Hal Torgenson mumbles and doesn’t make eye contact when he talks. At age 46, he’s jittery, bashful, sometimes even anti-social. He’s mentally handicapped.
But he transforms in church. As the first musical note resonates through the sanctuary, Torgenson is on his feet, arms raised to the heavens. The words of the hymn flow from his mouth, clear, loud and off-key.
The nervous energy that propels Torgenson forward even when there is nowhere to go dissipates into the rhythm of the song. He’s oblivious to the sideways glances of the people in the pew in front of him. He is happy.
Watching Torgenson in church, it is clear he is a spiritual person.
For years, mentally handicapped people were denied the opportunity to fully develop their religious side. They were thought to be incapable of sin and guilt, thus repentance and redemption were unnecessary.
Since the 1980s, when the nation began moving developmentally disabled people from institutions to community-based homes, many mentally handicapped adults have been choosing to go to church, pray and get closer to God.
This weekend, several dozen Gonzaga University students are hosting up to 20 developmentally disabled adults for a retreat that combines spiritual and social events.
The retreat, which has been an annual event for five years, almost didn’t happen this year because of budget cuts, said Sima Thorpe, volunteer coordinator for the university.
Students who participated in past retreats convinced their peers to donate meals from their university meal tickets, which covered the bulk of the weekend expenses.
“I think that many people assume that the disabled don’t have the capacity to be spiritual people,” Thorpe said. “But for our students who have experienced that, they wanted to do everything they could to bring off the retreat.”
Many of the adults attending the retreat, including Torgenson, live in the Lidgerwood neighborhood around GU in two group homes known as l’Arche.
Originally founded in France 30 years ago, l’Arche communities are homes that operate on the Gospel principles of service and prayer. L’Arche is French for “the Ark,” the large boat in which the Bible says Noah gathered his family and different species of animals to protect them from the great flood.
In both the Christian and Jewish traditions, the ark is a symbol of diversity, refuge and hope.
At l’Arche, which has operated in Spokane for 20 years, the residents are called core members, not clients. They are the central participants in almost every decision.
“This is not just three meals and a bed,” said l’Arche Spokane Director Sally Tibbetts. “This is a community based on celebration, forgiveness and welcoming.”
Currently eight men and women live in the two homes.
The core members are as varied in their forms of worship and expression of faith as any eight people brought together at random. Torgenson attends Fourth Memorial Church, an independent evangelical congregation. Others walk down to St. Aloysius or get a ride to St. Ann’s, both Roman Catholic parishes.
Richard Dushon, a Sandpoint native who has lived at l’Arche for 20 years, walks to a nearby Methodist church for services.
“I see him as more religious than a lot of other people,” said Cheryl Paton, Dushon’s sister and legal guardian. “He has a very full prayer life. Most of the time it is his idea to pray.”
Like Dushon, Agnes Healy prays regularly. Healy, who speaks only a few intelligible words, talks to God every night, sometimes for a long time. She ends each prayer with a resounding “Amen.”
“We don’t have any idea what she’s saying,” Tibbetts said. “But I’m sure that she is communicating on a level that many people never get to.”
Chrissy Bossert moved to l’Arche a year ago. Although she was raised in a devout Catholic family, Bossert originally resisted worship, said her sister, Evangela Bossert, a nun who lives in a Benedictine monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho.
Since joining l’Arche, Bossert has started going to church on her own.
“She has some intuitive ability to recognize that there is some mystery here,” her sister said. “And sometimes she’ll ask questions that really make me wonder what she understands about life and God, like, ‘Will I wake up tomorrow?”’
Living at l’Arche, Chrissy Bossert has developed a sensitivity to the needs of others that she didn’t have during her life in an institution, Evangela Bossert said.
Disabled people often are described as childlike or innocent. Evangela Bossert said she believes their souls are just closer to the surface, making them both radiant and vulnerable.
“Every once in a while, I’ll notice this beautiful light shining on her face, as if she is somewhere else,” Evangela Bossert said. “Her spirituality is much more elemental than ours.”
In addition to the core members, a handful of assistants live in the l’Arche homes, helping out in exchange for a small stipend.
JoAnn Price sold all her belongings and moved from California to serve. While the work is often difficult, sometimes even stressful, Price said she has finally gotten close to God.
“When I first came out here, I basically cried every night,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could do this.”
Sometimes the job is like dealing with toddlers, sometimes it’s like dealing with Alzheimer’s patients. But the closer she gets to each of the core members, she said, the more she learns about God.
“There is a place in God’s world for every single person, even these people,” she said. “They bleed when you cut them and they love you back when you love them.”
They live in the present so much that a summer vacation is difficult to imagine while there is snow on the ground. So it’s easy to celebrate the joy of day-to-day tasks, like preparing a meal or folding the laundry.
“People always want to intellectualize everything,” Tibbetts said. “What we find is by celebrating each other and the very simpleness of each day, you can truly live a spiritual life.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)
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