Exploring “Difference” with Bill Van Loo and Seniors with Grace

By Tracee Zyla

Wednesday, July 17

“Peg was the storyteller, not me,” Bill claims. True, his late wife Peg was quite the storyteller. However, I believe our seniors would agree with me that, actually, Bill himself is a riveting storyteller and now carries her torch.

Our seniors connected with guest presenter Bill Van Loo and his project titled “Difference” this last Senior Community Day in June. We shared a moving 45-minute journey that ran the gamut of emotions. We laughed with Bill at times, dropped our jaws in wonder at others, and dabbed at misty eyes.

“Difference” is the title of a series of images Bill crafted for a “Stations of the Cross” exhibit displayed inside the cathedral this past Lent. Originally dubious when asked to present his project to our Seniors with Grace in June, he reconsidered when I suggested the content remained relevant past the holy time.

Bill mused, “My first reaction was that after April the ‘Stations’ would be stale. But then I recalled my goal when creating the ‘Stations’ series: I wanted to tell two stories. One story relates the photo chosen for this Station to the Station carving, which is pictured below the print. The second story unfolds in the series of pictures themselves: [stories] of ‘Difference in the Family’ and [stories] of ‘Difference in Society.’ Those stories are still worth sharing – [including] discussion on the question of how age (like in ‘Seniors’) is too often treated as ‘Different’ in our youth-oriented society.”

Bill detailed how he and Peg “raised a family many would identify as ‘Different’ – both birth and adopted children, black and white, able bodied and disabled.” He invited us to “explore how we perceive the infinite range of differences that characterize—and often separate—us as children of God.” Stories included: his conservative parents’ skeptical reaction learning he and Peg would be adopting a biracial child; their biological son’s sibling relationship with their adopted son; adopting a Vietnamese daughter, with polio, saved through Operation Babylift at the end of the Vietnam War and then, decades after and through pure chance, meeting the man who originally organized it; and Peg’s devastating diagnosis of multiple sclerosis decades ago, accompanied by the mesmerizing portrait he took of her thereafter.

Bill’s images transitioned from his unique family experience to portraits of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Bill asked our group to consider the protesters’ expressions and look deep in their eyes to witness their pain. How do our seniors “see” them? How may our seniors be different and how may they be similar? Bill concluded by encouraging our seniors to share how they felt different or left out in our society. After some silence, hands went up, stories were shared, and thoughtful questions were raised.

Ultimately, “Difference” led our seniors toward connection with Bill, with each other, and with the greater human condition.

Earlier in the day, we welcomed the Rev. Heather Erickson, our new Director of Senior Ministries and Outreach, to the fold! Heather dove right in and scrambled fresh eggs for our seniors. Our beloved dynamic chef duo, Gail and Arleen, prepared a fresh chicken salad, complete with accoutrements, for lunch. The lovely Rev. Margaret Deeths made sure our seniors each had a full plate, Rob Stuart buttered oven-warmed bread, and Jim Murray made sure the coffee never ran dry. Our day concluded with the distribution of “Senior Care Bags” and hugs to hold us over until we meet again next month.

“Treasure the stories,” Bill advised when I later thanked him for his presentation. Wise words, however different and/or similar we may all seem and feel.

To learn more about Seniors with Grace, please visit gracecathedral.org/swg.

To see more photos from our day together, please click on our Flickr link at June Senior Community Day.

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