We found our communities on a simple promise of a home for life for people with intellectual disabilities. Everything else is centered on that promise, from our community life, to the care we provide, to our education and advocacy efforts.
I want to share the story of one such promise that we made and kept. It’s the story of Gene Sampson, someone many of you knew and loved. As a boy, Gene was placed in Forest Haven, the District of Columbia’s notorious institution for people with disabilities. Gene lived at Forest Haven for more than 50 years, but it was never home. In fact, Gene described it as a jail.
Gene came to L’Arche in 1983. His dream of living in his own apartment came true, thanks to many of you, who contributed toward creating it in our home on Ontario Road. There, he could make coffee and have pet birds. He could have time alone. He was safe and secure. Gene passed away last August, in his apartment, surrounded by his parakeets, his favorite Elvis music, and people who loved him. He was eighty-one. His wish to die at home was fulfilled. I have a picture of Gene’s hand and the hand of one of the many people who loved him and who sat with him and held his hand during the last months of his life. That’s how I want to go.
L’Arche is a group of people living out God’s promise of a world where each person has enough and each person has a place of honor. I am in L’Arche because I want to be a part of that promise. To fulfill that promise, God depends on people who make and keep promises to people like Gene who don’t have enough and whose place in the world is not a place of honor. That’s why Jesus repeatedly called his followers into relationships of promise with people whom he called, “the poor.”
L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C. is part of a federation of similar L’Arche communities across the United States and around the world learning how to live as people of promise. Locally, we have doubled our size to four homes and 16 core people, and we have established a strong foundation for future growth. L’Arche Greater Washington, DC’s mission has three parts. The foundation is to live as interdenominational Christian community, learning to be a people of promise. L’Arche is committed to supporting each person in his or her own spiritual journey, whether as part of a traditional faith or of another system of values and conscience.
The second part of our mission is to provide competent professional services to people with intellectual disabilities. During one of Gene’s hospitalizations prior to his death, the medical staff marveled at how well L’Arche assisted at the hospital. When it was time to leave the hospital, one staff member said that, typically, people from group homes don’t want to leave the hospital and return to the group home. In contrast, Gene could hardly wait to leave the hospital and go home to L’Arche.
The third part of L’Arche’s mission is to share what we’re learning through education and advocacy. Based on our experience of Gene’s dying, L’Arche’s advocacy compelled the D.C. government to change how it responds when people with disabilities die peacefully at home.
So, what’s next for L’Arche Greater Washington, DC?
First, we will continue to build a strong community life, to improve our structures, to strengthen our leadership, and to deepen our commitment.
Second, we are working to clarify our call to grow, which our members with disabilities are sounding. What we’re hearing now sounds like this: “Thousands of people in our area need loving homes and meaningful work and daytime activities. L’Arche’s approach to addressing the need is unique and invaluable. Don’t stop with doubling your size. Take the next step.” And so we will.
Third, we will continue to share what we’re learning and to advocate assertively. For a small, local group, we have an amazingly influential voice, and, thanks to new funding by our board and our supporters, we are using our voice more than ever. Each of you can help in our education and advocacy efforts by hosting one of our inspiring “Heart of L’Arche” presentations at your workplace, religious community, or home. One attendee of a Heart of L’Arche presentation at her law firm, said, “I smiled for the rest of the day.”
If Gene Sampson had remained at Forest Haven and not come to L’Arche, we know his funeral would probably have been attended by 7 people – a chaplain and six pall bearers. We know because Gene’s job there was to be a pall bearer, and he told us what it was like.
But that’s not what happened. Gene did come to L’Arche. And his friends from work and church and L’Arche flew in from all over the U.S., and even one from Europe. His pet birds were there. We sang, “Love me tender, love me true, all my dreams fulfill. For my darling, I love you, and I always will.”
As we continue this journey together as a people of promise, we ask for your prayers and we treasure your promises.
John Cook is the Executive Director of L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C. This speech was given at L’Arche’s annual fundraising breakfast on Tuesday, April 24 to 295 guests at the Mayflower Hotel. The event raised more than $110,000 in new pledges and gifts and increased the number of Heart of L’Arche Society donors from 69 members to 80 members who have made a commitment to give $1,000 or more per year for 5 years. To find out more about joining the Heart of L’Arche Society, contact Mary Ruppert at [email protected]