On the way to Santiago de Compostela, Hugh Nelson and other members of the L’Arche Community in Lambeth, London, learned about the real meaning of pilgrimage, and what it means to be able or disabled when the security of daily life is stripped away.


L’Arche communities are intentional Christian communities where people with and without learning disabilities live and work together. First founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier, there are now 120 Communities around the world, each of them providing homes where people with learning disabilities and assistants make home together. L’Arche seeks to proclaim the equality of all people regardless of disability. Our Communities welcome people with learning disabilities in from the margins where society often pushes them, listening to their hopes, supporting them to speak of their experience of life and enabling them to lead ordinary lives within society.

For many people with learning disabilities, the experience of consistent rejection has led to an internalisation of the message of those who exclude them. Many come to believe that they are not worth the same as other people, that they are less important or valuable than others and that they have no right to hopes or dreams. Many have learnt about the role they are expected to play—the idiot, the eternal child or the happy clown. In L’Arche we seek to promote the re-building of shattered self-esteem and to enable a re-claiming of self worth.

With these values in mind, a small group from the L’Arche Lambeth Community set off from South East London in 1997, to begin walking the ancient pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, across northern Spain. Over the next five years, the group spent three summers and two springs on the ‘foolish’ endeavour of pilgrimage. In the end, of the party of eleven who began, only three made it all the way to Santiago, although they carried the footsteps of each of their fellow pilgrims with them. On the way, we learned many things, about one another, about the real meaning of pilgrimage, and what it means to be able or disabled, when everything that makes up the security of our usual daily life is stripped away.

The tradition of pilgrimage is found in each of the major world religions. In Christianity pilgrimage has traditionally been done for penance, for healing, or as an intercession. In L’Arche, where many communities do an annual pilgrimage, it is an enacted symbol of our reliance on each other and on God, of the need to step out of daily life in order to find its real meaning and of the need for foolishness before a God whose wisdom so often appears to be foolish.

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela has been one of the major pilgrimage routes for many hundreds of years, until relatively recently competing with the pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem and Rome for both pilgrim numbers and prestige. Starting points to Santiago—the supposed resting place of St James the Apostle, can be found in every European nation. Walking this route with people with learning disabilities, I feel that my eyes were opened to new lessons about what it is to live aware of God’s presence, what it is to walk a pilgrimage, and what it is to be able or disabled.

Joan, a woman with Downs Syndrome, always walked much slower than everyone else. At first that caused anxiety—‘We’ve got to walk 20k by this evening—How will we ever get there?’ But walking alongside Joan, and listening to her, I heard: ‘Hello sun, hello tree, hello stone, hello birds’. Often Joan would stop and look for a long time at one thing, or have a little chat with herself- She was aware of everything around her, enjoying being in the open air, completely unconcerned for our deadlines and targets. And in this way, she was much more able to be aware of the gift of the earth, of the gifts of each moment along the way, than I was, with my constant goal-orientation and worry about getting somewhere else.

Another thing we noticed along the way was that many of the other people walking the pilgrimage route were slightly competitive about who had walked furthest, who had the heaviest pack, and who would get to Santiago fastest. We had a back-up vehicle—essential for the group we were walking with—which carried our backpacks so that we could walk only with day bags. And at first, we could see a reaction from other pilgrims—‘Cheats!’ We really threatened their ‘Who is suffering most?’ competition. Some of the other pilgrims couldn’t really believe that our group of mixed ability could do it—with or without packs. But at the end of the weeks of walking, when we often walked a stretch within the same time as some of the others, we saw that our group of people with learning disabilities brought real gifts to our fellow pilgrims. They showed a lightness in relation to the ‘pilgrimage as suffering’ mentality. We all suffer, each day, and we each do what we can, and there is no need to compete. That was one lesson. Another lesson was visible in the joy of our group in being together—the laughter, the accidents, the raucous meals at our nighttime stops. And by the end of the journey, many of the people we met had developed a real admiration for our group. We were not worth competing with, not because we were useless, but because we showed something of the real spirit of pilgrimage, which is rooted in an attitude of joy.

For Barry, a man with cerebral palsy who walked the whole way, reaching Santiago was a moment of great personal achievement. It was evidence of his courage, despite his severe physical disabilities. But John, another man with severe learning disabilities, who walked with us, was just happy to walk, it didn’t matter to him whether we were walking to Santiago or John O’Groats. The rhythm of the walking, being alive in his body, in the open air—that was what counted for him. John wouldn’t get into our mini-bus even when we’d being walking all day and everyone else was exhausted and glad to have a lift for the last couple of kilometres. John’s lesson to us about pilgrimage was that it is the walking—the being present in that moment—that matters. God is not far off at the end of our journey, he is present with us every step of the way.

As in all aspects of our life in L’Arche, the Pilgrimage to Santiago showed us that when people with learning disabilities are supported to be a full part of the world, not hidden away, not excluded, not denied opportunities, they end up giving more to those around them than they receive. For our little group of walkers—and for many of those whom we met along the way—Joan, John and Barry became pilgrim teachers.


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