Called Into Community – My L’Arche Story

This semester something inside me finally clicked.  School went from just being academics to being a life-giving exercise and for the first time in years it exhilarated me.  I began to get my hands on every single book the library owned on disability awareness.  Every single class warranted a project on Christian ministry to people with disabilities.  I found myself spending countless hours interviewing people with disabilities and the pastors and leaders who work with them.  Yet, if you would have asked me at the start of my undergrad if I ever saw myself working with people with disabilities, I would likely have said no.  Why the change?

I will be joining L’Arche Daybreak in July 2013 for one year.  It is an exciting time for me as it will be my first year round full time job, and also will be something completely out of my comfort zone.  At the same time, I sense this is something God is calling me to do and know that it will be a time of growth and stretching spiritually, relationally, and emotionally as I gain maturity in Christian formation.

For those who may not be aware, L’Arche is an intentional community for people with various intellectual disabilities some of whom will be able to gain autonomy and possibly even move into their own house, others of whom will not gain autonomy and will need to be fed, bathed, and looked after.  L’Arche seeks to provide dignity to all, and to provide a sign to the world on the topic of inclusion of those with disabilities.  Every year, L’Arche welcomes residents (core members) and the assistants who will come to live with them from around the world whether that be for 4 months or for 49 years as in the case of Sister Sue Mosteller (SOSJ).

Everyone has a L’Arche story whether they be residents or assistants.  My L’Arche story is nothing spectacular, but it exemplifies for me the fact that Christ often calls us into community even when we are not particularly looking for that community ourselves.  In September 2010, I was reading the book, In the Name of Jesus, for my Intro to Leadership class at Tyndale.  It was through this book that I first learned about the mission of L’Arche.  At the time, it went in one ear and out the other.  I thought it sounded like an interesting concept, but it was not something I was about to pursue.  Truthfully, I did not even know at the time that God would ever call me to work about people with disabilities.  I was dead set on becoming a pastor of the Mennonite church.  A year later, September 2011, I heard Sister Sue Mosteller speak at Tyndale during one of our Douloi Christou classes for which I was a Sr. Leader.  Sister Sue spoke with such passion about L’Arche and afterwards I entered into a discussion with her about this organization.  Still, it all seemed like a very interesting idea but not something that I would pursue.  It wasn’t until April 2012 that God called me to join L’Arche, though I wouldn’t know it at that time.

In May, I stumbled upon L’Arche in an attempt to locate a summer job, which was hard to come by in this economy.  After being turned down several times not necessarily because I didn’t have what it took, but more because of availability reasons (I was starting school at the end of August rather than after Labour Day) or simply because of it not being a good fit, I came upon L’Arche’s website and applied to work there.  After my first overnight stay, it seemed like a good fit and I was offered a position so long as they could find a house to locate me in.   When no house was available, an offer was extended for me to stay a year starting in August, I respectfully declined since I had had many generous offers for my seminary education and felt I could not turn them down.

My first semester of seminary was hard to say the least.  It was a time of being stretched and challenged, and many events unfolded which made my studies difficult for me to continue.  I had a growing sense that seminary, as awesome as it was, was not the right place for me at this stage in my life.  I believe I will be returning someday within the next two or three years, but I knew that I needed a break in order to clarify for myself why I was indeed studying for the ministry and to become rejuvenated as I was feeling burnt out from school.  I began the process of applying to various jobs.  I once again contacted L’Arche and even though I had applied to many other places, I knew in my heart that L’Arche would be the place I would be at.  I spoke with my roommate about it one night and shared with her that I didn’t know if I was nervous to go overseas (for missions) as this was another option and that is why I had such a longing for L’Arche or if God really wanted me to be at L’Arche.  She suggested to me that it was a bit of both.  Those words stayed with me throughout the application processes.  I had such a deep desire for L’Arche since I had my first overnight stay, but I could not explain it to anyone because it did not make sense.  I did not have any reason to be interested in the field of disabilities, nor any specific training or experience.  I just really wanted to be there and that was it.

After an awkward interview, which left in my mind the impression there is no way I could be hired because everything had gone wrong, I was offered the job on the spot.  L’Arche even worked with me to be flexible about the date since I do not get out of school until the end of May.  Their own clause was that I stay over a year at the house, which I agreed to do.

My initial connection to L’Arche was purely academic and theoretical.  I felt drawn to L’Arche because of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier and their writings.  It is no surprise in that sense that on the Myer’s Brigg’s (personality indicator) I come off as a “Thinker”.  Yet, even though L’Arche started off as a concept in books for me, it soon became much more.  Today it has become a passionate part of my heart.  I have been doing all of my seminary research projects on L’Arche and disability awareness and have gotten special permission from my professors to do topics for every single one of my classes on this.  L’Arche has become a symbol to me that God can call anyone to live among the least, the last, and the poor.  At the same time, I am always drawn to Vanier’s writings that the core members will offer way more than assistants do in terms of gifts that are life-giving.  Vanier and Nouwen both speak of the healing that L’Arche has brought to their lives because we are all broken people in need of a touch from God.  We are all people who have felt the effects of a society which teaches us to be the best at any cost, which teaches us to be number one, and which teaches us to “climb ladders” of affluence, status, prestige, or power.  If anyone has experience the detrimental effects of such things, it has been me.  It is a daily struggle for me to place others above myself and to care more about relationships than power, but it is by God’s grace that this is what I am called to do and it is by God’s grace that I have been learning to let go of what the world says and to cling to what God says is best.

I leave you now with a challenge.  Who are the least and the last in your life?  God is calling you to reach out to them.  God is calling you to put them first.  To put their preferences above your own and to be healed from the brokenness that “striving after the wind” (after affluence, romantic relationships, or status) has caused you.  God is calling you to rest in the present of Christ.  I also leave you with the challenge to get out of your comfort zone.  To dare to dream that God may be calling you to do something you never thought was possible for you to do, but to believe that with God’s help you will be able to accomplish it.

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