What Community Transformation Looks Like at L’Arche

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I have always been interested in community transformation.  Perhaps my interest came as a result of being an Anabaptist (more specifically Mennonite).  Perhaps it came as a result of the family I grew up in which made visiting those in nursing homes a priority.  Perhaps my interest really started to peak when I was a first year student at Tyndale University College and at the end of the winter semester noticed that I had over $200 left on my meal card and didn’t want to waste it all on chocolate (since at that time I was on the verge of becoming diabetic anyways) so instead I gathered a group of other students together and we all did a homeless food run.  Regardless of when this passion first started, there were definitely people who helped contribute to my growing interest, there were experiences given to me that really enhanced my vision (such as seeing the slums in Brazil), and there were books recommended to me to read (can anyone say “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne?).  My sense of community transformation soon stretched from my understanding of what it meant to be kind to those within my church, to honestly wrestling with the question “Who is my neighbour?”[1], to trying to get a sense of global community through looking at the types of clothing I wore and the kind of food choices I’ve made.

I definitely think that when it comes to community development there is much room for freedom as to how we will approach it.  One of my dear friends from my high school days is very involved with an organization called Move-In as are several of my colleagues from my Tyndale days.  Move-In is a Christian organization which tries to reach out to individuals living in rougher neighourhoods (called “patches”) where there may be high rates of immigration, poverty, or other factors which may alienate others.  Through literally “moving into” those patches, people who have committed to the Move-In lifestyle show the love of Christ by being an example of a shining light.  My sense of Move-In gathered from talking to my friend and Tyndale students (although I admit I have never lived in a patch and I have only visited one of the many patches) is that it is less about “doing” than it is about “being”.  It is about being a constant presence, a sign of hope rather than an organization that tries to eradicate poverty.  People who are affiliated with Move-In may assist in ways such as helping new neighbours to move into their homes or hanging out with families, but it also is simply about being a prayer presence.  Gathering weekly to pray over the communities they live in and in their own devotional lives lifting up requests for neighbours to God constantly.  I am really proud of my friend for choosing such a devoted way of being part of an organization which seeks to transform communities both internally and externally.  I am also really proud of her for reaching out in other ways outside of just her own patch by praying through Operation World which is a prayer book highlighting the different prayer requests of different countries.  Although I know that she devotes so much of her time, energy, and prayer power to her ministry with this organization I also see her transforming the community in many other ways such as through being a positive role model to young children, through the friendships she has fostered with others, and through never being too busy to pray for me.

When I was asked to reflect on community development by the Mennonerds I also started thinking of what this topic means in my own life.  As those of you who follow my blog are well aware, I live in an intentional community for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities just North of Toronto.  L’Arche was founded by Jean Vanier, a devout Catholic man and the son of the former Governor General of Canada, Georges Vanier.  Encouraged by his Spiritual director and priest, Vanier decided to take a stand during an era when the general public knew very little about the needs of adults who had disabilities and where oftentimes families of individuals with the disability felt that there was no way to raise the child so the child was simply sent to an institution.  A few years later, Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic Priest, scholar and professor, and acclaimed author heard of this movement and after coming to a place of brokenness and lack of fulfillment in his own life despite his academic achievements, decided to leave the world he knew and the fame he had acquired to become the first pastor of L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto.  Nouwen gave up a life of high standing and ovation in order to descend into servitude serving the least of these.  Although Nouwen passed away several years ago, if you ask any of the old timers at L’Arche about him they are sure to put on a great big smile and talk to you for several minutes if not hours about the impact that he had.

Nouwen was not perfect.  He made plenty of mistakes.  When he came to Daybreak he was a lousy housekeeper and often became impatient with the core members (residents) who were not as articulate as his colleagues in the university.  He often rushed them, only to have one of them have a seizure which indicated to him that he needed to “slow down.”  Yet despite the fact that Nouwen’s early years at L’Arche were somewhat rocky, he grew into his role steadily but surely and became a great pastor, mentor, and teacher to several of the assistants and a great spiritual director and most importantly a friend to the majority of the core members.  Even today when I join a core member on the floor to look at their life story book (a scrapbook containing pictures, letters, and memorabilia of their time at L’Arche) I oftentimes notice a special letter handwritten to them by Henri Nouwen.  I stare amazed and ask them something like, “you have a letter from HENRI NOUWEN???”  Thinking nothing of it they smile back at me and say, “yeah.  He’s my friend.”   Unaware of the books, lectures, and sermons Nouwen produced during his life the core members are simply able to love him as Henri.  What he did outside of L’Arche, the status he held, holds very little interest to them.  They love him because he is simply Henri.  They love him because he is imperfect.  They love him because he transformed our community.

By this point you may be wondering how my initial thoughts about Move-In connect with the life I live at L’Arche and how all of this connects with community transformation.  The thing is, Move-In and L’Arche are two separate organizations.  One is more evangelical, the other is devoutly Catholic (although L’Arche certainly has become very interdenominational and in many cases interfaith over the past several years).  One is more about serving immigrant populations, the other is about focusing all of our attention on living among adults with developmental disabilities.  Yet, even amidst their differences I see that in the end of the day both organizations really have the same core values and that is what enables both of them to transform communities.

Both L’Arche and Move-In serve “the least of these.”  People who choose to live in patches and assistants who choose to devote 4 months, a year, or the rest of their lives to L’Arche have both chosen to live intentionally among a population that is oftentimes ignored, shunned, and spurned by the general populace.  In either case it takes a tremendous amount of energy, passion, and love.  In either case it is a ministry.  From what I know about Move-In the corner stone is on Christ.  It is on prayer and from this prayer and devotion to Christ acts of service naturally flow out of it.  You don’t have to think about serving because it comes naturally since you’re following the direction of Christ.  And it’s the same with L’Arche.  Prayer is the cornerstone of every L’Arche house.  Spirituality is written on everything we do – whether it’s doing a reading before a meeting, praying after dinner, or the spirituality of grieving with a core member who has just heard the traumatic news that they have lost a loved one, we pray, we laugh together, sometimes we cry together.  And when we choose to cry together my tears become the tears of the core member and while they are mingled together we see God’s presence – as if Christ is giving us a great big hug and telling us it’s all going to be okay.

When I first came to L’Arche I struggled.  I was an academic.  I was the type of person who read Bonhoeffer for fun.  I enjoyed a good debate about predestination and eschatology.  Yet coming to L’Arche has shown me how little those things really matter to community transformation.  I’m not saying they aren’t important.  There’s definitely a place for scholarly pursuits and we need individuals who are able to provide adequate theological instruction to pastors.  But when I came to L’Arche I realized none of those things mattered at all to our core members.  What matters to them is NOT what I am capable of knowing, it’s whether I am able to enter into my own woundedness and how I can use my brokenness to serve them.  It’s not about what I do FOR them – it’s about what I assist them in doing so that they can have the fullest sense of independence that is possible.  And in the end of the day, when I have arrived back from a day away and a core member runs up to me with a huge smile giving me a hug and saying, “Deborah I missed you!  Where have you been?”  I know I am home.

I transform community every day, but community also transforms me every day.  It’s not an either/or dichotomy.  It’s a both/and dichotomy.  I have received far more from L’Arche and from the core members than I can ever dream of giving.  I may assist core members in preparing dinner, in bathing, or in personal hygiene.  BUT they have given me confidence, a sense of purpose, and the patience to follow through on long term commitments.  I’m not saying L’Arche is a perfect or an easy life because it isn’t.  There’s many days when I may feel exhausted or question my decision to live in community, but there are far more days when having a core member give me a homemade card, a high five, or treating me to a lunch at McDonald’s reminds me of why I am really here.  I’m not here to be a “hero” or a “saint”.  I’m here to build community and to let community build me.

See people sometimes make community transformation seem overwhelming or difficult because of all the various options that one can take in order to make it come about.  It’s actually really simple.  It’s about offering a stranger a cup of cold water and through that cup of water transforming that relationship into a friendship.  It’s about loving the least of these.  As I told my L’Arche coach (mentor) the other day in our session, “L’Arche is about living out the Gospels.  It’s about loving the least of these.  If you don’t have that, you haven’t understood the Scriptures.  I could be a pastor, a professor, or a teacher, but if I’m not loving the least of these I may as well not be doing my job because I haven’t understood the point of what Christ said.”

Whether you are in a Move-In patch, at L’Arche, or transforming your community in some other way know that your ministry is not any more or less profound than anyone else’s.  If you love the least of these you are truly a successful person.  You are truly following the commandments of Christ.  And at the end of the day you can rest assured that you will hear the words of Christ, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful with a few things, now I will give you a chance to show your faithfulness with many things.”[2]

**** If you want to check out the rest of the Mennonerds Spirituality series please check out: http://mennonerds.com/special-blog-series/mennonerds-on-anabaptist-missional-spirituality/.  Mennonerds has got some great posts here which you won’t want to miss!

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