The Passing of a Dear Friend – Bill Van Buren
The communion cup was a wedding gift from Bill Van Buren. He was the founding member of the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto, Canada. He came to live at Daybreak when he was 16 and he passed away a little over a week ago at the age of 56.
The summer before Dan and I married I lived in the Green House at Daybreak with Bill and others. For those of you not familiar with the L’Arche Community – it is a place of community and hospitality where people with disabilities live in community with others. I was invited to come and live in the Green House to serve as part of Duke Divinity’s Center of Reconciliation Summer Internships. It was a summer of transformation and one of unconditional love which will forever be imprinted in my mind and my heart.
Bill was one of the first people to welcome me into the Green House. He greeted me with a joke – which he would repeat many times throughout the summer – “How do you make holy water?” he would ask.
“You boil the h— out of it.”
No matter how many times he said that joke to me or others it would be followed by his deep and loud laughter. As guests would come through the house that summer his jokes eased the initial tension of welcoming the stranger. He was also on the lookout for new jokes, too, but never tired from his familiar ones.
I will never forget the first time I was asked to lead a morning devotion in the Daybreak community. I had no idea what to expect – I had lead devotions before but felt very vulnerable and out of my league leading devotions with people with disabilities. What do I say? How do I communicate the gospel? How do I share? I spent a lot of time praying about it and trying to think through different approaches. I finally decided upon talking about the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. What I wanted to address was not only what Jesus said but the manner in which he said it – “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.” (Matthew 5:1) Bill had decided that morning to join me for the devotion. Having just injured his leg he had to be pushed in a wheelchair to the chapel. I began the devotion with a bit of timidness in my voice and felt at first I was not understood. So I paused – at that moment Bill stepped in and we began the process of leading/sharing together. I think Bill understood my hesitancy and felt like he could share with the teachings also. So we went back and forth sharing about how Jesus taught by sitting among us and what that means with our faith. It was so natural for us to go back and forth with the lesson – almost as if we had prepared beforehand together – but we hadn’t. Yet, I believe Bill had a sense about others’ discomfort and fragileness. He could tell when some one was going to break. It came from a place I believe of living out his own fragileness that helped him identify with others. What we did together that morning was simply God’s glory revealed. It was not my words or Bill’s words but the joined voice that allowed us to share the gospel. That morning we shared, with eachother and the others gathered, the glory of God’s love through Christ who came among us and sat with us.
It wasn’t until I returned to Duke that following semester that I read for the first time “In the Name of Jesus” by Henri Nouwen in which he shares the story of giving a speech together with Bill Van Buren. I cried all the way through the book – for I too had experienced a sense of togetherness that summer which I will not forget. Bill would not leave you stranded. He enjoyed doing things together with others and took that charge very seriously.
It was often over a game of dominos before dinner that Bill would share stories about his life – his trips to Germany and some of his harder moments. Yet he did not stray away from talking about difficult things. Sometimes his brutal honestly could be shocking, but I came to realize he did not intend to hide the joy or pains of life. I appreciated his willingness to be vulnerable because it called me to confront a lot of my own vulnerability and shortcomings. It was a summer of conviction and forgiveness – both within the Green House and within myself.
Bill was a gift from God for those who knew him and loved him. An encoutner with Bill left people changed. It changed me and for that I am grateful. The communion cups pictured above have people with outstretched arms as if to embrace all of life – it is an image of Bill taking in the stranger and making them the neighbor through a shared joke or a common story – reflecting the love offered in the embracing arms of Christ.