Patty Wudel, the executive director for Joseph’s House, the home and hospice for formerly homeless people, recently wrote here about the role that Joy, a volunteer with Alzheimer’s, plays in the house.
Patty has also told me the story of a Mr Bumbridge who was a resident at Joseph’s House a number of years ago. Although he’d been employed all his life, he had never found a place of belonging and had been completely disconnected from family. Then he’d developed cancer and was on his way home to Philadelphia by bus. By the time he reached the Washington Greyhound station, however, he was too sick to continue and Travelers Aid called Joseph’s House.
Patty remembers Mr Bumbridge as a tiny, jockey-sized man. He was a good conversationalist, a much appreciated gift at Joseph’s House. At dinner he would often sit between the same two, much larger, much more muscular men, bantering and joning with them. As Mr Bumbridge deteriorated and became too sick to come down to dinner, however, these two younger residents at Joseph's House would go up to his room, coax him out, and carry him downstairs to the big Joseph’s House dinner table. Whether one can eat or not, dinner at Joseph’s House is a central place of connection and community. Even when he was unable to eat, Mr Bumbridge continued to offer his gift of conversation. Even after Mr Bumbridge became so feeble that he couldn’t take part in the conversation or even sit up at the table, but these two big, formerly homeless men with AIDS still went upstairs and carried Mr Bumbridge down to include him in the community. Patty has an image of the three of them, Mr Bumbridge unable to hold himself up and leaning against one of his younger friends, who had his arm around him. Even in his helplessness and weakness, Mr Bumbridge helped to create community.
I’ve been thinking a lot more since my previous two posts (here and here) about helplessness and vulnerability as compared to strength. The power of vulnerability is something I’ve believed, intellectually, to be an important Christian insight, but I’ve never really internalized it emotionally as truth that I could rely on in my life. But in Joy and in Mr Bumbridge we find two people, each bringing the community together through their helplessness.
I’m not helpless, yet, but it’s my vulnerability, not my strength, that has awakened compassion and intensified the community around me. And it’s awakened other people to their own vulnerability, too. In my previous condition of emotional strength, I couldn’t have played such a role.
When we compare vulnerability to strength, we too often can’t see the importance of vulnerability because we’re measuring both against what strength can do. But that’s the wrong metric and misses completely the power of powerlessness. Weakness has its own gifts, the value of which is measured on a different scale from strength.
These stories encourage me. Joy is quite far along in her dementia and is really “out of it” from the usual societal point of view. Yet—in her humor and sensitive emotional radar—she is still contributes to the community. She’s included and helped to feel useful, not only because she needs it but also because in her helplessness she binds the community more tightly together. Mr Bumbridge, too, offered his gifts.
It’s a reciprocal relationship. When the Joseph’s House community can welcome and include them in their helplessness, their gifts bind the community more tightly together. It gives me hope that as I can do less and less for others, my helplessness can offer strength to a community, too.