Here is a post I wrote as I was transitioning out of L’Arche Greater Washington DC, nearly 8 years ago, in May of 2008. As Friends of L’Arche North Carolina continues to take shape, I share this as a reminder of what we are striving for. L’Arche communities across the US are currently seeking assistants to share their daily lives with persons with intellectual disabilities.
My time in l’Arche is coming to a close. Two communities (Portland & DC), three roles (respite, assistant, and home life coordinator), and 23 months later, I am finishing up my time, at least for now. Since graduating from college in 2006, this has been my way of life: preparing nightly meals for a crowd, flossing teeth, playing silly games, administering meds, watching Oprah on the couch, filling out droves of paper work, baking cookies, attending multiple weekly meetings, singing songs, shoveling snow off the driveway, dropping people off at work, praying after dinner, sweeping the floor, buying a ton of groceries, leading prayer nights, going on retreats.
This life has been a strange mixture of stay-at-home parent, social worker, pastor, and event coordinator. I’ve earned good, practical life skills. But I’ve also learned how to posture myself towards the vulnerable and how to identify and come to terms with my own vulnerabilities. There was a time when this sort of work was frightening and foreign. Though I felt I embodied certain abstract notions of kindness and positivity before coming to l’Arche, I would not have described myself as someone who knew how to love others in practical, physical ways. Nor would I have ever described myself as a patient person, a selfless caregiver, a gentle presence. In fact, I think most people who come into l’Arche wouldn’t immediately characterize themselves in these ways. And those that do may realize that they’ve never really had the opportunity to practice patience, forgiveness, and generosity. We just don’t live in a society where these virtues can be practiced naturally. They have to be conjured up, dusted off, put to good use, else they will atrophy and fade away.
L’Arche is a place where we can become more fully human. It is a place where we can practice the long-forgotten disciples of simplicity, peace-making, and patience. And it is a place where we can express our hopes, fears, joys, and pains in real, tangible ways. L’Arche provides us, core members and assistants alike, with the opportunity to live righteously in a way that our larger society cannot. We cannot expect the woman in front of us at the post office to treat us with dignity and respect, because this is not the culture of bureaucracy. We cannot expect the driver behind us on the Beltway to practice selflessness, because this is not the culture of the Beltway. In these places, we have no common culture that informs our behavior or tells us how to love one another. We may have basic common courtesy, but it’s a politeness rooted in Kant’s Social Contract, not in the theological narrative of the Church.
L’Arche’s uniqueness to the surrounding culture, as well as to any other organization that cares for the developmentally disabled, is so telling. People come to l’Arche and are changed because they’ve never experienced anything like it before – not in their places of work, their families, or even their churches. Guests who come to dinner talk of their experiences as “brief encounters with Jesus.” Core members enter l’Arche after years of living at home or in institutions, and finally they become fully alive. Assistants come to serve and find that they, too, are experiencing healing and growth as they never have before.L’Arche is a different place, an alternative way of being.
Yesterday, Fritz, Eric, and I were playing soccer in the backyard. It was all pretty boring. Fritz wasn’t really paying much attention and the ball would always sail past him and he would have to wander off to find it. He really just wanted to talk about his mother and his sister, and his friend Kevin who has seizures. And Eric always had to stop the ball with his foot and position it just so before kicking it. But as we played, Eric would periodically exclaim, “What fun! I’m having so much fun!” Eric takes delight in pretty much everything. He is a dear soul. And Fritz is always so caring, so kind and easy-going. For the past 22 months, these core members have been my teachers. As cliche as it is, they have taught me things that quite literally can’t be taught in the classroom. I worry a little that I’ll forget these things when I’m away from l’Arche, that I’ll forget how to “be good” as Fritz puts it. L’Arche has made me more fully human, and for that I will be forever thankful.