Coming Home: The Liberation I Found at L’Arche

Happy Memorial Day, U.S. readers!

This article was originally published in America, February 11, 2013, and is reprinted with the permission of America Press, Inc., americamagazine.org.

I remember exactly where I was standing.

It was in a small hallway at a L’Arche home in Washington, D.C., when I met my friend and housemate Pedro. At the time, I was visiting L’Arche for a series of interviews. I had not yet received an official job offer, but even so, I knew that I would be coming to live and work there. I could feel it in my bones; this was where I needed to be. And amid this sense of assurance, a white-haired man walked up to me.

Traveling with L’Arche, 2008

He leaned in toward my face, speaking loudly and emphatically in Spanish. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure about coming to live in the community. The man before me raised his arms and gestured emphatically, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was saying.

The foreign words were incomprehensible, and Pedro’s (not his real name) unique pronunciation, proximity and volume disconcerted me.

I wondered: How should I respond? Finally my companion translated a few phrases. Pedro was giving me a blessing, welcoming me into his home. I smiled and nodded, grateful for the prayer.

Yet I also thought: We’re going to be housemates? But I can’t understand a thing he says! God, are you sure?

The answer came back, almost before I’d finished the question: Yes.

So I took a deep breath, swallowed my bafflement and moved forward with the visit. And just a few months later, I was dragging my suitcase up the stairs and hugging my mother goodbye. My time as a live-in direct care assistant with L’Arche had begun.

An Unconventional Household

L’Arche (French for “the ark”) is a faith-based, nonprofit organization that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. L’Arche began not as a crusade to change the world but as a single individual’s daring act of kindness and hospitality. L’Arche came into being in 1964 because a man named Jean Vanier, under the spiritual guidance of The Rev. Thomas Philippe, welcomed strangers into his life.

He invited three men with intellectual disabilities (Raphael, Philippe and Dany) to move from a local institution into his home in the French village of Trosly-Breuil. That first night was particularly challenging for all involved. In fact, Dany was gone the next day. But Raphael and Philippe remained with Vanier, and their unconventional home grew and gave rise to others like it.

At present, there are over 150 L’Arche communities worldwide, located in 40 different countries. L’Arche has made a significant contribution to social change and inclusion in the 40-plus years since its inception; Vanier’s recent Nobel Peace Prize nomination comes as no surprise to those who know L’Arche.

But in 1964, Vanier little dreamed that his act of obedience would ripple outward in such a profound way. In fact, Vanier’s first impression of L’Arche was that it was a failure.

Sharing life together, 2009

Most accounts of L’Arche’s founding mention just two men, Raphael and Philippe (and even those key individuals often go unnamed). Dany’s arrival and subsequent swift departure are largely omitted.

In a world obsessed with achievement, it seems strange to say that the first L’Arche household lost one fourth of its members overnight. And yet this first “failure” is an important part of the story, vital to understanding L’Arche’s “success” today.

Many community members will tell you that their first introduction to a L’Arche community is a study in paradoxes. Coming to community is both illuminating and unsettling, comforting and disorienting.

Likewise, my first meeting with Pedro felt like a failure in that I perceived him as a stranger, unknown and unknowable. Yet at the same time, I knew that I was being led to live with him, to become a part of his family. It was a strange sensation, knowing that this man was a part of my path but not having the faintest idea as to how I might connect with him.

My Journey to L’Arche

Even so, remembering how I came—or shall I say, was brought—to the L’Arche community helped me to persist in forging connections there. L’Arche was an unexpected twist in my life story. Despite the fact that my younger brother, Willie, is on the autism spectrum, I never suspected that I would care for others with special needs after graduating from college.

I thought I would be a full-time writer—and now I am—but it turns out that finding a place among those with special needs was a prerequisite to finding my story, finding my voice.

Out to supper, 2010

My path to L’Arche became clearer when I learned more about Jesus’ life, how he reached out to people with special needs who were outcasts from society. Jesus loved people with all kinds of disabilities, and with that comes a tremendous secret that we rarely acknowledge: With or without a formal diagnosis, we all need the kind of compassion and care he offered.

Another paradox: We all are in need of support, yet we all have something to offer one another. We all have gifts to give. And it is on this subversive truth that L’Arche stands. L’Arche communities seek to be a place where the “least of these” are the first of all.

Of course, doing so takes time and deliberate effort. Putting people with special needs first is not what society teaches. In an era when essential Medicaid funding is cut more and more every year, when many caregivers earn the minimum wage or less, caring for the least of these is not an easy path.

Furthermore, many adults with intellectual disabilities move slowly; in order to meet them where they are, we must slow our frantic pace. And it is hard for us to cultivate that kind of loving patience in this age of super-fast everything. Yet it is precisely because it is so hard for us that it is so fruitful; we need this change of pace more than we know.

Working in ministry alongside people with special needs requires that we change, and that change is, in the words of Madeleine L’Engle, “both a challenge and a joy.” To be sure, there is treasure to be found in the special needs world.

My friends at L’Arche have been my greatest teachers in the art of enough and the spirit of sufficiency. They have taught me to stop my flurry of activity, to pause and stare out windows and watch the birds fluttering in the trees, to nurture friendships and breathe deeply.

Sitting with Pedro

These gentle lessons served me well when it came to building a relationship with Pedro. Since I did not know what to do, I did the same thing Vanier did: I started small. I practiced Spanish with my fluent housemates. I sat with Pedro, letting the rhythmic cadence of his words wash over me (and, hesitantly, I pronounced a few phrases in Spanish in response).

Gradually, the man who seemed like a stranger became a beloved friend. Pedro revealed to me that, as Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “If it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” I came to love Pedro before I could fully comprehend his speech. Why? Because even though I could not understand his words, I grew to understand his heart.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for new L’Arche home, 2010. Photo Credit: Daniel Zundorf

Soon after, an unexpected miracle occurred. I woke up one day and found, to my immense surprise, that I could understand Pedro. It was as though someone had flipped a switch inside my brain; hours and hours of listening had finally paid off.

Soon, I took delight in translating Pedro’s speeches for visitors. I had despaired of ever feeling connected to Pedro; now, I helped new members to connect with him. I had the privilege of helping others dismantle their barriers, and I never tired of seeing it, that moment when people started understanding Pedro for themselves. I knew just what it felt like: liberation.

Indeed, that is the work of L’Arche, to break down barriers between people with and without intellectual disabilities. The organization’s charter states, “In a divided world, L’Arche wants to be a sign of hope.”

When people visit L’Arche homes, they are struck by the ways in which the members depend upon one another. Core members (individuals with intellectual disabilities at the center of community life) depend on direct-care assistants for help with personal care tasks like showering and dressing; in turn, assistants depend on core members for invaluable things like friendship, support and mentorship.

Yet it is also important to remember that implicit in the statement, “L’Arche wants to be a sign of hope,” is what L’Arche does not attempt to be. It does not pretend to be a solution to the problem of providing for all individuals with special needs.

Instead, L’Arche seeks to signify a larger reality: God’s love and the promise of welcome for the stranger within us all.

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How have you experienced ‘breaking down barriers’? Join the conversation in the comments!

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For You, If You Don’t Want to Get Out of Bed in the Morning

It’s a bright, beautiful day, but I’m not really seeing it.

The world looks bleak. A bombing at the Boston Marathon, a city-wide manhunt, ongoing violence and terrorism the world over … the hate seems very heavy, and the love feather-light.

Part of me wishes I could be a small child again, blessedly unaware of all this. And what is the deepest wish of a child but to be safe, held, home?

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Photo Credit: Brian A. Taylor Photography

And that calls a story to mind.

To begin, I should tell you that I co-led the opening of a new L’Arche home in 2010. As such, I met myriad inspectors, and worked together with others to write routines, purchase household items, meet with families, train assistants, and more. I worked long hours, pushing myself to get everything perfect.

So you can imagine my shock when I realized that, on the evening of our first official day, I’d received (and filed) an incorrect prescription for Alvin**, one of the new members. I’d checked and double-checked the medication lists; how could I have missed it?

To be sure, the individual had received the correct dosage, which was a relief … but procedure dictated that I’d have to go through a labyrinthine series of corrective measures to fix the paperwork as soon as possible. To my weary mind, the task seemed insurmountable as Everest.

***

I sat at the new, polished-wood table, my head in my hands. I forgot the many small victories of the day, the delight on people’s faces, the feeling of a job well done.

Just then, a group of new assistants entered. At the time, they were (relative) strangers. And I felt horribly guilty that they were seeing me discouraged. But when they asked what was wrong, I didn’t have the strength to pretend. I told them the truth.

The group was caring and affirming, yet I saw concern in their eyes. Only Damien** seemed unruffled. He pulled up a chair, and it was such a relief for stressed, worried me to sit next to someone that peaceful. He told me, “It’s going to be all right. I promise.”

He said more than that, but what I remember is not so much his words as the conviction behind them. He believed that it would all work out. He had faith, and he offered it to me.

***

L’Arche members, all smiles.

It was a turning point. After that, I was able to relax and enjoy the new house, crises and all. But whenever I tried to thank Damien, he would always play it down. He was a little mystified as to what, exactly, he had done for me. And perhaps that’s as it should be.

Everyone has something to offer, but do we ever fully understand the power of the gifts we give one another? We never know what it’s like to be in another person’s place. Moreover, what we have to offer and receive changes moment-by-moment.

One minute, I was the teacher, sharing my knowledge on routine. The next, I was the student, learning from a new assistant how to keep the faith.

***

It’s been almost three years now, and the ‘new’ home is thriving. More homes are in the works. Last week, I called the house I helped open to wish my friend Alvin a happy birthday. In a week of darkness and destruction, talking to him was a bright spot.

And in his voice I heard a promise fulfilled.

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Do you have a ‘keep the faith’ story? Tell me more in the comments!

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Fed up with an ‘impossible’ sibling? Tired of a situation that may never change?

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*L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) is a faith-based non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.

**Names have been changed.

In the Silence That Follows: A Love Story

My dear friend Brooke recently wrote, “I want to listen to what I really want to be working on, what I really want to be writing, where I really want to be spending my energy … and then do that.” This resonated with me, because I’ve been having trouble listening lately. And when I am having difficulty listening, I am most in need of guidance.

Authentic listening is a lot more demanding than it sounds. It asks that you stop and be still. And in the terrifying silence that follows, it asks that you open your heart to what you hear.

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For what do we listen? For what is true, and for the next right thing.

Cherry Blossom Festival, 2009

Cherry Blossom Festival, 2009

You and I want to know the whole plan before we take the first action. But it doesn’t work that way. You act, you move forward, and then more is revealed. And once in awhile, you get a grace-filled moment of clarity. Every now and then, you sense how a certain choice will illumine your way for years to come.

Such was the case for me in June 2009. Days before I left my home life coordinator role at L’Arche*, I attended a quarterly retreat with the community. Silence is maintained on retreat, giving everyone a chance to listen.

In the months prior, I’d made big decisions on the basis of such listening: I applied to graduate school, but when I was accepted with a full scholarship, I decided not to go. I chose to transition from my L’Arche role, even though I cherished time in community. And in the midst of all this, I fell in love with Jonathan, a fellow direct-care assistant at L’Arche.

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Photo Credit: DayspringRetreat.org

Photo Credit: DayspringRetreat.org

That day on retreat in 2009, I took a solitary walk through the woods. The trail I took leads to a hilltop, from which point you look down on a lake in a valley. There’s just one main path down the hill, and in summer, you can see why – the grasses grow waist-high.

I remembered hiking to the same spot on a winter’s day, when the landscape was barren and desolate. That day, the path down to the lake had reminded me of a wedding aisle, and the thought was infinitely depressing. At the ripe old age of twenty-two, I despaired of knowing that kind of love.

What a change to be standing in the same place the day before my twenty-fourth birthday. The landscape was bursting with life, and so was I. The thought made me smile and cry at the same time. How my life — and heart — had changed.

***

I stood atop the hill for a long time before turning back. As I walked, I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. I was appreciating the beauty of the woods around me … when suddenly, I stopped. Because I knew.

A certitude had arisen:  If Jonathan asks me to marry him, I will say yes.

It took my breath away. As a younger woman, I’d asked my mother, “How do you know that someone’s the ‘right’ person for you?” No answer satisfied me.

Finally, I understood why: it’s not something you can explain with words. It’s the kind of knowing that you listen for, that you feel, along with the sound of the wind in the trees and the touch of light on your face.

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Photo Credit: Kevin Fischer Photography

Photo Credit: Kevin J. Fischer Photography, 2012

I had no idea that Jonathan would ask me to marry him just days after that retreat. And now, four years later, his birthday approaches. Here I stand, ready to celebrate my husband, with more joy than I could have dreamed.

Whenever I am fearful about the future, I remember that day in the woods. I remember how all the steps of my life — even the ones I took without hope — led me to that moment of love and certainty. And I remember that a life I hadn’t dared to dream of is now a reality.

So if you’re feeling lost, keep listening. Keep doing the next right thing. Keep moving forward, however small the strides. After all …

The clarity you yearn for may be just a few steps ahead.

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5% of proceeds from the first month’s sales of my new Kindle* Single, I Was a Stranger to Beauty (ThinkPiece Publishing), go to support the vital work of L’Arche DC. The month is almost up (!) so be sure to get your copy today!

*If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry! You can read Kindle books with Amazon’s (free) Kindle Cloud Reader.

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AWCC Around the Web:

Upcoming speaking engagements – if you’re in the area(s), I’d love to see you there!

  • Florence Lauderdale Public Library, February 24, 2013, 2-3pm
  • Living Spirit Church, Florence, AL, March 3, 1:30pm
  • Faith Inclusion Network, “That All May Worship” Conference, Norfolk, VA, March 14-15

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