Sabbatical Journey – My Time at L’Arche

June 3rd, 2014 – My Brother Who Doesn’t Say a Word – My Experience of Living in a L’Arche Community

I’m an extrovert. I’m so extroverted that on my Myer’s Brigg’s typology indicator I scored 21 for being an extrovert and 0 for being an introvert. I didn’t even know that was possible, but if you ask my roomate, her response would be something along the lines of “I don’t know Deborah, have you ever met yourself?” So, when I moved into an intentional community for adults who have various forms of developmental disabilities, it was safe to say that I knew a whole lot about talking and was basically oblivious to what silence was.

When I first moved into L’Arche, I quickly became aware of how technology nagged me and distracted me from real relationships with real people. I’m ashamed to say that my cell phone often was more important to me than live conversations in those early days. Sometimes it is still a challenge when I’m sitting in the living room with four adults who are not necessarily intellectually stimulating and repeat the same phrases over and over to not glance at a facebook message or text a theologian-friend instead of engaging in their life style.

Being at L’Arche has been a journey into simplicity. It’s been about finding my true spiritual center while also walking with the “least of these” – the poor whom Jesus often told us to love and care for. In particular, one relationship has really transformed my life – my friendship with a middle-aged man named Christopher.

Christopher came to our community 25 years ago when he was about my age (I just turned 23). Christopher is legally blind and also is non-verbal. Growing up, Christopher would never be able to speak his first word, learn how to eat a sandwich on his own, or take his first steps unsupported. I have lived in community for the past 4 years of my life in different ways. First I lived on the Tyndale residence – an intense community of likeminded believers who prayed and worshipped together often. Then, I moved to a Mennonite seminary in the states that was big on intentional living and we even took courses preparing ourselves for this possibility. Yet, nothing in those four years would have prepared me to understand how to live in community with someone who is non-verbal. To me, community seemed to be getting together with a group of people who have similar interests and hobbies to yours and who want to share life by living and serving together. Yet, how was I supposed to find anything in common with a man twice my age who didn’t say a single word?

At first my relationship with Christopher was a bit hard to master. It was hard to think of Christopher and I being friends rather than me simply being his caregiver. It was hard for me to have any idea of what togetherness looks like when one person uses a wheelchair and does not always make any indication of understanding where you are coming from. It was also hard for me to know how to share life – my deepest pains, fears, and happiness with a man who couldn’t respond in the way I thought I needed him to.

Yet, getting to know Christopher has brought immense joy and gratification into my life. Christopher is an excellent teacher. Anyone who wants to know what living in community is really like should get to know him. Christopher has taught me that togetherness means loving and caring for one another, accepting their true self flaws and all, and walking with them in supportive and non-judgmental ways. Through my relationship with Christopher I have learned that togetherness can happen when we share a meal together, listen to good music together, or laugh at a good joke. I’m a peace studies theologian and activist at heart. I’ve done all the usual peacenik type things – rallies, protests, and petitions. I’ve served in soup kitchens, gone overseas to slums, and read Ghandi. All of these things are very important. I’ve tried to live intentionally and intentionally live. Everyone’s story about togetherness and sharing in peace formation is different and if done in God honouring ways helps to bring the Kingdom of Heaven a reality one step closer to earth. For me, peace begins with togetherness and this togetherness in my life looks like creating home with a group of adults who have developmental disabilities. For me, togetherness looks like sharing Shalom with my brother who doesn’t say a word.

 

March 28, 2014 – Panda Cake and Down Syndrome

There’s something about birthdays that have always made them extra special for me.  In my first few years of life, my family members and family friends gathered around me showering me with gifts – after all, every daughter deserves a nice bike, some new books, and the latest toys.  As I got a little older, my parents helped me to plan birthday parties inviting the girls in my class and neighbourhood kids over for games and other activities.  Then when I got into university I took the fancy approach of inviting some of my best friends out for dinner as well as having an open party in our suite where everyone from the dorm floor was invited to share in pie and water gun fights (for those who don’t know, my birthday is March 14th which is pi-day so pie was to be expected at such a gathering…the water guns…not so much, they were later confiscated by my Resident Advisor’s as contraband due to a silly rule stating we were not allowed to play with water in the halls…they were later given back to me but only after I promised not to squirt the RAs and after I was successfully doused myself).  And then, of course, there was the time when much to my introverted roomate’s chagrin I invited the entire school up to our apartment for a potluck.  Lest you think I was taking advantage of her, she agreed to the party about a month in advance, however, I think she may have been expecting closer to 13 rather than 30 people to show up.

Regardless of how small or large my gatherings have been, whether they have been potlucks after church or a dinner with three of my best friends, birthdays to me represent celebration and celebration to me represents community and a spirit of being together.

This year, I also had a birthday party, but it looked much different than any others I have ever been to.  This year I did not plan a fancy outing or indulge in my guilty pleasure of hamburgers.  This year, my party took place at L’Arche (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities) and around the circle were my new friends who I’ve only known for 8 months.  My friends have spirit, charisma, and passion.  They are devoted to me and love me for who I am accepting my deepest dreams.  They cheer me on, inspire me, and gently chastise me when they think I’ve gone too far with my corny jokes.  My friends also happen to have autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and bipolar disorder.

At L’Arche we do celebrations very well and birthdays are no exception.  Although the party itself was held on March 23rd (due to me being at a retreat on my actual birthday), the festive mood actually happened long before that.  Way before the actual day (back in February) one of our core members, excitedly began telling everyone, “we just finished Jordan’s birthday.  Deborah’s is next.” (Jordan is one of the other assistants at my house).  Over and over she repeated the question, “when’s your birthday?  How will you celebrate?  Who will you invite over?”  As February came to a close and March approached, the questions began to become more and more intense.  “What do you want for your birthday?  What should we make?”

Finally, the week before my birthday it was decided that we would have chicken for the meal and a panda cake.  The person we are celebrating always gets to decide what type of cake they will want and this year I was adamant that I was going to have a panda cake.

The core members (residents), of course, had their own ideas.  You see, chicken and a birthday gift related to a panda theme were not entirely what they were thinking of.  They wanted to have hot dogs and hamburgers for my birthday.  Forget about the fact that it’s still Canadian winter and there’s snow on the ground, they were ready to pull out their shorts and have a barbeque on the patio outside.   When we convinced them that they might have to wait until the summer for the BBQ their next suggestion was to order pizza or Chinese take-out.  They were thinking of all the foods which they enjoyed the best and figured because they liked it I must also want that.  Finally, when we convinced them that we would be having something homemade, Darryl (one of the core members) proudly blurted out, “Deborah, I’m gonna cook for you.  I’m making you spaghetti!”  To which Mary-Anne (another core member) who is best friends with Darryl was not going to be seen as the runner up or the one to not participate so she boldly proclaimed “And I’m making the cake!”  When it came to who would do dishes after the party…well, that one was a bit harder to convince the core members about!

At dinner on Sunday night we all gathered around the table as the chicken was served by the community chef (not really, but he’s the best cook amongst everyone at L’Arche).  After we were done eating, the chef said, “I’m going to go downstairs to do something and I’ll be right back up.”  This was supposed to signal a surprise, but core members can never keep anything a secret, so Jenna blurted out, “He’s going to get the cake!!!”  Well, that was the end of that.

When he came upstairs with the cake, all of the core members began singing happy birthday.  To me it didn’t matter that half the words were missing, that they were completely off tune, and that there was an awkward pause when they came to my name.  To me the song was a beautiful melody and I knew that it was not just a cliché thing but coming from the heart.

After we shared the cake together, we began our tradition of going around the circle and sharing the individual’s “gifts” with each other.  This is a beautiful practice at L’Arche and honestly is one of those moments when you just feel so good inside.  I’ve sat around the table many times when core members have shared about an assistant’s gifts or vice versa, but now it was my turn.  I wasn’t expecting to be so emotional about it and in fact I didn’t even realize I was being emotional until Darryl proposed a toast to which Mary-Anne looked at me with a worried expression on her face and said, “Deborah, what’s wrong?  Why are you crying?”  I hadn’t even realized that a tear had slid down my cheek.

If you ask my friends what my gifts are they would say something like that I’m loyal, passionate, and that my faith means a lot to me.  I have never felt comfortable claiming my gifts, though, because I grew up with this mindset that to say you have achieved something or are good at something was haughty and perhaps would make others who don’t share those same abilities and talents feel badly about themselves.  So up until this year if you asked me what my gifts were I would try to avert the conversation.  However, L’Arche has taught me that there is great strength in naming your gifts and that we have the right to be proud of accomplishments we have met.

When the core members shared about my gifts, I realized how much the little daily interactions I have with them really mean.  It may not seem like a lot when I help them wash their feet, but to them this is an act of dignity and respect.  To me reading a bed time story with a core member might feel like a pleasant way to end the day, to them it means that I value them enough to give them one-on-one attention.  Having core members tell me that I’m their best friend is perhaps one of the greatest feelings I can ever have.  One of the core members offered to take me to McDonald’s after church for my birthday lunch and another (perhaps trying to one-up him) said she was going to take me to Tim Horton’s (a Canadian doughnut chain), followed by seeing a movie on the big screen with me, and then we were going to finish the whole day off with Big Macs!  In that moment I was reminded of just have fortunate I am to have friends like this.Mary-Anne (pink sweater) and Darryl (wolf sweater) two of the core members from my house.

Yes, birthdays are always special times regardless of how you celebrate.  But, if I really feel like being bold, may I make a recommendation?  At your next party invite a friend or two who has a developmental disabilities.  What you’ll find there is just a whole lot of warmth and love.  It will truly be a birthday to remember!

March 17, 2014 – “God, Are You There?”

That Christians pray is taken to be a fact.  An assumption.  Perhaps even a cliché.  How often have we heard people say to us when we are disclosing some personal information, “well, I’m sorry to hear that.  I’ll certainly be praying for you.”?  Perhaps they may even ask us for permission to share our prayer requests with a church small group or congregation.  In many cases, prayer has been relegated to the sidelines in my life as something that is there but I have not made much of an effort to engage in.  That is, until I started L’Arche.  Truthfully, I used to fall into the category of people who said, “I’ll pray for you” sometimes as a way of closing an uncomfortable conversation because I didn’t know what else to say and at other times as a commitment I was really hoping to follow through with until I got side-tracked by my own life and responsibilities.  Of course, at the same time as forgetting to pray for others, I sincerely desired for my closest friends to lift me up to the Throne Room of Grace and to intercede on my behalf.  We are indeed very blest if we have even one or two close friends who pray earnestly for us and sustain us with their prayers when we do not have the strength in ourselves to pour out petitions to God.

Recently, I was going through a difficult time in my own faith walk and began to have many doubts and questions along the way.  One day I shared some of my concerns with a friend (and former roomate) from Tyndale University College where I attended from 2009-2012 and her first reaction was to respond, “what prayerful intercessors have you shared this with?”  After much pause, I realized that my greatest network of prayerful intercessors is not found in the academy, in the congregation, or even in my inner circle of friends.  Instead, my greatest network lies with the core members (residents) I live and serve with at L’Arche Daybreak (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities north of Toronto).  At L’Arche I live in a house with four adults with various stages of developmental disabilities.  Ranging from down syndrome to autism to completely non-verbal, I have learned that the greatest prayers take place around the dinner time where there is lots of laughing, jesting, and silence.  People in my house do not try to impress God with long lists of words, they don’t jibe one another to see who can come up with the “best” prayer request, they definitely don’t use King James language.  No!  They say it like it is!  They pray from the heart.  They simply talk to God like He’s right there, like He’s a friend who is sharing at the dinner table with the rest of us.

This past week, one of the core members from my house, Darryl, and I went to a retreat in Kingston, Ontario (close to the nation’s capital of Ottawa).  While at this retreat, an amazing thing happened.  We were singing Taize songs and core members began to offer up their requests.  All of a sudden, it hit me – I WANT THE CORE MEMBERS TO PRAY FOR ME!  I’ve generally been pretty reserved in large church settings to share my prayer requests.  I will share a request or two in a small group of intimate friends or a women’s group if I have had the opportunity to get to know everyone quite well.  Yet, here I was with a group of 36 strangers I had only met a few days before and I felt an urge to have them pray for me.  That night I shared a request with the group that I have not even shared with many of my closest friends or relatives.

The prayers of people with developmental disabilities and the spirituality they live out daily is at once so intense and so simple.  So plain and yet so magnificent.

During the prayer time one woman with down syndrome from another L’Arche community began to offer up this prayer, “God, where are You?  God, I know You hear me.  I know You’re there.  I know You’re present.  When I talk to You I begin to see Your arms, Your legs, Your hands, Your body.”  That was the extent of her prayer.  She didn’t go on to ask for prayer for her parents, siblings, or anyone else.  She simply expressed a need – to know that God was truly there.  A presenting problem – the fact that she had doubts, “God, where are You?”  And a simple trusting faith, “I know You’re here.  I can see You.”

In all of my years of formal theological education, I cannot offer up a prayer like that.  Throughout my life, I have wrestled with doubt, but yet because I grew up in the church, I feel I don’t have the liberty to admit that to anyone.  I’m studying to be a chaplain and eventually a Theology professor.  We are supposed to be the leaders, the strong ones, the ones who console others.  We aren’t supposed to doubt and be unsure.  Or are we?  If we opened ourselves up to truly be honest about our thoughts and emotions would that not present a far greater gift to the community than false piety and certitude?

In this simple prayer that was offered by a core member, a spirit of true vulnerability exists.  Honesty to both doubt and have faith are comingled and bless us.  Her heartfelt cry was an example to me of my own deepest prayers – what I want to say but am afraid to say for fear of how weak my faith would be perceived after all these years of formal theological education.

The beauty of L’Arche is that here I can be myself. I can truly exist as Deborah and even in my greatest imperfections I will be immediately loved and accepted, forgiveness offered to me every step of the way.  Healing made possible through the ministry of community and fellowship. When I’m with the core members I see how spirituality is ingrained in everything they do.  It’s in the very fibre of who they are.  That’s why when I have a request I want to have the core members know about it.  They’ve got me covered.  They don’t just say they will pray for me, but really do it.  When I have a thanksgiving, I want to share it with them.  They’re the first to rejoice, the first to tell me how happy they are for me, and half the time they are more excited about it then I am.  I’m thankful for this community and this home.  I’m thankful that here I belong and exist.  It is here that I have discovered that prayer is not about the words of our mouths, but it is about the meditations and posture of our hearts.  Sometimes even in its simplest form.  Sometimes even when all around us everything else is purely silent.

February 18, 2014 – The Messages of Community

A little over half a year ago I made the most radical decision I have ever made in my life.  I decided to take a leave from my rigorously academic studies and join an intentional community for adults with Developmental Disabilities just north of Toronto, Ontario.  Before L’Arche I had a lot of questions about where my future was headed.  In a lot of ways looking back at my former self I see a young adult who was exploring the world, asking what they would become, and trying to find themselves.  The good news about L’Arche is that it is an environment in which you truly grow and where you learn about yourself and are PAID for the opportunity to do so.  How many other organizations can really claim that?

As I think back to my months at L’Arche I realize how incredibly deep they have been.  There have been struggles in the community for sure.  A few difficulties have arisen which is to be expected as part of a community.  There are days when I ask myself if L’Arche is truly the best use of my skill set and academic training.  However, even though it is important to name those days in the community, it’s also important to take a step back and to hear the messages that L’Arche has provided me with.

One thing I have learned over and over at L’Arche is how many adults with developmental disabilities in my community simply say the same phrases over and over again.  This can be frustrating at times.  They talk non-stop but are not carrying on any level of articulate conversation but rather are repeating the exact same thing!  However, lately I have taken to living a bit more closely.  One morning at breakfast time my co-worker and I spent some  time together writing a list of the most common phrases.  We came up with about 40 or so.  I wish I could share all of them with you, but time would not permit for this, so instead I will just share some of the highlights.

“I love L’Arche Daybreak.  Been here 10 years.  I love it here.  Stay longer.”  Is Darryl’s way of articulating his deep commitment to L’Arche and urging me to also be committed to it.

“Just kidding!  JA-JA” Is an invitation to take life a little less seriously and to be able to make fun of myself.

“No work, no pay” Is a common phrase at our house denoting the fact that we have tasks to accomplish and that we need to stop procrastinating.  It’s an invitation to be dedicated and hard working for the good of those we live with.

“You’re my best friend” is an invitation to be loved by someone with a developmental disability and to love them back.  It’s an invitation to break cultural barriers and to form a deep friendship with someone who is different than I am.  It goes against the world’s view that we should only hang out with those who are exactly like us.

“I’ll pray for you” is a reminder to me of the deep spirituality that encompasses everything that happens at L’Arche.  It’s a reminder to me that the core members (residents) truly do care about what is happening in my life and want to support me through it.  It’s also an invitation to me to pray for them.

“I’m too young for boys” is a reminder that even though we live in a sex saturated society that there is nothing wrong with being single and that singleness should be celebrated.  It’s a reminder that it’s not our place to awaken love before it is time.

“Now tell me what’s wrong” Is Mary-Anne’s invitation to me to be real with her and transparent in the community.  To not hide what is bothering me or my emotions, but to be honest and accept the support of the core members.

There are so many more phrases that are often tossed around in our home and I may share some more in a later blog, but these 7 saying simply are a way of me giving you a glimpse into my life.  It’s a way of once again stating the fact that the core members at L’Arche are truly my greatest teachers and when you really spend time with them you realize that they often have a certain type of awareness and maturity which is not often found in others.  People with developmental disabilities have unfortunately had to gain their own maturity because they have been put down often by others on the outside.  They have had to become committed to L’Arche when many assistants only stay for a year or two.  They have had to learn to trust someone half their age with half of their life experience.

I always stand by the fact that I receive far more than I give to the core members.  Recently, we had our assistants’ (staff) weekend.  It was a great time of just interacting face to face with the other assistants when the core members had all gone home.  It really helped me to refocus on the reason why I am really at L’Arche and reminded me of how I can serve the core members even better than I am doing right now.  Above all, L’Arche is a university of the heart and after spending 7 months in this community I would highly encourage anyone who is thinking of pastoral ministry, chaplaincy, or Practical Theological scholarship to spend one semester in this school of the soul.  In undergrad I majored in Religious Education, in seminary I was majoring in peace studies, but here at L’Arche I major in Spirituality with a minor in disability studies.[1]  Although it is not always easy or practical to do something as countercultural as living in a L’Arche community, I can guarantee you that if you spend some time with an adult with a developmental disability it will be a very rewarding process.  They will mentor you in ways you never knew were possible to be mentored in, they will challenge you in ways you need to grow, and they will offer unconditional love, friendship, and acceptance in a way that few others are able to extend to you.


[1] First articulated this way by Jason Grieg, I simply have adopted his thoughts.

February 17, 2014 – Hsi-Fu’s Gift

Last Sunday, my L’Arche family at the Brookwood House gathered over some cake and homemade pizza to celebrate the life of a special individual Hsi-Fu.  Hsi-Fu was born with a profound intellectual disability.  His parents would never be able to witness milestones that all parents look forward to such as hearing their child say their first word or take their first steps independently.  For the rest of his life, His-Fu will never be self-reliant and will have to depend on assistants and caregivers to help him take care of his most basic human needs such as feeding and bathing.

From a worldly viewpoint, His-Fu’s life may seem intensely useless.  Hsi-Fu does not know how to read, cannot even sign his own name on legal documents, and is not able to hold down a job.  He spends his days largely sleeping, listening to music, and eating.  The world may look at Hsi-Fu and think, “what does His-Fu have to offer to anyone?”  They may even incorrectly think, “Hsi-Fu has nothing to offer to this world.  He requires so much care and is not able to reciprocate.”

However, for anyone who thinks that, I can guarantee you that they haven’t even spent an hour really getting to know Hsi-Fu.  Hsi-Fu and I have been friends for the past seven months as we have shared a house together.  There is still so much about Hsi-Fu which I don’t understand.  In many ways, we are still building our relationship, but then again, that is the way relationships should be.  They are never completed.  They are always transforming and growing.

Unlike the two rambunctious core members in my house, Darryl and Mary-Anne who I had almost an instant connection with, getting to know Hsi-Fu has taken much longer and requires more patience.  Yet, when I spend time with Hsi-Fu listening to music with him or helping him to eat, I begin to form a relationship with him.

Hsi-Fu has by far been my greatest teacher at L’Arche and I’m not afraid to say that.  When I first came to L’Arche I was an oblivious young hyperactive extrovert.  If you haven’t figured out that combination yet, let me explain it to you in simple terms – it was a disaster.  People who are young, hyperactive extroverts often can be a bit oblivious to social cues.  It isn’t easy for us to calm down, be still, or to listen rather than talk.  That’s who I was seven months ago.  Yet, though my relationship with Hsi-Fu I believe I have really begun to mature and grow in some of these areas.  Since Hsi-Fu does not communicate using words, I have really had to learn to understand non-verbal cues.  One click means yes, two clicks means no.  When he tugs on his apron (bib) he is done eating, when he starts to make certain groans it means it is getting too loud in the house so I either need to put the volume on the radio down or else give him some alone time in his room.  Other grunts and groans may signal that there is too much stimulation, that he needs some space, or that he wants gentle touch.  Learning these cues has taken a lot of time for me, but I have seen how once I learned Hsi-Fu’s cues, my other relationships with friends outside of L’Arche have really blossomed.  I am now able to understand when my other friends need some alone time or space, something which I was largely oblivious to before.

Hsi-Fu has also taught me the importance of savoring the little things.  In the warmer weather, we like to go for walks and he will demand that I slow down or stop just so he can enjoy the breeze or feel the sun on his skin.  Hsi-Fu always is a ladies man and he is quick to offer a kiss on the hand to any woman who comes to see him.  He also gives the best hugs I have ever received.

When I think about Hsi-Fu I see how much he really has to offer to this world.  Even though the world might say that someone who uses a wheelchair and is unable to communicate verbally is not of much use to the world, I know they are wrong because Hsi-Fu is a better teacher than someone who has ten PhDs and he is more patient than even the most skilled counselor.  Getting to know him is an adventure and once a friendship is formed between you and him you know you are holding a rare gem in the palm of your hand.

That’s why I’m so thankful I could help celebrate his 39th birthday at L’Arche.  Happy birthday to a very special man who loves community and is dedicated to our house.  Happy birthday, Hsi-Fu.

December 23rd, 2013 – Ministry at L’Arche

On Answering the “This Has Nothing to Do With Your Studies” Comment

“I heard you were in seminary.  Are you still in school?”

“No.  Not really.  I am taking online courses and taking a bit of a break to develop myself as a person and as a professional.”

“Oh, that’s good.  What are you doing nowadays?”

“I’m working at L’Arche.  It’s an intentional community for adults who have developmental disabilities.”

“Hmm…. That has nothing to do with your field of studies.”

The above represents the conversation openers that I often have received since starting my job at L’Arche.  Along with facing much discouragement from pursuing L’Arche from the beginning, I still find many people who have attitudes about L’Arche that it is not full time ministry.  Often these individuals have never visited L’Arche, had supper in one of our homes, or spent even a few hours with a core member (resident).  I’m sure if they had they would have much different views about what L’Arche is.

Since starting L’Arche I often describe it this way to others, “’L’Arche is not a job.  It’s a lifestyle.”  Yes, I receive a salary, I have to file for taxes, and I have benefits.  In many ways it is a job just like every other vocation – it requires tremendous amounts of paperwork and protocol.  At the same time, if L’Arche was a job I would have left it probably within my first 2 or 3 months.  I don’t think I’d even be contemplating sticking around for the next year or two.  L’Arche is about relationships.  L’Arche is about friendships – not just with other assistants on your day off, but also with the core members.  L’Arche is also a lifestyle.  When you work at L’Arche you live and breathe L’Arche 24/7.  Even on my days off I find myself thinking about my house.  When I get my weekend off every month I find myself missing the core members and by Saturday night my heart aches and I just can’t wait to get back to see them!  They have become so much a part of who I am.  They have truly become my family.

Often I find it very difficult to put into words – whether verbal or written – what I live at L’Arche.  The truth is that if you are curious, you really have to come and see for yourself!  That’s why when I meet up with friends in the Toronto area and they are filled with questions about the nature of my work, I simply invite them over for a dinner.  If they’re feeling very adventurous I invite them to one of our chapel services.  Almost every friend I’ve invited has taken me up on the offer and afterwards has come out of the experience with a much deeper awareness of what L’Arche truly is and what our mission and vision entails.  In many, many ways (more than you can imagine) the act of my friends visiting L’Arche has deeply cemented our relationship often rooting and growing us as even closer friends than we were before.  I really love the fact that because Daybreak is about a 30 minute car ride from Tyndale (where I went to University) that I am able to share this integral part of my life with several of my best friends.  I’m also thankful that as I continue to grow, learn, and process L’Arche that I have people outside of L’Arche with whom to process and pray about these things with.

So is L’Arche actually related to my field of studies?  I studied peace studies, theology, and religious education.  In some ways, the answer would be no.  What I’m doing now is more closely related to personal care and in many ways resembles social work.  If I really stretch it I could say that with the amount of hours I spend with medical professionals that perhaps I am doing a bit of lay-nursing.  In those ways, what I’m doing is not at all related to the preaching, teaching, and leadership that I was training for the last four years in.

Yet, in other ways, L’Arche is a profound ministry – one in which no amount of education could prepare me for.  Some people say that whatever you do – whether that be engineering, medicine, or car-washing can be a ministry if you are a Christian.  I do not negate that.  However, L’Arche is truly a Christian ministry – similar to being a full time pastor or teacher.  In fact, in my very first months at L’Arche I recognized that many of the challenges I face there are similar to the ones I was taught that pastors would face when I was in university and seminary.  These struggles include: self-care in ministry, having good boundaries, empathetic listening and so much more.  It also includes constantly being alert, being available at any time, and not having the same work schedule all the time.  L’Arche has really taught me how to be flexible and how to take care of myself even amidst a job which can sometimes be very intense and overwhelming.  The nice thing about L’Arche is that you are never truly alone.  We work in teams and we have a leadership structure – this means that when I do start feeling a little burnt out I have people who help take on the stress with me and we help each other out.

So, now after six months of living in a L’Arche community when people challenge me by suggesting that L’Arche is not ministry, I challenge them back.  I challenge them to spend an overnight in our community, to begin volunteering with people who have disabilities, or to even just begin reading Henri Nouwen or Jean Vanier.  Just like L’Arche’s mandate, I know that I cannot be a cure for the way our abelstic society functions, however, I do seek to be a symbol or a sign.  I want to be one more light on the journey that challenges the way our culture has thought for years.  I invite all of you to come and see.  I invite all of you to journey with me in the new year and to become involved with your local congregations and schools to find ways that we can bring more inclusion to our culture and inform others of the various gifts and strengths people with developmental disabilities bring to us all.

December 20th, 2013 (Part 2 of a 2 Part Series) – On Learning to Grieve Beautifully

Life often can bring many unexpected twists and turns.  One such unpleasant twist was having a core member pass away within my first two months working at L’Arche Daybreak.  Yet, even amidst the grief, I have experienced the warmth and graceful presence that is L’Arche.  And this has left me inspired and filled with gratitude.

L’Arche grieves beautifully.  Even writing that last sentence feels strange to me, though.  How is grief beautiful?  It seems like such a strange irony.  Yet, I have never seen any community come together around a loss as lovingly as this community has – enveloping each other.

One line that gets repeated over and over at Daybreak is that “we are a community of storytellers”.  We take every opportunity we have to share stories with one another and we never pass up on an opportunity to keep this tradition going.

When we first received the phone call that Peggy, one of our longest standing core members had passed away, we immediately were in shock.  I went through all of the stages of grief, which was very profound for me because I only knew Peggy for 2 months and Peggy and I had really only lived at the same house for 1 month.  I knew the sick Peggy – not the strong, vibrant one who had brought such happiness to the house.  I have been through loss before, however, I have never experienced all of the stages of grief.  Yet after Peggy’s death I almost felt it to be overwhelming to walk alongside the other core members (residents) as they struggled while I, myself, was still grieving.

One thing that really helped in this process was talking to long-time members of the L’Arche community.  They shared with me that people with developmental disabilities often exemplify the stages of grief in a much more profound way than the rest of us do.  For the most part, anger becomes sheer rage, sadness can easily lead into depression, and denial can become almost like distancing one’s self from the world.  So I was told early on that I needed to not be shocked by any extreme displays of emotion that I might witness – knowing this really helped.

In the very beginning I also really struggled with showing core members my own emotions.  To be honest, before L’Arche I was not very in tune with my own emotions.  I was a very logical thinker who thought emotions were sometimes embarrassing.  Yet, God really surprised me with the strength in this time to move forward with the core members and soon I found the core members coming to me to discuss what was happening with them as they grieved.  It really bonded us together and I believe this was really the beginning of my friendships with the majority of people in my house.  At the same time I physically was worn out because of the long nights at the hospital and emotionally I was drained.  I was still so new to my job, and learning so much, and to have this loss on top of it seemed like too much to bear.  I felt like I had to be really strong for the core members and not show them I was struggling because I was there to be a leader and an assistant to them.  Yet, the most helpful thing L’Arche provided me with was the opportunity to grieve myself.  One long term member of the community shared with me, “when you act strong you are actually doing the core members a disservice.  When they see you grieving, it also gives them permission to grieve.  It’s okay.  Pick a core member and have a good cry with them.”  Hearing someone say this to me really helped me to understand that any emotions I was feeling were normal and that I didn’t need to put on a façade but could truly be myself at L’Arche.

As the days progressed, L’Arche became a very busy place.  We had several gatherings where we shared stories of Peggy’s life.  A beautiful coffin was handcrafted by our woodery, and the funeral procession consisted of all the members of our house.  Yet the funeral itself was not where it ended.  As the months progressed our core members continued to pray for Peggy’s family every night, they continued to remember her and they still do.  Peggy will always be a part of our house.  Just a few weeks ago some of us who knew Peggy gathered over a lovely dessert spread as we shared stories about her life just for closure.  We also had a blessing of her room and have made plans for converting it into a room that will preserve her memory and to use it in ways that will remain respectful to her.

I never thought I would learn so much about grief at L’Arche, and yet, I am grateful that the core members trusted me enough to walk alongside them in the time of their deepest pain and rawest emotions.  In the end, although we had to say goodbye to a dear friend, we also were able to truly celebrate her life and say hello to her in a new way.

How to Help People with Developmental Disabilities Grieve

By no means am I an expert in this field.  I do not have much training and I can only speak based off of what I, myself, have learned living at Daybreak.

– Validate the person’s feelings.  People with disabilities often can feel many different emotions and they may also have very quick shifts in mood.  It’s important to not only validate what they are feeling but to remain gentle and non-judgmental.  It’s also important to see every day as a new day – not holding tightly to how the person may have reacted the day before.

– It’s okay to be real about your own emotions and to grieve with the person.

– Respect the person’s need for privacy and space.

– Don’t let anything surprise you during this time about how a person may choose to react (you may see much anger or even aggression.  Don’t take it personally).

– Although you must be gentle and thoughtful in this time, it’s also okay to maintain boundaries.  It’s not okay for a person (whether they have a disability or not) to take out all of their anger on you.  It’s important to give space, however, you can also use phrases such as “I know you are going through a difficult time.  We all miss ____.  However, that doesn’t mean that you can take it out in this way.”

December 20th, 2013 (Part 1 of a 2 Part Series) – On Learning to Live A Lot

During my 6 months at L’Arche Daybreak (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities just North of Toronto) I have wrestled through many different theological issues, have formed friendships in ways the world would not think possible, and discovered more about who I am as a full time ministering person.  I would not trade in any of these lessons or the ways that God brought them to my attention (sometimes subtly other times in loud and drastic ways) for anything in the world!  On many occasions these lessons were difficult to learn and so often I still find myself faltering over what I am doing, yet I know that it is exactly because I am imperfect that I am able to gel with this community and to be an active and living part of it.  Even though all the lessons I have experienced this year are important, there are two major lessons that L’Arche has taught me for which I am indebted.  These two lessons are: learning to live a lot and learning how to grieve beautifully.  I cannot do justice to both of these items by putting them in the same blog post (as they are both very unique) so instead I have chosen to make this into a two part series.

When a new assistant starts L’Arche they are right away assigned to a coach.  A coach is someone who has generally been in the community for many years and is able to share of their wisdom and insights as a result.  They act as a mentor, a liaison, and a guide on the journey that can sometimes be rough and windy.  When you meet with your coach it is often an opportunity to share your joys and frustrations in an open and safe manner without fear of judgment – because more than likely the coach has been through some of the exact same challenges!  When I first started coaching I was blessed to have a coach who share many of my core values and offered a listening and supportive ear as I first began my journey into L’Arche.  It was a bit difficult at first because I was not used to sharing about my struggles in such a vulnerable and direct way with someone from work, but as we began our coaching relationship I soon learned that one of the key factors to stay sane in L’Arche is transparency.

When assistants meet with their coach one of the questions they are given to reflect on is “how are you living these days?”  Before starting L’Arche this question would probably have thrown me off guard.  I was so caught up in what I today realize is the superficiality that is our North American culture.  I probably would have answered something along the lines of “These days I am a student” or “these days I’m saving up to purchase my first car.”  But when our coach asks us about how we are LIVING these days she isn’t asking us what we are doing, what our status or educational background is – those things really don’t matter at all to the core members (residents).  The core members don’t love us any more or less if we have degrees behind our name or based on what we own – they love us unconditionally and thus give us a glimpse of Christ’s love for us.

Now when I am asked the question “how are you living these days?” I give pause.  I reflect.  I do not answer right away.  Before coming to L’Arche I was a super crazy extrovert.  I honestly didn’t know how to make time for myself, how to spend time in silence, or how to genuinely reflect.  I was always so busy being a social butterfly.  After a semester at L’Arche I have finally learned how to be “comfortable in my own skin” to use a German expression.  I’ve finally learned how to be alone and content.  How to move from “silence to solitude” as Henri Nouwen once said.  I no longer try to get wrapped up in superficial relationships just for the sake of saying that I have many friends, instead I have learned how to truly value the friends I do have.  Thus I have found much contentment and joy through being a part of this community.  Joy that I never knew existed before this year!

Similar to the question of how I am living these days, L’Arche has taught me another very profound phrase “living a lot.”  In the first few months that I moved into my L’Arche house everything seemed to be turned inside out and upside down.  We had a core member (who was a pillar of the community, having been here 40 years) pass away, we also had many issues with the health of both assistant’s and residents, and we went through a tumultuous period of much change and personal crises.  Looking back, I know that God used this difficult time in the house to bond us closer as a family and as a community and for that I am grateful.  He taught us truly how to love and support each other regardless of the storms life creates, and through it all He sustained us just like a loving Heavenly Parent.

Nevertheless, going through the transitional time was anything but easy.  It was a time of much stress and I quite honestly felt unprepared to deal with it.  Yet, rather than allow self-pity to soak into my bones and rather than playing the victim, L’Arche taught me how to “live a lot.”  When I hear the phrase “living a lot” it connotes a certain sense of reality but also hope for me.  It signifies that a person is still LIVING – that they haven’t giving up, that they are breathing and moving forward.  In my own life, I have started substituting “going through a lot” with “living a lot” when I think about my friends who are struggling with various issues.  A few of my friends from Tyndale like the phrase so much that they have started adopting it in their own vocabulary!

I think that the fact that we live as a community really intensifies the reality of “living a lot.”  My Tyndale roomate once pointed out that she was walking through  the mall on Saturday and she believes that everyone there had something happening in their life, and how does what my house was dealing with compare?  My answer: the fact that we are living together means that we are more in-tune with what the other person is going through.  When someone in our house celebrates we all are so joyous and energetic about it.  At the same time when someone in our house is living a lot, we all live a lot right alongside them.  No one person is required to have all the responsibility on them, we all share in the pain and hurt.  We laugh together often.  Sometimes we also cry together.

When I first started L’Arche I was really searching for community.  I was hoping to find community in my co-workers and the other staff.  What I have discovered, though, as I journey in L’Arche is that community is so much more than that.  The staff will come and go – often staying only for short stints of 4 or 6 months.  Sometimes if they are really committed they may stay a year or two.  But the core members stay for the duration of their lives – 10, 20, 30 years.  They are the true pillars of community and they are the ones who ensure that the community continues to thrive.  Even when we are all living a lot!

Some L’Arche Lingo

In my blog and in conversation, I often find myself using L’Arche lingo and then catch myself realizing that other people might not be recognizing what I’m talking about.  L’Arche is such a subculture that we have our own terminology for almost everything, yet, I often find myself recognizing how beautiful that lingo is.  Even my friends from outside L’Arche have started to adopt some of this terminology into their own ministries.

Time Away – We never say time off because we never truly have time off from the community.  We are always a part of the community regardless of where we are.  But we can (and should) spend some time away from the community every day so that we can pursue other passions and meet with friends from outside of L’Arche.

Core Member – A person with a developmental disability who lives in our home.  They are at the center of everything we do and oftentimes they have been there longer than we have and will stay long after we leave.  The community centers around them and they have much to teach us.

Living A lot – In L’Arche when someone (or a house) is going through a difficult time in their lives we say that they are “living a lot”.  I really like this terminology because it brings out the fact that they are continuing to press on even despite what is happening with them.  It’s not about giving up.  Also, this terminology does not connote sympathy or pity, but simply it’s a recognition that someone is having many things happen in their lives.

Assistant – Staff member.  I’m only there to assist the core members.  The goal of the assistants at L’Arche is to allow core members to do as much for themselves as they possibly can.  We are simply there to help aid them in any transitions or decision making as the time comes and as the needs arise.

A Typical Day of a L’Arche Assistant

So often, I am asked this question over and over by people who haven’t had the L’Arche experience.  “So what EXACTLY do you do?”.

My job isn’t glamorous by any sense of the word, and yet it can bring joy in ways that being in the academy never did.  It brings fulfillment, there is something really special about having someone depend on you for their needs.  To go to bed every evening knowing you have made a difference that day and to wake up refreshed the next morning.  Here I will share with you my typical schedule of events:

6:30am – My alarm clock buzzes.  It’s time to get up.  I pull the covers up to my face and try to hit snooze one last time.  I have never been a morning person and L’Arche is no exception.  It’s still really hard for me to get out of bed and start my day.  While Í’m sleeping off the last few winks I quietly say a prayer for the core members that I will come into contact with that day.  Each day it is the exact same prayer (a prayer that I have been praying since my first year at Tyndale): “Father God and Mothering Spirit, I thank you for this new day and the new opportunities and challenges it will bring with it.  I ask that I would serve You as Your hands and feet today to everyone I come into contact with.  I pray that I would offer them a cup of cold water when they need it the most, and offer them a word of healing and hope when all they see is darkness and despair.  I pray that if they are fighting their own silent battle that you would give them the courage to keep pressing on.  Help me to exercise patience and gratitude and to also be able to accept the ways that people will be Christ to me today.  Amen.”

7am – I run upstairs, thankful once again that I live where I work.  The breakfast table is already set and Josh (one of our core members) has made a cup of fresh coffee and turned the tea kettle on.  He is always the first one awake in the house.  I eat a leisurely breakfast with him and with the other assistants often having small talk about the day that lays ahead.  I also use this opportunity to read through the Globe and Mail that lays on our table.

7:30am – Marissa, our other core member has joined us for breakfast by this point, as has Cheng with his assistant.  Cheng can not eat by himself, so he relies on his assistant to help him with his breakfast.  Now that we have our happy family, there is only one person missing, Jennifer.  One of the female assistants goes upstairs to wake her up and help her with her routine before breakfast.

8am – Jennifer is finally up and downstairs.  We give her a bowl of Fruit Loops – her standard practice and a cup of tea.  While she is eating breakfast the other core members get ready for their day at work.

8:45am – After getting everyone’s coats, shoes, and hats on, we walk together as a happy family to the main property.  If the weather is really bad we might drive, but we always try to walk when we can.  The walk is always filled with friendly banter, teasing, and the occasional outburst of “I love you!”

9am – All the core members have arrived on the property for their programs.  Daybreak hosts a variety of paid programs for the residents where they will be able to receive a wage.  It really normalizes their lives to be doing what the general public does, going to work and then coming home after work.  The core members take great pride in receiving their paycheques and on pay day often show them off and share with us how they will spend the money.  The majority of them save the money to go on trips in the summer.  Daybreak hosts 5 programs:

1) The Day Program (leisurely activities such as cooking baking, bowling, and improv)

2) The woodery (easily the most popular program and the one which generates the majority of income for Daybreak.  Here core members learn how to make railway stakes and splints for St. John’s Ambulance.  They use the machinery and at the end of a successful week are treated out for lunch at the local burger shop)

3) The Craft Studio (a place for all budding artists specializing in homemade candles, cards, and pottery.  No two candles or cards are exactly the same.  The craft studio also makes some really awesome wedding invitations and gifts.  I know where I am going for all of my Christmas shopping needs)

4) The Club (a leisurely hang out for retired core members who need a slower pace in life.  The club helps them to transition from their working days to retirement by giving them an opportunity to play Bingo, watch TV, or listen to music)

5) Spirit Movers and Movers and Shakers (A dance and drama troupe which preforms in local churches and even occasionally at conferences and theaters).

9:15am – We have arrived back from dropping all of the core members off at their various programs.  If it’s a Monday we will be having a team meeting for the remainder of the morning, otherwise, we spend the entire morning cleaning the house, running errands, and answering phone calls.  Occasionally, we may also be scheduling doctor’s appointments or even going with a core member to an appointment.

12-4pm – It’s lunch time and assistant free time.  In L’Arche we refer to this time as our “time away”.  Time away is a really important aspect of our job because it can get really emotionally and spiritually intense.  We need to honour our time away to recharge our batteries.  For some this may mean having a nice long nap, but for me this often involves a mixture of academic stimulation (through my online seminary course or reading a good Theological book), working out in the gym, and finding places of solitude to do reading and writing.

4pm – We are back on the job.  Someone has been appointed already to make the snack and to pick up the core members.  When they arrive home we have a simple snack waiting for them which we eat together as a house.

4:30pm – We hang out with the core members, watching TV, listening to music, or colouring with them.  Sometimes I like to play my violin for them and allow them to choose the songs they want me to play.  Other times, I’m on for cooking in which case I will spend the rest of the evening in the kitchen.

6pm – Dinner is served.  We pray together as a house (often having a core member lead in a simple blessing), and then we plate the food.  The person who cooked puts the food on the plate while a core member delivers it to each individual at the table.  Once everyone has their plate we eat together.  Meal times are a sacred pause for each of us.  We don’t talk about hard hitting topics, but we try to keep the atmosphere light and jovial.  Oftentimes we have core members from other houses come and join us which provides a social outlet for them and for us.  Cell phones are put away during the meal and the house phone is not answered if it rings.  We give our attention solely to one another and the presence each person has.

6:30pm – One of the core members makes tea and coffee for everyone sitting around the table.  We leisurely drink the hot beverage while continuing on in a festive mood.

6:45pm – We say our prayers as a house.  Every person contributes a prayer and if they are non-verbal we have an assistant help lead them in the prayer.  Even the non-verbal core members recognize prayer time and make gestures of understanding.  Prayer time is also our time to check in with one another.  It’s an opportunity to share how we are really doing and the high and low points of our day.  If it is someone’s birthday or going away dinner we have another tradition instead of prayer.  On those occasions, the house buys a gift and we go around the table sharing verbal gifts to the person.  It’s an opportunity for each person to express their gratitude and talk about the skills that person brings to community.  At L’Arche we do celebration really well.  Regardless of whether we do prayer or sharing we always end in the Lord’s Prayer led by one of the core members.

7pm – Assistants clean up the kitchen and do all of the dishes.  Core members continue to hang out and enjoy a leisurely evening.

8pm – We start helping core members get ready for bed and doing their evening routines.

8:30pm – We finish up any remaining paper work.

9pm – The staff are off for the night.  Often by this point I have had a long day so I’m generally in my room watching a movie or reading a light book.  Sometimes I will catch up with friends on the phone.

The next day, this repeats.  At first it can be hard to get into the rhythm of L’Arche, but it truly is all about rhythm.  It’s living life and it’s more about being than doing.  To an outsider it may seem as if we aren’t doing very much, but once you live the life you realize that it can be hectic sometimes.  Yet it is in the busyness that I still find moments of peace and stillness.

On the weekends our schedule changes a little bit.  We get up around 8am and the core member spend the morning cleaning their own rooms and doing their own laundry.  We have a more relaxed atmosphere on weekends taking our time away at different times depending on the needs of the house.  2 of our core members participate in the special Olympics and do their training in the early afternoon.  Saturdays are also lots of fun because we tend to have staff gatherings in the evenings where we get to see the assistants from the other houses who we might not have seen throughout the week.

November 9th, 2013 – Anti-Ableism 101

This blog was originally published at: http://blog.adnetonline.org/?p=818.  Please check out http://blog.adnetonline.org to read writings by my Anabaptist thinkers who are concerned with the role of disability awareness and advocacy within the Christian church.

Many of us have been there at one time or another.  Stigmatized.  Put down. People look the other way – they see our pain but don’t really know how to react to it or if they should.  We see the pity in their eyes.  Their sad looks, yet sometimes it feels as if they aren’t seeing the person, only the situation at hand.  Standing off in the distance they try to let us know they care – that they are there for us, but in the day to day grind we feel alone.  Abandoned.  Rejected.  We wonder why God caused this disability or this tragedy to come upon us.  We wonder what God’s purpose could possibly be in the midst of all of this.

We are not the only ones to feel out of place and out of touch with society.  As if we are misfits or standing on the margins while life goes on around us.  For some of us, this experience might have been contained solely in our junior high or high school days.  The days when we had just reached puberty.  Hearing the boys start to have cracked voices and worrying about growing facial hair.  Hearing the girl’s concerns that they were fat or unlovable.  Wondering why they were the only one not asked out for the junior prom date.  Our faces riddled with pimples which even the strongest acne cream did not seem to subside.

Others of us live in this reality today and may for the rest of our lives.  Visibly we look different.  Perhaps a disability.  Perhaps the fact that our skin tone doesn’t match that of the privileged.  Perhaps it comes only in our speech – a slight impediment, but noticeable enough to those around us.  It makes us want to curl up and not speak in front of others.  Maybe our marginalization comes in the form of an illness.  People worry that they might be able to “catch AIDS” and so they leave us alone.  People worry that a bipolar person has multi personalities and is dangerous and so they want to keep a safe distance just in case our shadow side comes out.  People see us as weak and fragile, they aren’t meaning to hurt us, but they simply don’t know what to do.  That not knowing, is sometimes more painful to us than having someone say something completely stupid but not meaning it.  Sometimes we wish we were just like everyone else.  Sometimes we question God wondering why we had to suffer this plight.

I work at L’Arche Daybreak, an intentional community in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada (close to Toronto) for people with developmental disabilities.  At Daybreak, I have come to know the writings of theologians Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier and have come to hear their heart for people who have various types of disabilities.  I have also been able to experience living with 5 core members (residents) in my house who have Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy.  Living life together with them is not always easy, however, it has been one of my most eye opening and positive experiences that I have ever received in my life.

When I first began my work at L’Arche Daybreak, I was really discouraged from pursuing this type of work by many people in my life.  Even today, there are some people who I really respect who put down what I am doing or try to discourage me from staying on.  Before I began my work in Toronto and even now, I have heard so many people use ableistic language and refer to “us” and “them”.  They call my friends, “those people”, and they make it sound as if they are somehow less important than others.

Another very common tendency that I come upon is people who think that I am a saint because I work in this field.  It feels strangely uncomfortable and out of place to think of myself as a hero simply because I work with people whom society has unfairly shunned, but in reading Vanier, Nouwen, and in talking to my co-workers I realize that almost everyone at L’Arche has experienced this in one way or another.  At first, it used to really bother me.  I didn’t want people to see me as a “saint”, but rather just as an average person.  One day this whole “saint” notion got me so upset that I ended up speaking to a man I went to seminary with who had worked at L’Arche for 12 years, what he said has shaped and will continue to shape the years that I work in this field.  He said to me, “we are not the patient ones.  Our core members are the patient ones.  They have a 21 year old coming in to L’Arche telling them what to do and then leaving the next year.”  So often there is a tendency for people to think of those who have disabilities as children or as someone inferior to the rest of society, however, at L’Arche our motto is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.  The core members we have are adults and will be treated as adults.  They will be allowed to make their own decisions and aids will be given to them if they need help in decision making.  They will be allowed to foster friendships and romantic relationships and even to have sexual relations or to be married if this is what they want.  Here at L’Arche, we will try to make whatever the dreams of our core members are into a reality.

In my house, there is one young man who is madly in love with another core member.  Although both of them have a developmental disability, I have never once doubted the care that they have shown to each other.  In speaking with Frank (the man from my house) I have learned of his desire to be married to Anita and he has even gone into great detail about the preparations for his wedding.  In our society there are so many voices that say that this should not happen.  There are so many people who think that people with disabilities should not be able to be married or have children, however, in working at L’Arche I have seen that all people desire love and many people desire romance.  Therefore, just because someone has a disability should not hinder them from finding deep meaning and purpose in their life through sharing it with someone else.  In fact, every day that I see Frank and Anita together I think about my own life and about the relationships I have had and I realize that there is so much my future spouse and I can learn from them.

When I think back to that phone call I received two months ago from my friend telling me that L’Arche wasn’t for me and to come back to the seminary, I feel the pangs once again of a broken person who was unable to recognize her brokenness.  Just like Nouwen who frequently uses the phrase “Wounded Healer” in his writings, I have come to discover that I, too, am a deeply broken and wounded person.  I have come to see the disabilities in my own life and the fragmented relationships that have resulted from a society that does not understand all that I struggle with.  I have come to learn that my friends at L’Arche share more in common with me than many people on the outside.  Yet, instead of choosing to be resentful and bitter about their disability, instead of seeking revenge towards the bullies they grew up with or being too fearful to try new things, they have instead chosen a life of compassion and quiet dignity.  They have chosen to be productive members of society and all around friends.  Through their love and support I have been able to be free to be a broken person in the midst of them and to experience healing.

Every day, then, I am giving the choice: whether to enter into my disability and share my life with them or whether to stay on the fringes as an ableistic person who sees myself as somehow better.  Either way, the truth is that I am wounded myself, the only difference is in how I choose to acknowledge it.

November 4th, 2013 – Some Thoughts As I Grow Into Community

I know I haven’t written here in a while, so I would like to update with a few more things that I have been learning during my time at L’Arche:

1) Community has a profound way of making you realize the aspects about yourself that you really don’t like.  As we went around the table the other night we shared before all the core members and assistants the commitments we would hold for that year.  When my co-worker said my exact same commitments I realized how easy it is to be individualistic.  It’s easy to become territorial – to take pride in being the only one to think of something clever, but this type of attitude will not survive in a community.  Community is about playing on each other’s strengths and building others up in their weakness.  In the end of the day it’s not about who has the “best” commitment and it’s definitely not about doing everything on your own to try to prove a point.  It’s about collaboration.  And if more than one person wants to be involved in the same project than what a blessing!  I’m always reminded of the young boy who told Moses that other people were prophesying and speaking about God and asked Moses why he wasn’t upset and why he wasn’t going to stop it.  Moses’s response? That’s great!  I wish that everyone would prophesy than more would get done!

2) I love seeing the core members who are more abled interact with those who are less abled.  That’s not to say that anyone’s ability is less important, for I truly find great job in the most profound of disabilities.  I just really marvel at the fact that some of the members can pick up on what the others want, can reach out to them in a way that none of the assistant’s can, and can explain things to them in a way that I (with my years of education) cannot articulate.  I’m always amazed when I’m having a bad day and my core members flash me a smile, rub my back, offer me an empathetic look, or give me a hug.  I’m truly appreciative of those little times when they keep persistently asking me “what’s wrong?” even when my closest friends cannot pick up on it.

3) One guy in our house really loves hoarding.  He just really likes to take other people’s stuff, papers, anything.  It’s not so much malicious, it’s just a habit.  But it really reminds me of how we are all like that.  As human being we are deeply flawed and we are never content with what we have.  We are always wanting more – whether that be more money, more fame, or a higher position.  Working with this core member has really taught me that before we judge someone else we have to first examine our own lives and change what we can about ourselves.

October 7th, 2013 – True Prayer: Learning the L’Arche Values

Mennonites like to do things in community partly because we desire to invest into the lives of others, but mostly because God calls us to care for each other from the deepest parts of our souls.  Of all the experiences that one can have in community, though, I still maintain that prayer is the greatest tradition that anyone can seek to be part of.

In every Christian group that I have been involved in, I have noticed a very distinct praying culture.  At AMBS this culture took on the form of weekly Psalm readings and using the Anabaptist Prayer Book, in my undergrad years it took on the form of Monday night prayer groups in the dorm, and now at L’Arche (an intentional community for people with developmental disabilities) our praying tradition has come to be something completely different.

At L’Arche we have a practice of gathering together every evening around the supper table, lighting a candle, and sharing prayer requests with one another.  Often this time is one of deep sincerity where true emotions are brought to light.  To an onlooker this practice may appear to not go beyond surface level.  After all, we are not engaged in the type of “deep” prayer that the Charismatics and Evangelicals feel is necessary, yet, it is in the simple act of being together as a family that creates meaning for us.  Prayer is meant to be a safe space both for those who have prior beliefs and those who do not feel they are spiritual.  It is primarily a time for reflection and the sharing of much laughter and occasionally tears.  Following the sharing of requests one of our core members (people with developmental disabilities) leads us into the Lord’s prayer as we hold hands around the table.  This practice is one that brings healing, restores trust, and bonds us together as a community that freely shares with each other both the blessings and the challenges that take place in our daily lives together.

Today I experienced a real God moment while praying with our core members at L’Arche.  Over the past month a certain person has been on my heart because I am aware of his brokenness and the difficulties he is facing.  Although I do not feel it is right to share specifics with members of my L’Arche house, I began to pray for him today in community.  As I was praying, one of our core members who has down syndrome became so empathetic that he began rubbing my back.  After he started this gesture, another core member began to hug me and tell me that everything would be okay.  Through observing my friends with developmental disabilities, I have come to appreciate the healing value that takes place in a community that prays together.

This is but one example of how the core members in my house have helped me to deepen my own prayer life and spirituality.  Every day I face such examples of love and courage from people in my community who have often been overlooked by the church and society as somehow having less of a spiritual life.  Yet, being with them reminds me of what prayer is really all about.  Prayer is not simply telling someone that you are thinking of them when they are going through a difficult time, but it is doing what Mary Anne (a member of our community) does every evening when she goes around the dinner table praying for each one of us by name and then goes to her room and prays for us some more until she falls asleep.  That is what true community and caring for one another looks like!

Yes, community breeds tradition, but it breeds it in such a way that it includes all people as we seek to walk with Christ and practice rituals that bring glory to God.

October 2nd, 2013 -Distilling a Conversation with My Tyndale Roomie

Yesterday my roomate and I were driving half an hour away from Tyndale to see mutual friends of ours in a different community.  On the road we began to have a deep discussion about what makes for community.  This really got me thinking about quite a few things:

1) So many young adults are seeking for community in our world and so many older people do not truly understand our search for community.  Our search to want to be with people to distill our thoughts with.  That’s not to say that older people can’t be part of a community, but I think this may have something to do with age and subsequent maturity… that as one gets older they are able to “mind their own company” more and don’t need to rely on others as much to entertain themselves.

2) Community is not always glamourous.  I had something in the fridge the other day that one of the other assistants took… come on, people!  But this is what community is.  It means sharing and as the old adage goes, “sharing is caring.”

3) I’m thinking about our evening prayers at L’Arche which are the cornerstones of our houses.  I’m thinking about how if we prayed like we did at Tyndale it might scare about those assistants in our homes who don’t claim the Christian faith as their own.  We want to be inclusive.  I love to hear assistants who don’t have any interest in the Christian faith saying – “I don’t believe in what you are praying, but I like the prayer times we have together!”.  It’s the simple fact that we are doing it every night that makes it have value for us.  It’s not just about coming to each other when we want to celebrate or when we are grieving – it’s about always sharing, constantly.  Even during those nights when we had to face loss together as a community we did not forsake our practice of prayer – that’s the anchor that we have here.

4) My time at L’Arche has taught me so much about brokenness.  Every one of us comes to community broken, but it is because of our brokenness that we can both contribute and learn from the community.  It’s about being humble.  It’s okay to be yourself in this environment and no one will think any less of you.  We let community happen organically – it’s not about forcing it on anyone or saying the word “community” over and over again and waving some type of magical wand.  Praying for your enemies in community takes on a whole new meaning as community fosters the forgiveness you need to find in your heart and the accountability to do so.

5) My time at L’Arche has taught me much about the difference between loneliness and solitude.  As an extreme extrovert, I do find it difficult to really be alone.  I always want to be with people doing whatever it is they are doing, but L’Arche has called me to something higher.  I feel as if God is calling me to take time away for myself – to go to the pond and sit there and pray or to use my weekends away for retreats.  Even in community, we are called to have times apart and times together.

6) Lastly, I have learned that there is something to say about “Living a lot” as a community.  I have spent the last two days at a mall close to Tyndale.  Although not as big as the other malls in Toronto, this mall is a fair size.  Every day hundreds and thousands of people walk through the walls of that mall – each one carrying with them their own burdens, thoughts, and fears.  Every one of us is facing our own battle and our own inner struggles.  The difference is that at the mall I have no idea what those struggles are nor do I really have that great of a desire to get involved with people I don’t know.  In community, it’s not that we are living any more or less than anyone else.  Even though difficult things have happened to people I know and love in my community, who am I to say that what they are going through or what I am going through is any worse than the rest of the world?  The truth is that we just feel it more when we are living with one another.  I truly care about my co-workers and they also truly care about me.  It’s like the Apostle Paul says – that if one person is suffering the community suffers with them and if one person is rejoicing the community rejoices with them (1 Corinthians 12:26).  When we live together the pains and sorrows of each other we are taking on the burden and helping to bear the load.

The song Will You Let Me Be Your Servant comes to mind:

Will you let me be your servant?  Let me be as Christ to you?  Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road.  We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christlike for you in the night time of your fear.  I will hold my hand out to you speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.  I will share your joys and burdens till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven we shall find such harmony.  Born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.

Will you let me be your servant?  Let me be as Christ to you?  Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

October 1st, 2013 – True Prayer – Learning the L’Arche Values

Mennonites like to do things in community partly because we desire to invest into the lives of others, but mostly because God calls us to care for each other from the deepest parts of our souls.  Of all the experiences that one can have in community, though, I still maintain that prayer is the greatest tradition that anyone can seek to be part of.

In every Christian group that I have been involved in, I have noticed a very distinct praying culture.  At AMBS this culture took on the form of weekly Psalm readings and using the Anabaptist Prayer Book, in my undergrad years it took on the form of Monday night prayer groups in the dorm, and now at L’Arche (an intentional community for people with developmental disabilities) our praying tradition has come to be something completely different.

At L’Arche we have a practice of gathering together every evening around the supper table, lighting a candle, and sharing prayer requests with one another.  Often this time is one of deep sincerity where true emotions are brought to light.  To an onlooker this practice may appear to not go beyond surface level.  After all, we are not engaged in the type of “deep” prayer that the Charismatics and Evangelicals feel is necessary, yet, it is in the simple act of being together as a family that creates meaning for us.  Prayer is meant to be a safe space both for those who have prior beliefs and those who do not feel they are spiritual.  It is primarily a time for reflection and the sharing of much laughter and occasionally tears.  Following the sharing of requests one of our core members (people with developmental disabilities) leads us into the Lord’s prayer as we hold hands around the table.  This practice is one that brings healing, restores trust, and bonds us together as a community that freely shares with each other both the blessings and the challenges that take place in our daily lives together.

Today I experienced a real God moment while praying with our core members at L’Arche.  Over the past month a certain person has been on my heart because I am aware of his brokenness and the difficulties he is facing.  Although I do not feel it is right to share specifics with members of my L’Arche house, I began to pray for him today in community.  As I was praying, one of our core members who has down syndrome became so empathetic that he began rubbing my back.  After he started this gesture, another core member began to hug me and tell me that everything would be okay.  Through observing my friends with developmental disabilities, I have come to appreciate the healing value that takes place in a community that prays together.

This is but one example of how the core members in my house have helped me to deepen my own prayer life and spirituality.  Every day I face such examples of love and courage from people in my community who have often been overlooked by the church and society as somehow having less of a spiritual life.  Yet, being with them reminds me of what prayer is really all about.  Prayer is not simply telling someone that you are thinking of them when they are going through a difficult time, but it is doing what Mary Anne (a member of our community) does every evening when she goes around the dinner table praying for each one of us by name and then goes to her room and prays for us some more until she falls asleep.  That is what true community and caring for one another looks like!

Yes, community breeds tradition, but it breeds it in such a way that it includes all people as we seek to walk with Christ and practice rituals that bring glory to God.

September 11th, 2013 – On Being a Prayer Warrior

Yesterday my former roomate (from Tyndale) came to visit my work and home at L’Arche Daybreak and to see a glimpse into our community here.  I always enjoy having visitors here… but this particular visitor was most welcome because we have always had a very special friendship as Sisters in Christ.  She is someone who I trust in the deepest sense of the word and has often helped me through some very challenging transitions and times in my life.  Recently, her and I have been talking quite a bit on the phone.  Given that she is so rooted in her faith, she has often challenged me to maintain a strong spiritual life full of devotional exercises and to share in communion with her and others.  One special thing about her is that she is a true prayer warrior in every sense of the word.  Hearing her pray really inspires me to deepen my own my prayer life and to discover solitude.   She has always used this phrase including back when we were roomies and she wrote a letter to me in which she shared, “Although you have the heart of a pacifist, you are a true prayer warrior!”  Then when she came to visit me, she shared with me how she cannot see prayer in any terms other than those of being a warrior.

As a pacifist, I have often struggled with terminology such as this.  I believe that God is first and foremost a God of peace, but I also know that He is a protector and very just.  I also don’t really know how else to address someone who prays all the time.  I can definitely see the reasoning for the term “prayer warrior” because it connotes someone who is literally at the front lines each and every day interceding for others and warding off the ultimate enemy – Satan.

Anyways, my house has been “living a lot” (to borrow a truly beautiful L’Arche phrase).  Seriously, when you think about it, instead of saying someone is going through a lot, saying that they are living a lot helps you unpack the actual implications those things they are going through have.  I was not able to share everything with her because of strict confidentiality laws (of which I would never break), but I was able to share with her the stress it has had on me emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.  My roomate asked me, “What prayer warriors have you told?”

All of us need people in our lives who we can trust to go to the Throne Room of Grace before our Lord and Saviour on a regular basis to intercede for us and to help ease the burdens we are facing.  Yet, when I went back to thinking on this question, I realized that the best prayer warrior that I know is actually one of my core members.  Marissa is a woman in her mid-thirties who has down syndrome and who I have become great friends with.  Every Sunday when Marissa comes back from church she puts her stuff down on the kitchen table and proudly announces, “Deborah, I prayed for you at church today!”  She then goes on to tell everyone else at the house that she prayed for them.  During the week, she often will tell us, “On Sunday at church I will pray for you.”  And since we pray every evening as a house, she will also tell us that she will pray for us that night.  AND she really does.  Marissa is not the type of person who says, “I will pray about it” and then forgets and goes on with her life, she actually takes every request very seriously before God.  This is something that I need to learn in my own life.  There have been so many times when people have requested prayer and I have simply “gotten busy” or gotten wrapped up in my own issues that I don’t bother to bring them before God.  But with Marissa, I hear her pray with deep passion every day!  At the chapel on Friday night she prays for everyone at the house – often more than once, at the dinner table she prays for everyone, and at church she prays for everyone.  She goes to bed at 8:30pm and while the staff are sitting around downstairs shooting the breeze, listening to music, and laughing, we can hear her praying in her room – for each one of us!  She never holds a grudge.  Sure, there are times in community when we rub each other the wrong way, but that never stops her from praying for us and forgiving us the very next morning.

Marissa is a true prayer warrior in every sense of the word and I am so glad that I have gotten to know her in this light.  It reminds me that God’s children come in various abilities and disabilities and that although simplistic, the prayers of people with disabilities are often more profound than anything I have heard in my 4 years in the academy.  So, next time someone you know who has an intellectual disability tells you that they are praying for you – truly cherish it knowing that you have a prayer warrior before you and that you likely will have that some prayer warrior every night before God until the issue you are facing gets resolved and even then their prayers for you will not cease!

August 31st, 2013 – I Like God

Yesterday evening, my house once again attended one of the L’Arche Daybreak chapel services.  As always, there was a time to offer short prayers to God which is always the most chaotic time at L’Arche, but also the most humbling.  I grew up in the church and so I have heard my fair share of pastoral prayers.  Sometimes I can really sense the heart of the people who are sharing and other times it is simply recited from a list of names.  Many people find pastoral prayer to be the essence of church – it is the place where we truly become active participants in the service rather than passive bystanders.  However, people who have developmental disabilities often add just a little bit more than the rest of us and it is precisely because they are not always preoccupied with what other people are thinking that they are truly able to be themselves and can offer the most important things in their heart.

This particular Friday, I was sitting with one of my core members who has autism.  Jennifer is typically a very quiet woman who is shy and does not say much in front of a large group.  Given that she is not one to say something out loud, I was very surprised to hear her voice, barely more than a whisper, say to me right in the middle of the Prayers of the People “I like God.”  Such a simple statement, and yet so profound.  I have been studying theology for years and have heard all sorts of talks in the seminary on predestination, atonement theories, and the like, but when was the last time someone truly told me “I like God.”?  And it was from that conversation that I realized once again why we were together in worship that night.  It wasn’t simply a way for us to be community together and to socialize – it was about loving God!

Tonight after supper, I had another similar experience around the dinner table.  Every evening before leaving the table we light a candle, turn off the light, and pass around a small object as we share our prayer requests together out loud.  Generally the prayers are very predictable.  Our core members will pray for everyone around the table, their families, and their best friends, but today we were totally thrown off guard when one of our core members said that she wanted to pray for Katy Perry!  I’m not really a huge Katy Perry fan myself because I find some of her lyrics to not entirely be family friendly, though I will admit they are quite catchy!  Yet, in that small moment, I realized that yes, Katy Perry needs our prayers too. It doesn’t matter how famous, rich, or gorgeous someone is, all of us need Christ in the same way.  Katy Perry’s life, although glamorous, is far from being without hard times, and so yes, we do need to remember her in our prayers.

I spent 4 years in Bible College and in Seminary and I continue to take seminary courses online, but every day L’Arche opens up new ways of thinking for me that I have never encountered in the academy.  For it is at L’Arche that we truly hear the hearts of the people far above the theological din that sometimes drowns out true Christian character.

August 17, 2013 – Interrupted Worship

Every Friday night all the residents at L’Arche are invited to go to a chapel service which encourages Spiritual formation, silence, and networking with friends from other homes and programs.  The chapel is also the perfect way to get introduced to L’Arche life for those who do not work or volunteer with us on a regular basis.  Chapel services are on a rotating basis and we generally host one Roman Catholic Mass, one Anglican Eucharist, one United Church Eucharist, and one Taize service per month as well as 3 morning prayer times throughout the week.

This particular service was by far my favourite and also the most eye opening of the services I have attended so far since I started working at L’Arche about a month and a half ago.
On Friday, my parents were visiting me from out of town as well a a friend that I went to Tyndale with who likes to swing by L’Arche for the occasional service.  It was a United Church service this week and I was expecting it to be “just another chapel service”.  However, it was anything but that.

When I showed up to the chapel I was warmly greeted by my housemate, Jill.  Jill is in her mid thirties and has down syndrome and the two of us have gotten along pretty well over the last few weeks.  Given that I actually haven’t been at the house for 2 days because I was observing my days away, Jill was overly excited to see me and loudly exclaimed “There’s my friend”.  She talked about how she missed me and would see me tomorrow.  I haven’t felt as welcomed as I did at that moment for a long time!

As the service progressed, the pastor got up and shared with us a difficult Bible passage from Matthew 10 (about how Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword).  This is definitely not an easy passage for anyone to wrestle with, but the pastor did very well as he went on to talk about the importance of loving others and forgiving people who are not easy to get along with.  As he started his talk he began with the positives – about the people we get along great with.  It was at this time that 3 people with down syndrome all began to talk very loudly and unashamedly about the people in their lives that they liked.  Then he went on to talk about the times it is hard for us to get along with people.  Once again, my friends with down syndrome made no bones about this.  They openly talked about their frustrations and the pain in their hearts over assistants who have left and shared prayer requests in a way that was far deeper than anything I have heard seminarians pray since I started in the academy (and I have heard some pretty deep prayers there!).

As I walked back to my house I reflected upon this haphazard church services.  So much of what goes on every Sunday in our churches in a monologue – but shouldn’t church be a dialogue between God and us?  Shouldn’t church be just as much horizontal (people and fellowship) as it is vertical (one pastor sharing what God has laid on his or her heart)?  I’m thinking that if what just happened on Friday night happened in the majority of our congregations many of us would cringe, including those of us who are pastors.  Many pastors wouldn’t know what to do if they were interrupted and might even flounder, but why not give people a chance to share what is important to them?  A chance to expose the deepest and most vulnerable parts of themselves knowing that what is said in the church stays in the church?

I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to witness my friends with down syndrome sharing in this kind of way and sincerely hope that we do learn from them as we plan our next Sunday’s schedule.  Perhaps, we should even begin a time after the service (during Sunday school or coffee hour) where we are able to (as a group) dissect the message and share its importance in our own lives and to offer prayers for one another.  Then we can once again focus on being the Body of Christ renewed each and every week that we gather.

August 10,2013 (After My First Month At L’Arche)

This week, my co-worker and I were able to take one of our core members to Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame.  For this core member (who we will call Tim) it was a very exciting time.  Tim is a huge Toronto Maple Leaf’s fan and his number one goal in life is to meet the one and only Don Cherry.  When my co-worker, Fred, and I decided to take Tim, Tim talked about it for weeks and was so excited that he got up 2 hours early on the big day.

Fred and I decided early on that we wanted to make this day a special one for Tim and so we let him call all the shots including where we would eat lunch and supper and allowed him to sit in the front seat of the car.  When we got to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Tim couldn’t be happier!  After posing for a few pictures, Tim went on to look at all of the artifacts and special souveniers that have been collected over the years.  He was like a little kid in a candy store!

At one point, I turned to Fred and said to him, “can you imagine being so famous that the scissors which were used to cut your hair are housed at a museum for thousands of people to see every year?”.  Fred and I then talked a bit about what it truly means to be famous while Tim continued looking around at everything.

On the ride home, I couldn’t help but think back to Hebrews 11 in the Bible.  Although all of us have heard about the various sports halls of fame, there is also a very special Hall of Fame in the Bible except this one doesn’t have to do with athletic performance, it has to do with character.  In Hebrews 11 we are introduced to various men and women who are famous because of their ability to stand firm under trial, to seek God even when others go against Him, and to undergo persecution without losing their faith.  Unlike Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, or Steve Yvzerman we might never get to see their daily apparel or watch 3-D movies recounting all their shots, we know that without them we would not be able to celebrate our faith in the same way.

And so it happened that during my day off at the Hockey Hall of Fame I was able to appreciate the book of Hebrews that much more.

Top 5 Frequently MisInformed Ideas About L’Arche (AKA: My Top Pet Peeves)

1) You must be a saint to work with “people like that”. 

You’d be surprised as to how often statements like this get thrown around.  At first it really bothered me when people said this but in spending time at L’Arche, I’ve come to understand that almost all of the assistants have experienced statements like this when they first joined the community up until present day.

The people who work at L’Arche are not “saints” – we are human beings like everyone else.  We have flaws and we are learning how to be better at our jobs in the same way as anyone else in the working world isn’t.  L’Arche is a very supportive environment, but it is not a fairy tale and only workers who realize that have a hope of surviving in this environment.

2) You must have a lot of patience.  I know I could never do it.

Yes, you need patience to work with people who have disabilities, but you also need patience to do a lot of other things in life that you are probably already doing on a daily basis (like raising a family, being married, working retail, etc).  Plus, when it comes down to it, the people we work with are the truly patient ones.  They are listening to someone half their age tell them what to do and facing a turn over in staff on a yearly basis.

3) Us vs. Them Mentality

Even though the majority of people if you asked them would say that they don’t view people with disability as any “less”, the truth is that we live in a very abelistic society that still thinks that people who are “like us” are somehow better.  This can come in many forms including people who think that working in this field is somehow “less” of a ministry than pastoring or through words we speak “people like that”, “those people”.

4) You trained as a doctor, lawyer, engineer, pastor (insert occupation here), what are you doing spending your time at L’Arche.  Shouldn’t you leave that type of work to people who actually have training for it?

There is no better training for any field than to learn how to put others first, develop our common humanity, and learn to become emotionally available.  People who work at L’Ärche come from diverse fields and backgrounds some with my education than others.  Almost always those of us who are “educated” come to learn that in this environment education (although important) is secondary to what we actually do on a daily basis.  Our society prides itself in putting ourselves first which is why L’Arche is so countercultural.

5) L’Arche is a Catholic organization and because I am Baptist, Pentecostal (insert evangelical denomination here) or because I am Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim I cannot work there.

L’Arche is an international organization that has roots in the Catholic branch of the Christian religion, but in recent years has become quite ecumenical and in some cases even interfaith.  Prayers and chapel services do not take on an overtly Catholic tone and people of all walks and stages of life are able to appreciate the beauty that comes from those practices together.  L’Arche welcomes assistants and core members to continue to hold their own beliefs and traditions and makes a way for them to live out their faith in practical ways together.

L’Arche – Week 2 Finished and Going on to Week 3

It’s late and I need to go to bed because our days start early so I’m going to make this one brief.  So far, I find my position at L’Arche very rewarding.  Honestly, I have never laughed so hard in my life and the work environment so far is not like any other job environment I have ever experienced.  In reflecting upon myself I realize that I am so used to having an end goal and as Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen say “climbing to the top.”  I’m used to having a direct end result whether that be to implement a new policy, to make the most phone calls and collect the most donations, to produce a full length play, or to plan a youth event.  I’m so used to doing things that I’m now learning a completely new skill – how to be fully present with others when there is no “end result”.  When day after day nothing changes and everything just stays the same.

I definitely do find though that at L’Arche I have a reason to start my day.  I’ve never been a morning person but there is something so incredible about having another person rely on you so completely and knowing that if you don’t get up they won’t be able to start THEIR day.  There is something incredible about someone needing your assistance in for the smallest details of their life.  So often we struggle with finding meaning in our lives and in our work environment.  Part of the reason (if not most) that so many Canadians have switched careers four or five times are because they don’t feel they are giving enough or making a difference.  Every night when I go to bed I know that I have made a difference that day even though no one else may ever see it.  But that’s what it means to have integrity – or at least to learn how to have integrity.  It’s about what you do behind closed doors.  Jesus reminds us that if we do things in public to be praised we’ve already received our reward and there is nothing left to give, but when we do something for the betterment of another and not our own advancement then we know that we are right with God and living in Shalom.

It’s so exciting to have five pictures drawn for you during the day.  A feeling that I also loved back when I worked at camp.  It’s also the little things that excitement even though they aren’t much at all.  It’s the times when residents ask for help or cooperate with me even though they aren’t always that way.  To me it’s less about trying to discern a career path and more about just living in the here and now.  I admit that I am very driven and I’m always working towards new things.  I’m always thinking of the next thing to do or the next big event I can go to.  I like to be included and want to attend everything but now I’m learning that my agenda is secondary to the agendas of the people at the house.  It’s about being there for another and learning to walk with them as they also learn to walk with me.

Here is an article that I wrote influenced by my short experience at L’Arche (July 22nd, 2013 – after my second week)

Learning Wisdom Through Worshipping With People Who Have Disabilities

Churches worldwide tend to provide a local and global reality of worship to their congregants, but what does this mean for those who attend services every week but cannot articulate theological insights in the same way as others can and might not even be able to communicate at all?  This has been a topic of interest to me over the past 2 years as I have developed an increasing passion for reaching out to people who have disabilities – an area that remains a growing edge for many churches.  This particular interest led me to study disability theology and eventually led me to L’Arche Daybreak (an intentional community for people with developmental disabilities).  It is at L’Arche that I have become observant to constantly emerging worship patterns in the daily rhythms of life that I share together with 37 core members (residents) and the assistants who come to work and learn from them.

Worshipping with people who have disabilities has instantly drawn me into a deep part of my soul which prior to L’Arche I had not known existed.   This piece of my soul has become exposed to the light through daily prayers which truly show the deepest cries of one’s heart and truly exuberant overflowing praise.  There is something very sacred about the time we spend together which even calms the most unresponsive core member who signals to us that they are truly praying by their change in gestures and presence.  We always end our times with the Lord’s Prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer has become one of great meaning to me over the course of the past year while I was attending seminary.  It gradually went from being more than just recited words to being a prayer which held great power and influence over my life.  I began to pray it earnestly every day and began to see changes in my life when I did so.  Even though the Lord’s Prayer was an important prayer to me before coming into L’Arche it wasn’t until I started praying it every night around the table with brothers and sisters who have Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and Autism that it really began to make sense to me.  When we pray for God to give us our daily bread it means something completely different to someone who is not able to provide that bread for themselves through working and relies completely on another for their daily needs.  When one lives in an intentional community opportunities to be hurt may present themselves daily and so we pray that God forgives us of our trespasses.  When we pray that God lead us out of temptation we embrace our own neediness, despair, and understanding that we can be taken advantage of.

All of these experiences are powerful to me as are the Friday night weekly worship sessions that are housed at our chapel.  The first service I attended was a Roman Catholic mass.  The altar servers both had Down Syndrome and when they offered me the Body and Blood of Christ I became aware of what it truly means to be a part of Christ’s brokenness and suffering.  When I looked around the chapel I noticed how many of our core members must use wheelchairs and how many have been shunted around by a world which does not understand them – perfect targets for bullying, they carry around shame.  When someone in this position says, “the body of Christ broken for you” the brokenness is intensified as we all come to terms with our common human frailty.  It is a very moving experience.

So how does all of this apply to the average congregant who does not live daily among people who have disabilities?  I want to encourage churches to rethink what it truly means to be part of the broken body of Christ through including people with disabilities to express their gifts and to take part in service.  We can invite people with Down Syndrome to serve communion and people who have autism to help with singing.  When we pray the Our Father, I encourage us to rethink what it truly means to be given the bread we need daily even though we live in an abelistic society.  As we spend time in prayer and in careful listening with our brothers and sisters who have disabilities we will be able to sense the Spirit freely moving in our churches and to enrich the diversity that is inherent all around us.

Journeying into the Depths – One Week at L’Arche (July 14, 2013)

After being at L’Arche for one week I have learned that there is so much more that needs to be processed.  My first week has definitely exposed some of my insecurities, vulnerabilities, and questions in much the same way that it did for Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier.  It has also illuminated some of the joys that Jean and Henri speak of (and that my friends who work in this field have told me about) such as the affection, love, and warmth someone can truly give without the same prejudices attached to them as to others.  It has re-taught me the importance of communicating and listening to someone who is non-verbal and truly being attentive and alert.  The last time I encountered someone non-verbal was in my “best friend” at the nursing home – Henry who I got along with very well.

A lot of people have been asking me “What exactly is it that you do?”.  This question has become increasingly harder for me to answer.  How does one describe what one “does” when they live in a community?  In one way, the daily chores of feeding, preparing and cooking a meal, and cleaning seem to minimal and yet they are so important.  They aren’t glamorous, but someone has got to do it.  The days can be long and the nights short, but yet in describing my daily regime, the idea of getting paid to “hang out” and watch movies does not seem like a whole lot.

I think the most important thing that I have learned is that L’Arche is LESS about doing and MORE about being.  There are always things that need to be done around the house and it is our duty and responsibility to tend to those needs.  But more important than that is the idea of being present in the community.  Being open to possibilities.  Being flexible.  Being responsive to the resident’s needs, the needs of the other assistants, and our own needs.  It is about learning your limits and boundaries and embracing them rather than trying to run away from them.  It is about honouring your “time away”.  At L’Arche we don’t use the phrase “time off”, instead we always say, “time away.”  And in the long run, I think it is more accurate.  At L’Arche we never truly have “time off”.  Sure, there are a few hours when we aren’t cooking, cleaning, or washing dishes.  There are hours when the residents (who we call “core members”) aren’t home and the house is quiet.  But we are always sharing in the family and in communal life.  The community is part of who we are – we can’t get rid of it.  However, we do have time away.  It’s a time for us to pursue other passions and to visit friends who aren’t part of our community.  I’ve been spending that time mostly with friends from university and reading books of my own choosing.

There is so much more I could say about the honesty and depth that graces our dinner conversations and our prayers, about the sincerity in the core members eyes, and about my struggle to learn how to “waste time”.  There is tension between a society that calls us first and foremost to be productive and to base our identity on what we do versus communal life which calls us first and foremost to be present and to listen and to base our identity on who we are and who we live with.  It’s less about how we spend our time and more about who we spend that time with.

But all of these lessons will be saved for another day.  How can one after only one week even begin to describe how your heart swells at the words “I love you” or how their heart leaps when one of the residents finally “gets it”?  It is an impossible feeling to reproduce.  You’ll just have to trust me when I say that lessons learned never cease and that there has never been one day over the past week when I didn’t laugh so hard that tears were forming in my eyes.

Schooling the Heart – One Week Before L’Arche (June 30, 2013)

Exactly one week before L’Arche and my emotions are already soaring high.  To be honest, I’m feeling a bit of everything.  I’m definitely excited to start work.  I’ve been discerning ministry with the past 17 years, so it feels really cool to finally be starting ministry full time rather than simply part time or through internships.  Sometimes people question me about calling.  They think that I am somehow trying to find my place by working at L’Arche.  There might be some truth to that, however, the more I read Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier alongside Sister Sue Mosteller and others I realize that working at L’Arche is very pastoral.  While not employed by L’Arche as a pastor, the skills that one uses at L’Arche are very much ones of pastoral care and teaching (though preaching… well, we”ll leave that for the occasional Sundays I get at Danforth).  I am beginning to learn that being a pastor can take on many different forms – it does not simply mean standing in front of a congregation day in and day out.

As many of my other posts have hinted at, I have been learning a lot and challenging myself to rethink some of the earlier conceptions that I had even though I haven’t officially started work yet.  Some of the ways that L’Arche has got me thinking even before living in the community are about what exactly it means to live in community and with others (in somewhere other than a university residence), what it means to “ground down and grow up”, what it means to live in a world that is so individualistic and “me-focused” while at the same time caring for other people, and what it means re-look at the importance of Christian celibacy.  I’ve also been learning a whole lot about calling over these past 8 months (or 2 years depending on when you consider my journey with L’Arche to have started).  I’m a huge believer that one can be called to a vocation for life or simply for a time period.  I also believe that everything happens for a reason even if we can’t see it all right now.  Thus, I have no doubt in my mind that I was indeed called to the seminary even if only for one year because that one year has prepared me in certain respects that will now be beneficial to my working life.  This mindset is also the reason why I am just trying to take things slowly and to learn and grow at L’Arche while hopefully discerning my next steps.  Jean Vanier often speaks about how some people find their calling at L’Arche and remain there and others will leave the community after a year or two more confident of their desire to serve in another field.  Either way, no one leaves L’Arche unchanged.

Although these are all very important areas that I have been exploring and will continue to explore throughout my time at L’Arche, the most important thing I have been learning is about how people view individuals with intellectual disabilities.  The most common responses I get are phrases such as, “Well, you must have a lot of patience.” Or “I’m glad that you’re doing that, I could never do something like that.” Or “Why are you working among the disabled.  Aren’t you training to be a pastor?  Why don’t you leave that work for people who have the training and continue your studies?”.  Sometimes I even get people saying things like, “So what exactly do you do?  You’re getting paid just to live in a community?”

At first these types of phrases and attitudes really bothered me, but the more I spoke to my mentor (who worked at L’Arche for 12 years) and the more I read Henri Nouwen, the more I discovered what was behind these attitudes.  I was surprised, at first, to learn that Nouwen had faced those same kinds of beliefs and was challenged in much the same way I have been (except he almost had more of a reason to be challenged since he had a good profession, was more educated, and even more well-known).  My mentor and Nouwen urged me to see the other side of the picture.  I’m not the patient one.  Sure, it does take patience to work with someone who has a disability, but it also takes patience to do a lot of other things in life.  I worked with seniors (people with Alzheimer’s became my specialty) for about 2 years and that took patience, but I loved my job.  I have done internships with children, youth, and teenagers in crisis pregnancy situations – those all took patience.  I am not a parent, but I know that if I was that would take patience.  So, I am not a hero just because I have chosen to spend a year doing this.  Actually, the people that I am about to work with are really the patient ones.  Here they are significantly older than me having me tell them what to do (despite the fact that I don’t have as much life experience as they do).  They develop relationships with these 21 or 23 year old staff and then the staff leave after a year or two once the residents have bonded with them and relied on them for their every need.  If that’s not patience, I don’t know what is.

Whenever I mention this point, there is bound to be someone who says, “well, they have really severe disabilities don’t they?”.  At first this statement bothered me.  Yes, they have severe disabilities, but that doesn’t make them any less human.  They realize that they are adults and they want to be treated like adults, not patronized.  They have stayed at the house much longer than I have and know the routines.  They are being patient as I learn them.

Yet I have recently given much thought to this and realize what it might implicitly be saying.  While no one would actually go right out and say this, I wonder to myself if there is a part of us that is rather abelistic.  A part of us that thinks that there is an “us” vs. “them” mentality.  There are definitely certain stereotypes that I’ve come across – that people with disabilities are dangerous, that we don’t know what they’re thinking or IF they’re thinking, or that they are basically children who can’t do anything for themselves.  These are wrong viewpoints.  Thankfully, the people who believe this are actually in the minority, but still, I have come upon them.  The more I spend time in mentoring and in reading Vanier and Nouwen, the more I have learned that this mindset needs to be broken.

I believe that the job of working at L’Arche is important and a ministry.  It’s probably not a glamorous one, but it’s still one that needs to take place.  Sometimes I have come upon this mindset that working as a pastor in a church somehow requires more life experience than working at L’Arche does.  I would disagree with that.  To me, it’s along the same lines as people who think that being a youth pastor is less of a pastoral job than being a senior pastor.  Those who work with youth know that it is indeed very hard and demanding and no less strenuous than working with adults (in fact, in some ways, it is more difficult because of the trials youth go through).  In the same way, working among people who are non-verbal, rely on you for their every need, and are not able to articulate their needs to you in the same way as others is definitely a job that requires an honest calling, maturity, and mental preparation.  People with disabilities are no less important than the doctors, engineers, and professionals who may happen to attend the church – therefore, I want to approach this position the same way I have approached my pastoral calling for many years.

As I think about joining the L’Arche community in a week, I’m asking myself, what is it that I really need.  What I need is to be enveloped in prayer.  To have people around me willing to support and encourage me, especially because I know that it’s not an easy job and that there is a high likelihood that one can face sheer exhaustion at the end of the day.

I ask you to partner in prayer with me as I start on this journey.  I will be posting frequent updates on this blog so that you can follow my time at L’Arche especially in my first year and possibly into the other years if I end up staying on board.

If you would like some prayer points, I have made an acrostic with the ways you can keep me in your thoughts as you approach the Throne Room of Grace

D – Dedication – to remain loyal to the L’Arche organization (especially their mission and vision) and most importantly to be helpful to the residents

A – Attitude – to remain positive during the good days as well as the stressful and challenging ones

Y – Youthful energy – Face it, you all know I’m a big kid at heart, so may as well use it to my advantage hopefully to bring a smile to a few faces 🙂

B – Balance – To find the right balance between social and alone time while working in a household situation, to find the right balance between listening and sharing, to find balance as I grow in myself and learn about my surroundings, and also balance between work responsibilities, taking online courses, and my friends outside of L’Arche.

R – Rest – I know it might not sound like that important of a need, however, rest is so important when working in a high energy caring profession.  That I have time for myself and can honour my day off, that I can make time for my friends (especially as I am in a wedding party and will be using quite a bit of my days off to help plan it), and that I get adequate sleep each night so that I can wake up refreshed in the morning and ready to help with all of the various duties required in the household.

E – Energy – To find strength to accomplish all that I need to each day.  Physical energy and health to take care of the needs of others and to build a strong immune system.  Mental energy to be alert and prepared for whatever may happen.  Emotional energy when I’m feeling drained to keep going.

A – Approachable – That people feel they are able to talk to me about anything, that the residents can ask me for help, that I can ask the residents and staff for help, and that I am flexible and willing to give and receive counsel and direction.  That I can be teachable.

K – Knowledge – to learn and secure resources for working with people who have disabilities.

** I would also appreciate prayers for: the initial adjustment (especially adjusting from being a full time student into full time work and living in a new culture with new people)
– Tenacity (always to be determined to give my best and not give up even when the task is challenging)

– Heart (that people will be able to see Christ through the way that I interact with them and that I can grow spiritually)

– Righteousness (to honour God in the decisions I make and the way I work whether or not others are around)

– Yearning (to hunger and thirst for God in a whole new dimension)

– Vitality (vigour, strength, and life so that I can be energetic and lively.  That I honour God by the words I speak and the way I speak them)

– Example (1 Timothy 4:12)

– Relationships (that God guides and directs me with wisdom in navigating the various cultures and needs of each member of the household; making new friends and keeping the old ones)

————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

INTRODUCTION TO THIS PAGE

Before I explain this page, I would like to credit the title “Sabbatical Journey” to its rightful owner, Henri Nouwen, who has a strong history with the L’Arche movement.

Starting on July 7th, 2013, I will be working for one year (and possibly longer) at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario (close to Toronto).  L’Arche is an intentional community made up of various houses across Canada and the world that serve people who have varying types of developmental disabilities.  It seeks to foster wholeness and healing, by being a symbol to the world rather than a “cure”.

Founder, Jean Vanier, and long time L’Arche assistant, Henri Nouwen, as well as Sister Sue Mosteller (SOSJ) have be my main inspirations for spending time at L’Arche.

In this section of the page, I will be describing in a journal format my time at L’Arche – the rhythms of  daily life in the community, the prayer and spiritual disciplines which are cultivated through formation, and my on-going discernment of  vocational calling and self.  Unlike the majority of my blog, these pieces will be devotional, personal, and emotionally impactful rather than looking at theological queries and modern debates.  If I notice that while I’m writing my piece is morphing from a journal into theological ramblings, I will move it to its rightful place on the blog proper.

Looking forward to keeping you updated in this way and learning and growing together.

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13 thoughts on “Sabbatical Journey – My Time at L’Arche

  1. Hello Debrah,
    I have read some of your writing and am interested in following your blog as you begin at L’Arche. If I don’t connect with it, I may be having some technical difficulties. It was good to learn to know you on the recent Mediterranean Cruise trip.
    Mary Schiedel

  2. Hello Debra,
    I have prayed for you occasionally–especially the week before you started and your first week. Now I just read your July 14 blog written after your first week and get a picture of what you are doing and BEING. I agree that the latter is your (and my) big challenge.
    You seem to enjoy the residents (all of them?) and have some good laughs with them. The ‘time away’ distinction is important too.
    I hope the wedding you’re involved with goes well, or went well if it’s now past.
    Also I hope I can keep up with our blog and that my responses get through as I’m not too familiar with blogging.
    Love and prayers,
    Mary S.

    • Hi Mary,

      Thanks for your prayers and for reading my blogs. The wedding is not until next year, we’re just in the very beginning stages of planning right now. And I’m enjoying my job and all the people I work with. Thanks again 🙂

      Deborah

      • Hello Debrah,
        I am still reading your blog as and when I can and I do pray for you at times.
        Your comment on the wedding puzzles me and I wonder if I missed something important. Anyway best wishes and congratulations on your 5000th blog readers and responses;
        Mary S.

      • Hi Mary, Thanks for keeping up to date with my blog when you get the chance. I am very confused about the whole wedding conversation myself. You said in your first post that you hope the wedding goes well or went well if it already happened and I don’t know to which wedding you referred. I was assuming you were talking about my friend’s wedding who I am standing up in as a bridesmaid. Did you mean another wedding?

  3. Pingback: True Prayer – Learning the L’Arche Values |

  4. Hey Deborah,

    I’ve just read a few of your posts and I would like to ask you a few questions about the culture, logistics, and dynamics of field work. I’m researching donor attitudes and motivations with regard to to global hunger relief (you can review my work at http://www.YourOnePercent.org/surveyresults.html ). I’ve learned a lot about foreign missions at the management level, but not much from the perspective of the actual missionaries who serve for extended periods of time.

  5. Hey Deborah,

    I’ve just read a few of your posts and I would like to ask you a few questions about the culture, logistics, and dynamics of field work. I’m researching donor attitudes and motivations with regard to to global hunger relief (you can review my work at http://www.YourOnePercent.org/surveyresults.html ). I’ve learned a lot about foreign missions at the management level, but not much from the perspective of the actual missionaries who serve for extended periods of time.
    Reply

  6. Hmmm… Is there a “typical” person who goes on foreign missions, Would more people go if they could get sponsored, how much does it cost to live in the field, can you staff a foreign missions post based on qualifications, or does someone have to have a specific calling? What are some common problems? How,successful are various methods of hunger relief and which ones are durable (produce lasting changes)? I realize that some of these questions might be beyond your direct experience, but perhaps you know some other missionaries with relevant experience. Thank you!

    • I actually am not really involved with the Foreign missions aspects. My main emphasis is on peace studies within the Canadian context. I have only been on a few mission’s endeavours overseas and taken a few courses in seminary.

      I know that there is potential for overseas missions to be very expensive and most missionaries do not make a salary. It’s more of a “faith mission” concept. There are a few organizations that will cover the basic necessities – food, clothing, basic medical and dental, etc.

      I have only a rough understanding of hunger relief as a result of a few economics classes that I have taken so I’m probably not the best one to answer that.

      In terms of calling, there is a general understanding that all Christians are called to mission work (the Great Commission). However, it is my understanding that the Great Commission comes in many different forms… some are called more to stay in their own geographical location, others are called overseas. I never experienced a profound call to go overseas myself.

      Sorry that I can’t answer these questions better but I hope you are able to find the answers to what you are seeking.

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