The Real L’Arche (Lessons Learned Along the Way)

 am1The following views are my own and not representative of L’Arche                                International.

The doorbell rings.  It’s 6:45am, but the sounds of the house, the phone ringing, music playing, and my coworkers talking brings me back to a sense of reality.  These noises wake me from my slumber, pulling me from the warm covers of my bed and plunging me into the hubbub of community life – even on my day off.

I have been with L’Arche for over two years.  Let me be completely frank: you don’t get to be a 3rd year assistant without a lot of frustrations, stress, and occasional periods of burn out along the way.  BUT you also don’t get into your 3rd year without noticing significant growth and maturity in yourself, a sense of pride for stepping out and doing something different, and a completely new outlook on life.

I find that generally people who have not spent any significant time in L’Arche often have an idealized view of exactly what it is we do.  Perhaps they have read a book or two by Jean Vanier or even become Henri Nouwen scholars.  They may know the theory and practice behind L’Arche, but they have never fully lived it out in their own lives.  Many times people like to talk about how wonderful it is to be part of a Christian community, but they have never tasted the glorious sweetness for themselves.  So many people talk about me as if I am some sort of saint for being at L’Arche.  They believe it would be impossible for them to spend a year or two of their time and give their life to working and living so closely alongside adults with developmental disabilities, but they are unwilling to try it out to see if that is truly the case.  Although it is wonderful to have visionaries and idealists, what these people fail to realize is that L’Arche is made up of community gatherings, birthday celebrations, and hearty laughter.  It is made up of getting to know yourself in a new way, learning technical skills, and a quiet, yet deep spirituality that permeates everything we do, but it is also hard work.  It takes dedication and commitment.  It takes a special person who is willing to try to see beyond themselves and their own needs and look deeply into the experiences of someone else.  It takes someone who is willing to be vulnerable, but also who wants to live into their own gifts.  It takes someone who is not afraid to laugh at themselves, but also who can graciously accept criticism.  I say it takes a special person because these are not skills I have completely mastered yet.  Throughout my L’Arche journey I have often grown better in certain areas, but I know that there is still more work to be done.  I also know that L’Arche is not a “cure-all.”  It is a garden full of growth and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean the weeds won’t come.  It would be irresponsible for any assistant to believe otherwise.  Personal growth must first and foremost be a matter of choice.  If you have decided within yourself to make the most of your L’Arche experience then you will.  If you go at it as if it were simply a job, then it likely will never become more than just employment or a gap year to you.

Over the years, several of my friends have talked to me about their desire to join L’Arche.  Sometimes they do, other times they don’t.  When their first question is about the pay grade, I know right away that this will not be a good fit for them.  When they ask deeper questions that emulate a potential for reflection and thinking, then I know L’Arche may bring some special meaning to their life.  In all things, I try to represent L’Arche fairly, but also take into consideration who they are as a person.  Completely idealized people who come to L’Arche will often find that their expectations are not being met – you need to come with a sense of openness and realness.  It is equally important to note that there is a huge difference between how people experience L’Arche.  Some of my friends have been with L’Arche 7 years or more.  They completely love it, are utterly committed, and have had wonderful experiences.  This often is the result of a gracious and loving house leader and accompanier who intentionally walked with them during their initial years of L’Arche.  Yet, other people have left L’Arche wounded and disillusioned.  This could be the result of poor leadership or their own lack of self-care and self-knowledge prior to L’Arche.  In some cases this hurt can be undone, but at other times the assistant does not wish for it to be undone but continues to hold on to it for years to come.

Recently one of my friends asked me to reflect on the top three things I have learned in L’Arche and after much deliberation, I decided to share them more widely.  Would you like to know the real L’Arche?  Would you like to briefly enter into my world?  Then please allow me to be the tour guide.

#1: The Real L’Arche is Inwardly Transforming

When I first came to L’Arche I had recently just turned 22 and graduated from university.  Many people come to L’Arche in their late teens or early twenties, others come at different stages in their life, but I can guarantee you that L’Arche isn’t all about age.  If you have never experienced L’Arche before, you still have the potential to see amazing growth in your early years.  When I first came to L’Arche, I had to learn about how my past experiences have shaped my present reality.  Even today, three years later, I still find times in my own life when my woundedness and vulnerability hinders my ability to fully live L’Arche. This is especially difficult if some of those wounds come from previous L’Arche experiences.  After all, L’Arche (like everything else) is made up of imperfect humans.   I am constantly reminded and humbled of the mistakes I have made in community, but I am also gratefully aware of the support of others around me.  In my early days at L’Arche I went through some extremely difficult and painful things (not necessarily because of the community).  Yet, not too long after I became so aware of the fact that had it not been for L’Arche, I may never have managed through those things.  The community and the Core Members (people with disabilities) surrounded me during those times with their prayers and hugs.  I know that that had it not been for them, I may never have stuck it out with my commitment.

In L’Arche I learned technical skills I never had to utilize before.  I acquired a love for cooking, and became adept at cleaning.  I became familiar with all levels of personal care, and built relationships daily because of that.  Technical skills are important and transferable to almost any job and to life in general, but the intrinsic skills I learned are so much more valuable.  In L’Arche I learned how to truly listen.  I learned to become patient and calm even in the face of stress and difficulty.  I learned to forgive others and myself and the value of seeing each day as a new opportunity.  In L’Arche it is so important that we do not keep holding on to conflicts or disagreements.  We must acknowledge their presence and do what we can to resolve them, but then let them go.  Continuing to bring up the past failures of yourself, leadership, or another assistant only leads to bitterness and resentment and is in no way conducive to a good collaborative community spirit.

#2: The Real L’Arche Requires You To Take Things One Day At A Time

When I first came to L’Arche back in 2013, I had no idea that in 2016 I would still be there.  I came to L’Arche with an initial one year commitment, but with the idea that it could be longer term.  I came with the expectation that I would just let things unfold, and they definitely have.

Some assistants know right away in their early days that this is the place for them.  They have a sense that they can really give and receive from the community and a few of them stay on long term, but this is the exception not the norm.

Sometimes assistants feel so strongly in their early days that they could stay here forever, but they are usually the first to go.  They have such high hopes that they often become disillusioned by the long hours and challenge of community living.  I know that in my initial days I also had a sense of permanency.  I felt attached very early on and I was even encouraged by some in leadership to right away sign for a second year, but in hindsight, I’m glad I just took things one day at a time.

Many long term assistants can relate to this sense of joy and yet struggle.  There will be days when you absolutely love being part of L’Arche.  You may love your house and the people you live with.  You may become attached to the geographical location you are in or to the community in general.  And when that happens it is something to be celebrated.  But, you might also have days when you struggle and need extra support.  In those moments, self-care becomes so crucial.  Living in community has taught me much about my own strengths as well as my limitations.  It has taught me how to stand up for myself and be assertive, but it has also taught me how to sacrifice my own needs for the sake of others around me.  Most importantly, it has taught me the importance of building relationships.  I have found that when I have a relationship with someone (even someone I may have originally had doubts about clicking with) it becomes so much easier for me to journey with them into their own life and their own experiences.

#3: It is Possible to Live the Real L’Arche Even If You Aren’t A L’Arche Assistant

Sometimes people feel called to some of the principles and values of L’Arche, but not necessarily to joining the community.  Sometimes community life may be impractical or even impossible for some, but the practices of L’Arche are something everyone who wants to can attain to.  Here are some of the main ones:

  • A sense of openness, inclusion and welcome. L’Arche is about making home, even for and especially among those whom society often overlooks.  Throughout my years in L’Arche, a recurring highlight has been inviting friends over to share a dinner meal with the house and then stay for prayer afterwards or to attend one of our chapels.  In these moments I see how my friends’ lives are transformed even after only an hour or two.  L’Arche is about hospitality, and opening up our hearts, houses, and tables to guests.  This is something that anyone can do, even if you aren’t at L’Arche.  By keeping dinner conversations light and free from business talk, making the dinner table a conflict free zone, refraining from using cell and house phones and focusing solely on the presence of those around us, refusing to rush, and diligently taking time to plan and prepare a delicious home cooked meal, we are making this a reality.
  • A sense of fun. L’Arche is a lot of hard work.  We work long hours and have limited personal time. It takes sacrifice especially if you are the type of person who likes to be involved in many different activities as you may have to say no to several in order to satisfy the needs of the community, but it is also a lot of fun.  I do not think I have ever laughed so heartily in my life or enjoyed making a fool of myself so much.  L’Arche has been one of the few places I can let down my guard and not care about what other people think including myself.
  • A sense of healthy balance. In L’Arche we often work split shifts.  This means that on average we really only have 4 hours off per day.  Our day usually starts at 6:45 and goes until 10 or 11pm depending on the house.  At first, this can be a real challenge, but never have I had to learn to prioritize as much as in L’Arche.  In the beginning the four hours just flew by and I felt I had accomplished very little, but today those four hours seem sufficient for me.  This has definitely been a skill I have used in other areas of my life.  I have learned that even in a short amount of time, I can get everything I need to done and even have some time left over.  It is almost worth it to do L’Arche just to experience this.
  • A sense of ministry and calling. People come to L’Arche for different reasons.  Some come because of employment and this is their choice.  It is not my place to judge anyone’s motivations for wanting to join our community and each reason is valid.  Yet personally speaking, if I only saw L’Arche as a job I would not have made it this far.  L’Arche is pretty much all consuming and the pay grade is aimed at reminding us that it is less about material wealth and more about the intrinsic value of helping others.  Through L’Arche, many assistants have discovered their life path.  For some this means doing L’Arche long term, but for the majority it means staying on for a year or two, learning whatever it is they needed to learn and then moving on to other things.  Many people have discovered through L’Arche a new passion and have gone on to study their new interest in university or college.  Others have had their passion more fully realized.  I received a call from God about 6 months prior to my L’Arche appointment when I felt strongly that God was leading me into full time vocational ministry among people with disabilities.  It was this very calling that sustained me during the initial early and difficult days of L’Arche.  It is this very calling that continues to sustain me.  Although I did not first receive this calling at L’Arche, I have become acutely aware that L’Arche has really enabled it to grow and I am thankful for that.  I know that ultimately my personal and spiritual growth has come from God, but I know that L’Arche is one of the main vehicles He has used to make that happen.  When someone truly feels called to a specific ministry it is important to be fervent and to honour that calling regardless of what others around them might think.  Since I started L’Arche there have been many voices telling me that I need to stop and encouraging me in other paths.  Many times people feel they know your calling, but the person who knows your calling the best is you.  I am not saying to tune out those other voices at all, but you need to follow your heart and do what the Holy Spirit and your intuition tells you is the right thing to do.  And like I said, you need to take it one day at a time.  One day before my third year, I was out in the woods and talking to God when He revealed to me that L’Arche was not my long term calling, but that I needed to be faithful to Him and accept His call for me to do yet another year.  I did just that and it has ended up being among the best 4 months of my life.  I have really enjoyed my time and am continuing to learn so much from being part of the community.  To be honest, I don’t know how much longer I will stay.  It could be 8 more months, 1 year, 2 years, I don’t know.  But I have learned to put a quiet trust in God and to only move when He tells me to move.

L’Arche is not perfect.  It is a community of imperfect and wounded people, but I would not have it any other way.  Yes, there are stresses.  Yes, it can be difficult for some communities and countries to know how to balance professional and legal requirements with our spiritual life.  But somewhere in between, when assistants come to put their faith and trust in God and to truly live out the core values of L’Arche, they will find that it is something so much more than simply a job.  They will discover it as a ministry and as a calling.


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