Human beings connect to songs. Both musical notes and poetic lyrics shape who we are and singing has always been a cornerstone in my seven years in L’Arche. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but I was just in my first year when I took one of the core members (the L’Arche way of saying “person with learning disability”) to a Prayer Partner Retreat in Kingston, Ontario. A man in his late twenties was strumming a song on a guitar while the core members and assistants laughed and danced. After, I made some small talk with him. “How long have you been in L’Arche?” I asked curiously. He flashed a smile “10 years.” He said. 10 years seemed like such a long time back then, but now, I realize it’s really not that long.
I stumbled upon L’Arche accidentally. I was in my final year of my Bachelor’s and we had a guest speaker, Sister Sue Mosteller, at my university. She spoke in such a tender and humble way about her experiences in the Daybreak community. At that time, Sister Sue had been in L’Arche for nearly 50 years and was a founding member of Daybreak. The way she spoke gripped me, I wanted whatever this woman had. I got in touch with her and she, in turn, welcomed me to come for a visit.
The first time I rocked up at L’Arche was a disaster. It’s quite humourous now and I enjoy telling the story whenever I wish I poke fun at myself, but back then, it was quite stressful. I got lost and was late. I made mistakes. I had no idea how to interact with people who have disabilities. I had no idea what L’Arche was. I had such an idealized version of life in community which (thankfully) the house leader smashed as soon as I told her what I thought the days would look like. Yet, despite all this, there was a tenderness which permeated the room. There was an evident trust and friendship displayed between the core members and the assistants. There was a sense of holiness and humanity which I had searched for in the academy and had fallen short of, and so, after a one night stay, I signed myself up to live a year amongst adults with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, and various other disabilities.
Life in community had its ups and downs as I learned to integrate into this way of life. Among some of the most important lessons were discovering how to laugh at myself (because if I didn’t, everyone else would), figuring out how to speak to core members as adults (something our patronizing world is not very good at), and finding the joy in each day regardless of how tiring it was. One of the key elements of life in community is forgiveness and this is something I repeatedly came back to. There was the day that I was short with one of the core members and after apologizing to her, she smiled back and said “Don’t worry, be happy. We’re still best friends!” I learned then that there was no point to hold a grudge because faults and mistakes were quickly forgotten. It didn’t matter how annoying I might feel someone was, tomorrow morning was a new day. I had to let any anger and resentment go in order to preserve the life of the house. There was also the time one of the core members stole one of my prized books (she couldn’t read), and another time another core member decided I would be staying put and hid my car keys under his bed. We didn’t find them for a week! At the time, these instances were greatly distressing, but now I have to chuckle as a wry smile inexplicably escapes my lips.
Community also brought with it opportunities for growth and healing. Within my first month of being an assistant, one of the core members in my house passed away. The community came and sat with all of us in our grief. They allowed the space for questions and pondering and they also permitted both tears and silence. In L’Arche pastoral care is offered between one another. We often do have outside ministers who come in and provide needed support in times of crisis, but I have always found the connection between the household members just as profound if not moreso. I will never forget a very special moment when I experienced one of the darkest valleys in my personal life. It was a season of intense sadness, loneliness, and heartache, but the simple rhythm of saying the Lord’s Prayer around the table every evening sustained me. One day, one of the core members with Down Syndrome could just sense something was troubling me even though I had not said a word. He came beside me and started rubbing my back whispering soothing words. Before I could stop myself, tears streamed down my face as I crumpled into his arms. It was at this moment that I realized he was giving me pastoral care. I have been ministered to many times since then by other core members who intuitively know when I am sad or upset and give me the biggest hugs or the brightest smiles.
One comment many people have said to me over the years is “you must be a very patient person.” I often thought this was a patronizing statement, but today I have come to regard it as truth, because in community patience is key. I often must be patient with core members who take longer to do tasks and as someone who enjoys being the boss of the kitchen, I often have to be flexible enough to change cooking arrangements at a moment’s notice. Yet, the real patience comes from the core members themselves who allow young people barely adults and often still in their teens to help serve them. It really is a lesson in humility for all.
I have always loved how mutually satisfying relationships within L’Arche can be. When I came to L’Arche I was impressed by names, titles, statues, and educational abilities, yet, today I am impressed with a person’s character and heart. The core members have welcomed everyone from the university professor to the high school drop out and everyone has been treated the same way. In a world which values beauty, the core members have taught me that sometimes mismatched socks and bare faces actually make the best photos because they are truly authentic representations of life.
Cooking and dinner hours are places where life is lived out most authentically. To date, I have lived with people of over 30 nationalities and from 6 different continents which is a unique experience many other people cannot say they have had. The tastes, textures, colours, and aromas of the various dishes brings the world right to our plates and the banter which soon follows brings in that sense of home. Living with people from different countries has also been a grounding point for me when I moved to Scotland for the first time nearly 5 years ago now. Any time I missed home I was able to turn to assistants who were living the same thing and together we could draw strength from each other. Over the years, I have rubbed shoulders and met many people and as I learned early on “in L’Arche we have to say hello and goodbye often.” In some cases, these friendships were for a season which was painful at first. Sharing in both the blessings and the stresses of an entire year only to have no contact after dropping someone off at the airport was heartbreaking, yet, I also have made some unique friendships which have carried on and served the test of time.
In the past year or so, L’Arche has been going through a whole lot internationally, and it pains my heart to see some of the negative press. I will admit that some of what is said is perhaps warranted and I believe any community or organization must be transparent enough to deal with both the good and the bad, yet, I do worry about the future of our organization if all people have heard is bad. Hearing negative reports will likely scare off some potential assistants who might actually contribute greatly to the community. The trouble is when people hear concerns about work hours, responsibilities, and how L’Arche is slipping away from its spiritual core, people lose sight of the real mission of being fellow pilgrims. We have worked through some very difficult things together as a community: the Jean Vanier inquiry being the most notable and searing. Hearing such horrific news shook the core of who we were as we ventured to dream and discover how L’Arche could function without the founder. We asked ourselves if we should delete his name entirely for the annals of L’Arche history, or, if not, how much of a role he still plays in L’Arche’s story (in OUR collective story)? This is a path we have all trod and is both lived and experienced communally but also personally. Some people have had to walk away from the movement entirely because they could not reconcile at all the news of his abuse of power with the care of the most vulnerable members of society. There is no shame in this and we do not begrudge them. We do not consider them weak, in fact, it took tremendous strength for them to do so. Others have chosen to stay and chosen to work this out within the community. We honour these individuals as well.
Another struggle we have faced has been dealing with a global pandemic which we were all unprepared for. Again, there were no easy answers or quick fixes. Some of what we have lived communally has been a real blessing, other aspects have come short of a nightmare. Once again, there were members who needed to leave as soon as the pandemic hit. This was not their fault and they were not weak, it took courage to return home where they were needed. Others have stayed and helped to provide a rich and vibrant life for the service users and we are most grateful to them. Throughout the pandemic we have often heard the term “frontline workers” which generally has referred to those in paid positions, however, I truly believe that the real heroes were the core members themselves. The tenacity, strength, adaptability, and resilience evidenced by those who had no ability to understand what was occurring was a brilliant testimony to those of us with the capacity to fully grasp the implications. It truly reminded me to take it one day at at time, looking forward with gratitude rather than backwards with regret. There were many days when the stress of the pandemic nearly caused me to burn out, but looking back now that we have all lived through the worst, I also would not have chosen to live any other way during these past six months.
Slowly the Spirit has been calling me out of L’Arche. A decision I feel completely at peace about, but which still rips me to the core. I often find myself tottering between emotions. I am both excited and extremely nervous. I am both elated and also devastated. I feel it is a type of death to say goodbye to a certain way of life which I have come to know and love. When I first came to L’Arche I was taught in my orientation “there are those who come to stay long term and there are those who are called and sent out to spread the message two by two.” I feel I have been called to both. I have stayed in L’Arche much longer than many other assistants who have stayed for just a year or two and I feel that as I have stayed on I have continued to grow and develop as a person. I felt I continued to give a lot to L’Arche but that I was also receiving a lot. To borrow the phrase of another long term member “I have earned my BA in spirituality and my MA in humanity.” However, there soon came a point when I realized I was ready for something else. L’Arche gave me the confidence, assurance, and blessings to embark on what my true calling is. Now I am being sent out just like Noah’s animals. Having been safely kept in the massive ark during the global storm, they were nudged out of the safe and familiar and told to go back to the land where they had always been meant to be. Did they even know how to be lions, tigers and giraffes anymore? Had they forgotten how to hunt? Perhaps they were a bit timid as Noah and his family had provided for their every need and needed to be prodded, yet eventually they made it. I may be leaving a certain vocation, but I am not leaving the mission. The lessons I have learned I believe will serve me well in my future endeavours both as I interact with people who have disabilities themselves and consider how to make churches more accessible, but also engage with the general population by helping them through their own woundedness, weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
It is hard to say good bye to something I have invested my life into, but I do know this: wherever I go in the world, there will always be that house with the picture of the boat and the three people welcoming me in with a hot cup of tea, a biscuit, a prayer, and more than likely, an off key guitar.