An assistant’s last week at L’Arche is often emotional for a variety of reasons. It’s difficult to say goodbye after bonding with core members who completely depend on you. It’s hard to say goodbye to assistants from different countries not sure if your paths will ever intersect again in some cases. It’s hard to say goodbye to community life, to the magnificently beautiful property, and to the daily rhythms you’ve become accustomed to.
When I look back at my year at L’Arche it has been full of both positive life-changing experiences as well as struggles and hardship. Community life would not be beautiful any other way. I am constantly amazed at how much has taken place this year. It has been an opportunity of growth, service, and communion. Looking back at some of the difficulties we faced as a house including illness both of residents and of staff, difficult transitions, and even death, I am reminded of God’s faithfulness knowing that I never could have pulled through these challenges if it weren’t for my faith in Him. I’m also reminded of the many smiles and joyful days I’ve shared with our residents – days full of laughter, hugs, and blessings. Days in which I accompanied core members to the movies, out to eat, or even on vacations and outings. It is a blessing to be part of each one of their lives.
Whenever we get a new assistant, one of our core members always pronounces “we got a new student this week.” Thinking of these words, I am reminded of how wise they really are. Some of us may join L’Arche thinking we have something to give, something to offer. We definitely do. Each one of us is needed to make L’Arche work and happen and L’Arche could not function if it weren’t for dedicated and supportive assistants and volunteers. On the other hand, each assistant truly is a student more than they are a teacher. We are here to learn. We are here to understand.
I am constantly amazed at how many people who have never worked amongst a demographic of adults with disabilities tell me, “you must be so patient, I could never do that.” Actually, every day I realize just how impatient I really am. Just how self-centered I can be. Just how much I enjoy having my own space and doing my own thing. Every day I am challenged to put the needs of core members before my own, to be flexible, and to be willing to sacrifice for the community. I think in reality the core members (adults with disabilities) are the patient ones. They are the ones who let me come in and be part of their lives. They trust me completely, allowing me to learn their most intimate personal care routines. They are the ones who patiently teach me how to connect and communicate with them – their likes and their dislikes. They are the ones who are patient when I am having a bad day. They are truly caring people.
As I look back on this year at L’Arche I find myself asking, “have I really lived amongst adults with developmental disabilities for a year?” In some ways I feel ready to leave, but in most cases I still feel that the time was too short. There is so much more I could learn if I stayed here in this community and continued to serve amongst the least of these. There are so many lessons of service and love that I am only just now beginning to scratch the surface of. After a year and over 2,000 hours living in the community I am only beginning to feel now that I am getting a taste of what L’Arche really is all about.
Last night we had our going away blessing at the community chapel – the Dayspring. I was so humbled and so blessed by the service itself. As members of the community who felt close to me were asked to come to the front to place their hand on my shoulder I was really surprised with who went up. Some of the people who felt close to me are people I never would have imagined I connected so deeply with this year. One such person is a man named Robin. Robin is a young man who has down syndrome and lives in another house. Robin and I pass each other every day, smile, wave, exchange a few words and then move on. I have never really had a long conversation with Robin nor have I ever really extended my hand to him other than for a few pleasantries on my way to or from picking up or dropping my own residents off to their day programs. Yet, Robin came to the front, placed his hand on my shoulder, and seriously looked distraught that I was leaving the community. After the blessing he rubbed my back and said how much he was going to miss me and how thankful he was to me. Robin is the last person I would have expected this from, but it felt really nice to know that in some way my presence has been valuable to him.
We all long for mountain top experiences. For experiences where God is so real and present to us that we do not doubt His comfort for a moment. We all long for experiences where we feel we are making a difference and doing the will of God. I’ve had a few of those experiences here, but I’ve also learned that even more important that mountain top experiences is valley spirituality. It’s coming down from the mountain and being able to commune with the average people who live in the shadows. It’s doing life daily. It’s being able to say yes. Yes to L’Arche. Yes to service. And yes to taking the lessons of L’Arche with you even when you aren’t physically present there anymore.