the particular ways Tim’s illness manifests itself is being direct, presumptuous and desiring relationship. If you think about it, that’s not terribly different than someone who isn’t ill. And that is what got me to thinking about humanity. You know, all of that pie in the sky, brotherhood of man nonsense.
One of the last quarters I was at Fuller Theological Seminary, I took a course entirely on Henri J.M. Nouwen. He was one of two individuals that I took time to study for an entire quarter, the other being Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you think about it, taking time to study a person exclusively is a great way to learn more about history. I feel like I learned more about World War II, ethics, ecclesiology and what it means to truly be a pastor by studying Bonhoeffer. When the personal meets history it changes things. That is why, I believe, the Civil Rights movement is still so impactful for Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks. Even just reading those names, there are pictures and stories that come to your mind. That history is personal. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t (isn’t) just the clash of two powers, it was people you could see and hear.
And I think that is why studying Nouwen made such an indelible print on me. Nouwen is in some senses a pretty cut and dry figure if you want him to be. He was this priest, who became a bigwig professor, then left it all to care for men and women with developmental disabilities. That is the quick and easy Nouwen. Heck, the quick and easy version of Nouwen for most is someone they never heard of. He never was raised on the pedestal of a Billy Graham or Albert Einstein, yet he lived in both worlds. He was a man of the cathedral and the university.
I frequently joke with friends that if 19 year old (really, replace any age below 26 or 27 for this joke) James realized that he would daily be spending his time with former military schizophrenics, manic-depressives, and sufferers of PTSD, depression, anxiety and a host of other issues, he would have either: A) laughed at you, or B) ran far, far away. But the problem was running far away is kind of where this all started.
I didn’t run away in the way you might think of someone leaving it all behind, cutting off any trace of their former identity. For example, Brenda Heist is in the news these days. Heist one day, in the midst of divorce, afraid of raising kids “on her own,” meets some homeless folk and joins them. Leaving behind everything…more importantly everyone.
That wasn’t my running away. My life in Texas was pretty good. I mean it could have been better. I was working really hard, but not getting anywhere. I was in a community where I struggled. I bought into the lie of presenting yourself a certain way for acceptance, and fighting every moment to keep that public persona together. So, when I sensed the time to go back to school I decided, I wanted to get the heck out of dodge. So, I did. I went to Los Angeles. Far, far away from everything and everyone, BUT, just a flight away from all that I left. It wasn’t about a clean break; it was about a fresh start, knowing where my roots lay.
Nouwen had a similar journey in some regards. His education (more the fruits of his education than pursuing education) took him away from his Dutch roots and tossed him into America. Remaining a priest, Nouwen became a professor and taught at such institutions as Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale. This man was brilliant. His students would often talk about his fervor demonstrating itself in his big floppy hands when he taught. For some reason, that is the imagery I remember most about Nouwen. He had these big floppy hands. He wasn’t perfect.
Nouwen, through his tenure struggled with his vows and an increasing awareness of loneliness. Eventually the loneliness led him out of the institution and into a community called L’Arche. At L’Arche Nouwen became a part of a community. The community was made of those with developmental disabilities and those who helped take care of them. But at the heart of L’Arche was this identity of this being the community. Nouwen was as much a part of the community as a young man named Adam that he cared for. Nouwen was not just an employee, he was heart and soul the same member of community as Adam.
I have three cousins named Stephen, Blake and Bradyn. All have varying degrees of developmental disabilities. All are fully family. They aren’t any different than myself, my cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. They are just a part of who we are. That is kind of what L’Arche is about. It’s about a lived experience that Nouwen flourished in.
And so what Nouwen and my family have planted in me has met Tim. It has also met Nick and Anne, who are part of the community where I worship, Vineyard Tuscaloosa. And here is the thing that Nouwen has prophetically reminded me of, and my family has lived with me. Anne and Nick (and outside of church Tim) are fully a part of my community. They have gifts to bring and needs to be met in community. They are fully community just as pastors, parishioners, psychologists and nurses are fully community. Where we often “miss it,” is this false belief that men and women like Anne, Nick and Tim are either there to be served or sequestered into a corner. Neither is a viable solution. Serving them only denies they have gifts to give community. Putting them in a corner denies they have needs community can meet. I think when the “other,” whether it be men and women of different races, developmental abilities, or even just varying ages, are invited fully into community, the community comes closer to being whole, closer to how it was always intended to be.