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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To See Beauty First: A Video

Hello and Happy Monday!

Since I’m traveling this week, I’d like to share a video with you in lieu of the usual post. It’s a 10 minute talk I gave as part of the Faith Inclusion Network’s March 2013 “That All May Worship” conference. (I thank Karen Jackson for her wonderful work in organizing the event, and for sending me the recording as well.)

A Wish Come Clear readers who receive posts via email may recall the story I sent out about my experience speaking at the conference two months ago; it’s reprinted below.

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Please pardon the at-times-loud background noise in the recording (but if you’ve read the story, you’ll have a good idea why that’s happening). Enjoy!

This past weekend, I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia for the Faith Inclusion Network’s biannual, “That All May Worship” conference. I was honored to be a guest speaker at the opening banquet, and to lead a breakout session on L’Arche* as well.

At the Thursday night banquet, I was the first speaker to take the stage. The usual shivers ran through my stomach; the usual adrenaline pumped through my veins. But once I started speaking, everything else fell away, and I was able to lose myself in the stories.

That is, until I heard a masculine voice coming from the foyer. It was loud, yelling something I couldn’t distinguish. I thought it sounded angry, but I couldn’t be sure.

I kept on speaking without pause, but inside, I wondered, Who could it be? Are they supposed to be here? What’s going on? I couldn’t see the person, but for a moment, I was afraid. Visions of violence moved through my mind; was it some kind of radical protester, intent on harm? I didn’t dare turn my head to look.

***

But then, as the man and his companions moved toward the center of the room, I realized: here was a man with special needs, coming in late, just making some noise. No big deal. I felt my shoulders relax, and a smile spread across my face. Thank God! It wasn’t any of the terrible things I’d feared. It was going to be all right.

In fact, I actually felt more comfortable giving my talk after that young man came in. Why? He reminded me of my friends at L’Arche (some of whom are wont to purr and shout phrases in Spanish during Catholic Mass). With his arrival, I felt as though I was among family.

Oftentimes I think we get so afraid of what might happen that we are blind to what is happening. We get all worked up about something we perceive as terrible, when in reality, we’re just frightened by our own thoughts, our own imaginings.

***

I wish I’d had the chance to meet that man after I spoke; if I had, I would have thanked him. I wish I could have told him how he helped me, how glad I was that he had come to the event.

As Amy Julia Becker wrote in her recent post, Missing Out on Beautiful, “I feel as though I have been let in on a cosmic secret because when I look at Penny, I see her beauty before I see anything else.” (Amy Julia’s daughter, Penny, has Down syndrome.)

When I read those lines today, I couldn’t help but think of the stranger, the man from the conference last weekend. It’s clear to me now: he was beautiful because he reminded me of those I love.

And love is what gives us the ability to see beauty first.

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How do you ‘see beauty first’? Join the conversation in the comments!

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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.

Completing the Party: Thoughts on Grace

This is the (edited) text of a talk I gave at Living Spirit Church on Sunday, April 28th. Enjoy! 

Once upon a time in 2008, I was on routine at L’Arche*, feeling downcast. Most of the assistants on our house team were leaving that summer. Yet even as I dreaded saying goodbye, I saw a silver lining: I’d build stronger relationships with those who remained.

You can’t always get what you want …

 

I wanted to mark this place and time when I decided against despair. So I asked Theresa** and Cassandra** if they’d like to do Sidewalk Chalk.

Neither was remotely interested. (It’s one of the beautiful things about L’Arche: if someone isn’t interested, they’ll likely tell you.) But they were happy to go outside.

So I brought out chalk and thought about what to draw. I am not a visual artist; I can barely draw a stick figure. But I love words, so I decided to write.

One of the assistants who was leaving had introduced me to the writings of Frederick Buechner, so I wrote these words of Buechner’s on the pavement:

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”

I added swirls and big letters. Strangers paused to read, smiling at me. When I was done, I stood, brushed my hands, and felt as though I’d crossed a threshold between my life as it was and my life as it would be.

I was going to have to say goodbye to people I thought I couldn’t live without, but I would carry on. I’d accepted my part in the great cosmic party.

***

But when I started writing this talk, I didn’t feel like celebrating. I’ve had some very exciting things happen with my writing and speaking in the last few months, but this past week I found out that I hadn’t been selected for a prestigious creative arts fellowship.

If I’d received the fellowship, I would have had a full year and $40,000 to devote to my next book. So I put a lot of love and effort into the application. But it wasn’t to be.

Even though I know that rejection is part of the writing game, it still hurt. I felt like more talented artists were on the dance floor, while I was a wallflower, unwelcome.

I’ve been there before, so I know how tempting it is to dive into more work and deny, deny, deny. It’s hard to have a hope, a dream, a sense that you have a shot, and then see it fade away.

***

… But if you try sometimes, you get what you need.
~The Rolling Stones

What I didn’t tell you before was that my best friend, a beautiful person and a talented writer, also applied for this fellowship. We cheered each other on, read each other’s drafts, offered suggestions, and promised that we’d both celebrate if one of us received the award.

As it turns out, she didn’t receive it either. We exchanged bummed-out texts, and she helped me by admitting that she, too, was sad. And she wrote, What nice wallow-y thing will you do for yourself?

It was the perfect message, because it put me on the spot. This is what real friends do:  teach us how to be kind to ourselves.

So I had some chocolate and watched the Gilmore Girls. I acknowledged the loss before pushing myself to achieve again. And I wrote this talk, as an act of affirmation.

I have a choice. I can beat myself up and engage in negative self-talk. Or I can choose to believe that I’m part of a party, an honored guest, just like you. I can choose to believe in a God of grace and second (and third and fourth) chances.

***

And after the Boston Marathon bombings last month, people started posting the lines that follow the ones I wrote on the sidewalk:

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

Today, I give thanks for people like you, those who help me to believe these words. Because I don’t think we can fully believe or understand them outside the context of relationship.

What’s going to help me get through the disappointment and rejections is the fact that I’m not alone in them. There’s a lot I don’t know, but I do know that real friendship is a gift.

Friends on the journey of LIFE.

***

Even if we lose, we don’t lose alone. And if we win, we win together. That’s the promise of true friendship, and it’s what God promises us from before we were born and long after we die.

To be with us always. To go as far as it takes, as long as it takes, to reach us.

To give us gifts beyond our wildest imaginings.

And to help our very hands open up to receive them at last.

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What’s your experience of true friendship? Join the conversation in the comments!

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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.