I think it is safe to say Jean Vanier felt called by something beyond himself in 1964. He chose to live a humble, simple quotidian with people who are developmentally disabled. He talked and wrote about his experience living in this new type of faith-based community. Others followed in his footsteps. Eighteen years later, I was one of them.
It was on these steps, on the steps of Hilltop House in Tacoma to be exact, that I met Bill Downey. Bill was old (at least from my vantage point back then), hard of hearing, bald, and he had no teeth. He was Down Syndrome, and the doctors say Bill lived well past his life expectancy. Lucky for me. Bill was also a true gentleman, the best dressed person in our community, who had one of the best senses of humor of any person I have met in my life. We became best of friends. Bill was truly a free soul, unbound by social conventions. He called me Ray just because he wanted to.
Whenever we walked along, Bill always held on to my my arm because he had a trick knee that would him like a rock when it gave out. His friendly nature, which can only be described as unfettered, with no small dose of devilish humor sewn in, would drag me by the arm to introduce me to some new stranger who happened across our path. "Do you know Ray?" "Hi, well, actually my name is Ric, and....." A new relationship began. As uncomfortable as this was for me, I can say it never turned out badly. And I think some good came out of it more than a time or two. Bill always seemed to be genuinely happy to see me and he seemed to be concerned about me when I was gone. Bill was a groomsman at my wedding.Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book entitled, "The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," an intriguing book about how memes (ideas or behaviors) spread in a culture. The book talks about "mavens," people in a society who act as connectors, introducers if you will, who understand a certain human phenomena and feel called to spread the word.
They are community builders. It is also, I believe, how social change takes place, and we see its effects everyday. Jean Vanier can be seen as a spiritual maven. Bill Downey was also a maven, at least for me, of friendship, love, faith, and community. This, of course, was Vanier's great spiritual insight and discovery, and it became his life's work. Friendships are a mystery to me. Why some people connect with others for the reasons they do I will leave for people wiser than me. All I know is that I loved Bill Downey. I still do, though he died a long while ago. He is still in my dreams. This must mean that he remains alive in my heart. With this gift, I will be eternally grateful for Bill and for the man who introduced us, Jean Vanier.“To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.” Jean Vanier