Where’s the Justice in That? The Social Exclusion of Adults with Learning Disabilities and What the Church Can Do to Fix It

WP_20160610_003   Who is welcome at your church?  What makes you so sure?  What evidence do you have to prove this?

It was a typical Sunday like any other.  I walked into the sanctuary at 10:30am, quickly found my seat in the balcony with my friends and prepared my heart for worship.  I love my church very dearly and I was excited about this being one of the few Sundays I had off work where I was actually able to take in the whole service without rushing off afterwards.  However, my thoughts were elsewhere.  You see, this past weekend I attended the Tio Conference for Disability Theology and Ministry at Belfast Bible College and I could not get the presenter’s prophetic words and challenge to the church out of my head.  Dr. Jeff McNair (the keynote speaker) had made the case that less than 20% of adults with severe learning disabilities are being properly included into the life of the church.  He mentioned the various ways people with disabilities are often ignored at worst and tolerated at best, and he poignantly asked how we, as church leaders, can claim to love our neighbours when our neighbours so blatantly do not include those who are different from us.

Sitting in the balcony provided the optimal opportunity to survey exactly who was in our congregation that Sunday.  I was very pleased to note the wide range of age demographics and cultures represented.  I find it an incredible testimony to my church’s witness in the community that we have young adults and seniors worshipping side-by-side, and that we have at least 30 nationalities in attendance (which for a city like Edinburgh that is much less multicultural than Toronto or London is quite impressive).  I was touched to see that people of all socio-economic ranks were welcomed, and I was happy to note that people in various stages of their faith walk were affirmed.  However, my heart lurched in disappointment at the lack of people with disabilities who call this church their home.    Dr. McNair mentioned that the mark of a exclusive church is silence… and what did I hear during the morning service?  Not loud cackles, not an excessive humming or stemming, and not vocalisations… but sheer silence.  The sound of a passive audience listening to a sole presenter (which is exactly what the majority of churches around the world are subjected to on any given Sunday).

During the conference, McNair mentioned that we were part of history.  He noted that there are very few seminars and gatherings for church leaders around the world to discuss topics related to disability theology.  He asked the question “why is this?”  It is to our great shame that even developed countries like Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. that are so far ahead on so many other areas of ministry are so far behind when it comes to relating to those with intellectual and physical limitations.

This is why having a conference such as Tio (a derivative of the classical Greek word meaning “to lift up, to honour, to advance, to value…in essence to bring someone from invisibility to visibility and to give them a voice) is so important.   Having been in the disability field for the past three years I can attest to the not having many of these opportunities previously available to me, yet I was inspired by the amount of people who attended this inaugural event.  Roughly 100 people were in attendance from Northern Ireland, England, and Scotland and the participants included Sunday school teachers, pastors, lay leaders, parents, and scholars as well as a few people with developmental disabilities themselves.  Sessions were inclusive for all people with a separate option for a specifically designed seminar for people with special needs.  I was also beyond thrilled to see the wide range of experience represented.  We had people who were basically “thrust” into the role through having children with disabilities, people who chose the field for themselves and have been pioneering ministries for the past 20 or 30 years, and people (like myself) who are relatively new to this area.  We even had a few ministers in attendance who admitted to not having a specific passion in disability ministry, but who nevertheless came out because they see the value in at least beginning to question and think about some of these topics.

The sessions ranged from highly academic to more practical and I am happy to inform you that all the materials will be made available for your personal download (at a small fee) in the near future.  Personally, I got a lot out of the conference, but I also realize the need to now start putting these thoughts into practice.  Otherwise, they will forever stay at the level of academic rumination.  Therefore, I would like to suggest a few simple ways that your church can become more inclusive for people with disabilities:

  • Rethinking Loving Our Neighbour

Our fundamental calling is to impart the love of Christ to each person drawing them deeper into God’s immeasurable peace. We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves – to affirm their worth and to give them greater honour than we give to ourselves. BUT valuing another person takes sacrifice- it’s hard work. It is about recognizing the inherent worth of each person, their gifts, their strengths, and the presence of the Christ light in them.

For too long we (as individual Christians, the church and general society) have failed to do exactly this especially when it comes to people who are different than us – primarily people with disabilities. Many pastors will claim they love all people equally and want all people to come to the church, but often the lived out reality and logistics communicate something extremely different. Christians are called to be trail blazers, set apart from the world, but unfortunately, we often mirror worldly ways of approaching someone with a disability, further adding to hurt and marginalization.

It is not enough just to “tolerate” a person with a disability. On all sides and in every way we need to move from exclusion to inclusion, from complacency to change. We need to start thinking about these things and not being okay with the fact that even after all these years less than 20% of people with profound learning disabilities are welcomed and fully included into the life of our church. People with learning disabilities also can be jaded by the church and subsequently reject Christ so we need to think long and hard about the implications our apathy can have on others.

To quote Wolf Wolfensberger: “Indeed without significant cost, an action should not be viewed as advocacy…even if it is otherwise valuable action.”

  • Putting Yourself In Another’s Shoes (Quite Literally)

Last year I was able to present a seminar at the Cahoots Festival near Milton, Ontario.  At this conference I provided participants with a number of activities to begin thinking about what it might be like for someone with a disability.  Two of these activities included trying to peel an orange with one hand and trying to stand and walk with a handful of marbles in either shoe.  The people who tried these activities admitted that both tasks which normally would be quite easy and done automatically were hampered by having an apparent disadvantage.  Yesterday when I was at church I began thinking about how to take this even further.  Do you ever wonder whether or not your church would be accessible to people with disabilities?  Why not try to wear heavy earplugs during the service and see if you can still get something out of a primarily aural experience?  If you need glasses to do virtually anything, imagine what church might be like if you took off your glasses or contact lens for the duration of the service.  On a much smaller scale, as someone who struggles with hyperactivity… I try to imagine what would happen if I didn’t bring my little stress ball to church or if I failed to bring my notebook and pen, then I try to magnify that by about a hundred.  You get the picture.  So much of what we do in our churches is simply NOT accessible to people with physical and intellectual disabilities because we do not KNOW what it would be like to be in their shoes.  So why not ask someone with a disability what their experience of church is and then try some of these activities out for yourself?

  • Making Disability Ministry a Priority

I get it.  We all have different passions and different areas that we think are the most important to focus on and personally I think that’s great.  I think it really adds to the diversity of the Body of Christ and that we can all learn something from each other.  But sadly, it seems that while many churches are focused on church planting, evangelism, and outreach (very important roles), few churches care enough to think about what it would be like to plant a church that includes people with disabilities.  Few churches employ a pastor with a huge heart for disability ministry and few mission organizations ask their participants if any of them would be interested in creating a ministry experience that works side-by-side someone with a disability as a co-labourer.

Think about your church.  Is disability ministry a priority?  Why or why not?  Do you have any interest in making it a priority?  I believe that the Christian calling encompasses all people.  That we are called to witness and reach out to everyone – including, and perhaps especially to, people who are quite different than we are.  Those who are marginalized and often ignored and overlooked.

In his inspiring article entitled What Would Be Better? Social Role Valorization and the Development of Persons Affected by Disability found on the incredible website: http://www.whatwouldbebetter.com/ Jeff McNair and Marc Tumeinski pose the following question:

What does our shared vision of Christian community look like? Who is present in our biblical vision of community? How can the inclusion of vulnerable people better reflect the Gospel vision and therefore strengthen our church community? How can we more closely approach this vision here and now within our church? Given the actual makeup of our membership, might we unintentionally or unconsciously be putting some groups of people outside of this vision? What would be better?

How would you answer this question in regards to yourself?  Your church?  Your Christian university, seminary, or intentional community?  The global church?  Society as a whole?

I believe the key to good disability ministry lies in having an inclusive approach, not in merely being insular.  What I mean is that first and foremost we need to find ways to minister and include people who are different from us.  BUT then we cannot stay on the level of our church having an outreach – we need to also think about how we can more fully integrate with society.  For the past three years I have worked with L’Arche (a Christian intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities).  L’Arche does good work.  L’Arche is an excellent sign and beacon to the world that people with learning disabilities belong and should be valued for their contributions to society.  L’Arche is a great service provider and care home for many adults who would potentially have nowhere else to go.  BUT L’Arche also has one major flaw – we have the tendency to become extremely inwardly focussed.  Working in L’Arche in both Canada and the U.K. I am often surprised at how few people (even in local churches) know who we are or what we are about.  Those who have heard about L’Arche often only know it from the writings of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen, rather than as a result of visiting our community for a chapel or supper and actually experiencing the mutual life-giving relationships we share first hand. This lack of general knowledge has sadly even led to a few people believing that I am involved in a cult!  To me this points towards the fact that although we, as a community, are thriving in so many areas, we still need to improve on becoming more outwardly focused.  On thinking about how to work with other service providers and churches to continue to create and foster more opportunities for disability ministry rather than just the needs of our own immediate community.

I have given you a lot to think about here, but I hope it helps set you on the path towards establishing and maintaining disability ministries within your own context.  Next time you go to church, why not have a look around and make a mental note of who is in attendance and what you can do to bring those who aren’t already there into the fold.  And next time the service is completely quiet, why not make some noise… because an inclusive church should never be silent.



The End of One Journey and the Beginning of the Next – Wrapping Up My Time at L’Arche

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA An assistant’s last week at L’Arche is often emotional for a variety of reasons. It’s difficult to say goodbye after bonding with core members who completely depend on you. It’s hard to say goodbye to assistants from different countries not sure if your paths will ever intersect again in some cases. It’s hard to say goodbye to community life, to the magnificently beautiful property, and to the daily rhythms you’ve become accustomed to.

When I look back at my year at L’Arche it has been full of both positive life-changing experiences as well as struggles and hardship. Community life would not be beautiful any other way. I am constantly amazed at how much has taken place this year. It has been an opportunity of growth, service, and communion. Looking back at some of the difficulties we faced as a house including illness both of residents and of staff, difficult transitions, and even death, I am reminded of God’s faithfulness knowing that I never could have pulled through these challenges if it weren’t for my faith in Him. I’m also reminded of the many smiles and joyful days I’ve shared with our residents – days full of laughter, hugs, and blessings. Days in which I accompanied core members to the movies, out to eat, or even on vacations and outings. It is a blessing to be part of each one of their lives.

Whenever we get a new assistant, one of our core members always pronounces “we got a new student this week.” Thinking of these words, I am reminded of how wise they really are. Some of us may join L’Arche thinking we have something to give, something to offer. We definitely do. Each one of us is needed to make L’Arche work and happen and L’Arche could not function if it weren’t for dedicated and supportive assistants and volunteers. On the other hand, each assistant truly is a student more than they are a teacher. We are here to learn. We are here to understand.

I am constantly amazed at how many people who have never worked amongst a demographic of adults with disabilities tell me, “you must be so patient, I could never do that.” Actually, every day I realize just how impatient I really am. Just how self-centered I can be. Just how much I enjoy having my own space and doing my own thing. Every day I am challenged to put the needs of core members before my own, to be flexible, and to be willing to sacrifice for the community. I think in reality the core members (adults with disabilities) are the patient ones. They are the ones who let me come in and be part of their lives. They trust me completely, allowing me to learn their most intimate personal care routines. They are the ones who patiently teach me how to connect and communicate with them – their likes and their dislikes. They are the ones who are patient when I am having a bad day. They are truly caring people.

As I look back on this year at L’Arche I find myself asking, “have I really lived amongst adults with developmental disabilities for a year?” In some ways I feel ready to leave, but in most cases I still feel that the time was too short. There is so much more I could learn if I stayed here in this community and continued to serve amongst the least of these. There are so many lessons of service and love that I am only just now beginning to scratch the surface of. After a year and over 2,000 hours living in the community I am only beginning to feel now that I am getting a taste of what L’Arche really is all about.

Last night we had our going away blessing at the community chapel – the Dayspring. I was so humbled and so blessed by the service itself. As members of the community who felt close to me were asked to come to the front to place their hand on my shoulder I was really surprised with who went up. Some of the people who felt close to me are people I never would have imagined I connected so deeply with this year. One such person is a man named Robin. Robin is a young man who has down syndrome and lives in another house. Robin and I pass each other every day, smile, wave, exchange a few words and then move on. I have never really had a long conversation with Robin nor have I ever really extended my hand to him other than for a few pleasantries on my way to or from picking up or dropping my own residents off to their day programs. Yet, Robin came to the front, placed his hand on my shoulder, and seriously looked distraught that I was leaving the community. After the blessing he rubbed my back and said how much he was going to miss me and how thankful he was to me. Robin is the last person I would have expected this from, but it felt really nice to know that in some way my presence has been valuable to him.

We all long for mountain top experiences. For experiences where God is so real and present to us that we do not doubt His comfort for a moment. We all long for experiences where we feel we are making a difference and doing the will of God. I’ve had a few of those experiences here, but I’ve also learned that even more important that mountain top experiences is valley spirituality. It’s coming down from the mountain and being able to commune with the average people who live in the shadows. It’s doing life daily. It’s being able to say yes. Yes to L’Arche. Yes to service. And yes to taking the lessons of L’Arche with you even when you aren’t physically present there anymore.

The Biggest Party of Your Life – Revelation 5 Sermon

Photo Credit: Pat Marvenko Smith

To listen to the audio recording of this message please go to: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B9Y6k9QG0gsfeE45clJzOWZYYUU&usp=sharing… it is the very last one (scroll down the page: 2014-06-22, the sermon picks up at approximately 18 minutes into the worship service)

Context: Today, our sermon focuses on the book of Revelation, but since we haven’t done a sermon series on this book, I thought it would be helpful to give a quick, 2 minute summary of what’s happening before we get into this chapter.

Revelation is the very last book of the Bible. What I love about this book is that it shows the culmination of what the whole Bible is about. It’s a type of literature called “Apocalyptic” which refers to the end times and the foretelling of the future. The book of Revelation shows what heaven is like and what God has promised to all His children – to all of us who love Him and do His will. Heaven is the end result for all of us here. Heaven is what God desires all of us to experience. From the beginning of time in the book of Genesis, we see how God has set the stage for our relationship with Him and in Revelation we see how even after death this relationship does not stop but keeps on going. All of us here today face hardships and difficulties, but God has promised that because of His love and mercy towards us – not because we are worthy or deserving, that in the end of time good will triumph over evil and there will be no more pain or grief or sorrow. So that shows us that there is cause for a party!!

The first three chapters deal with individual letters to the various churches in the geographical region highlighting their strengths and also encouraging them in their weaknesses to serve the Lord. Chapter four sets the stage for heaven and gives us a rich description of what heaven looks and feels like. Then once we are in heaven, the events of Revelation 5 take place and my sermon picks up.

Body: All of us have experienced important celebrations. Baptisms, graduations, weddings, child dedications, ordinations, and anniversaries all provide us with ways to celebrate the meaningful events in our lives and to thank God for what He has provided us with. These milestone events serve as ways for our community to join together in an important event rather than just leaving us to engage with the event on our own.

In the 5th chapter of the book of Revelation, we are introduced to another very important type of celebration. That of worship. No one has been found worthy to open the scrolls except for the Lamb of God. The one we call Christ – the anointed one. When the Lamb is found, there is a giant celebration in recognition of His worth even before the scrolls are opened.                  

At L’Arche we do celebrations very well. Every occasion is an opportunity to practice gratitude for being part of a community of friends, to wish someone well on their next steps after leaving the community, and to foster relationships with members of the house. I was really blessed during my year at L’Arche to experience many birthday and going away parties.   During these occasions, we all go around a circle and recognize the worth of the individual we are celebrating and the unique gifts and strengths they bring to our community. This is an incredible practice especially when we are recounting the gifts of Hsi-Fu (a non-verbal man who is completely dependent on assistants) or of a core member who may at times display difficult behaviours. It reminds us that within the tension of not always knowing how to respond in love, we are deeply indebted to each resident at L’Arche for accepting us and showing us their love and care.

Parties at L’Arche are also a special time for the assistants who live and work among the adults with developmental disabilities. Birthdays are always important times for me. Throughout my life I have always sought ways to use birthdays as a way to foster already existing friendships and to create new relationships. Yet even though I’ve had some pretty cool birthday parties including surprise ones and panda themed cakes, my 23rd birthday at L’Arche is one I will never forget. Going around the room and having each person tell me what gifts I bring to L’Arche was both humbling and encouraging. It reminded me how many tasks I overlook are so important to the lives of the core members. To me, helping someone with bathing is no big deal – it’s all part of the daily routine of self-care I assist them with, but to the individual receiving the bath it is a way to share in our common humanity. To me, reading a bedtime story to a resident who has Down syndrome is a fun and relaxing way to end off the evening, but to Darryl it’s an important time where I affirm his worth and make time for him even though the demands at the house can be heavy at times.

Many of us have experienced celebrations recognizing the worth of certain individuals before. The Nobel Peace Prize, the Oscars, and even graduations are all times when we recognize the academic achievements, humanitarian efforts, and entertainment milestones of both ordinary and famous people alike. If we get excited about these events that generally only happen a few times in a life time, imagine how much more impressive it must have been to view the Lamb of God getting recognized for something only He could ever accomplish.

At the beginning of the fifth chapter a request goes out: find someone who is able to open the scroll. Although everyone begins scouring the entire throng trying to find that one individual, even the most saintly person is found lacking to even look at the book. Finally, one is found who can do this action. Interestingly enough, He is not the most handsome, most popular, or the strongest, for God does not judge based solely on who people appear to be to others. Rather, He is a Carpenter’s kid who was persecuted during His short 33 years on earth, and yet who now reigns victoriously with His Heavenly Parent.  

The act of finding the worthy one, alone, seems to be of highest importance to those who gather around. This celebration is a giant heavenly party. The Bible speaks of thousands of angels gathering together and signing in unison a chant about the greatness of the Lord. Those of us who have heard Mennonite 4-part harmony or others who have heard a brilliant choir have only experienced a taste of what this heavenly music must have sounded like. The voices must have been more rich and vibrant than anything imaginable. The song must have floated through the air on a melody more exuberant than any orchestration ever written. Think about the most wonderful concert that you have ever attended and try to magnify this experience by a million.

The main theme of this song is extolling God’s worth. The song, although short, actually hosts a great image of God and God’s connection to humanity. The song simply states, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.”

The book of Revelation was written during a time when emperor worship was rampant in society, not so much because of religiosity, but more-so because of politicism. To worship the emperor implied that one honoured and respected him and was willing to serve him at any cost. To the early Christians, this type of theology did not line up. The early Christians believed that only God was worthy of our thanks and praise and so they took a stand against what was happening by only conceding to bow to the Almighty Creator – Jehovah God. When the Christians blatantly refused to acknowledge the emperor in the way that he wished, persecution became a quick and easy answer to solving the problem.

So, when John pens that the lyrics of the song referred primarily to God’s worth, this was a radical concept. The phrase “you are worthy” was generally only kept for Roman Emperors who received this as an affirmative phrase from their subjects when they returned home from battle. When the living creatures, the elders, and all the saints proclaim that Christ is worthy, they are quickly shifting this power from the Emperor’s hands into God’s. John is extolling the God who throughout history has shattered nations with one blow, has parted the Red Sea with His magnificent hand, and has spoken every creature into being. Although terrifying, this God is also full of compassion. Although serving justice, this God also offers mercy towards all who revere Him. John acknowledges this God as being more impressive and more powerful than any other lesser god.

In our own lives, we also face the temptation of whose authority we want to be under – God’s or the world’s. Our world beckons us to applaud leaders and the political arena of our day. Our society thrives on being powerful, beautiful, magnificent, and successful. It asks us to choose to honour the gods of technology and romance often at the expense of our true Lord. Our society pulls us away from Christ’s reign by imputing into our minds the concept of the “self-made man or woman” who comes by everything through his or her own power and hard work alone.

This is once again where the beauty of L’Arche comes in, for at L’Arche our core members (adults with developmental disabilities) come just as they are. They are truly an example of self-acceptance and self-love. They love and accept me for who I am despite my own imperfections and false image of myself, and it is in this loving embrace that I begin to love myself more and I begin to view the world differently. A year ago I may never have experienced the vibrant colours of a newly budding flower as much as I do today. 5 years ago, I never would have understood the magnificence of simply being with someone – whether verbal or not, the sheer magnitude a hug can mean, or the smiles a simple joke could produce. God, in His infinite love and mercy has given us so many small blessings in our lives – sunsets and sunrises, creation, music, dance, and song. He has taught us how to live and be in community and how our fulfillment as humankind can only be imparted through the love and care of others whether romantically or in friendship. And yet, it’s also so incredible to think that what we experience here on earth is simply a foretaste of the heavenly and eternal reality. We think we’ve got it good here, just wait until we see Christ face to face. We will worship Him all day every day. We will never lack anything. The Scriptures even tell us that there will no longer be the pains of this world, but that we will know others and be known by others so completely – just like Christ knows us and loves us today.

This passage provides some very important worship questions for all of us.   Why do we go to church? And how do we go to church? Do we go out of a sense of obligation or of trying to show others that we are pious? Do we approach the throne room of God by trying to over exert ourselves? Are we secretly resentful that we are here rather than sleeping in or doing some other worthwhile activity? And what does it mean to worship after all?

Worship is any act of giving God worth. It’s about the condition of our heart when we go through each and every activity. If your viewpoint is that you truly want to honour God in every aspect of your life and to proclaim God as more important than the culture, then any activity engaged in can be an act of worship. Baking cookies, playing with the neighbourhood children, reading a book, writing a paper, how you choose to engage with social media, and going to church can all be equally valid ways of learning what it means to give God worth and then actually following through on it.  

When we worship God with a light heart rather than a heavy one we also join in the throngs of proclaiming God’s infinite wisdom and might. When we acknowledge God’s power over ours we are saying that God alone is worthy – it is not because of anything that we have done or by means of our own achievement that we enter into God’s Kingdom, but rather solely because of who God is and what He has done.

We are not told how long this particular scene in heaven lasted – a few minutes? Hours? Days? Weeks? Time likely does not have the same meaning in heaven as it does here on earth, but still, we have no concept as to how long the elders praised the Lamb for being worthy to open the seals before He actually did it. What we do know is that there was a giant party in heaven. A group of believers down through the ages who gathered together to sing and chant this song of praise to God.

C.S. Lewis once wrote in his book, “Mere Christianity” that time loses its limitations in the heavenly realm. With God it is still 1922 and also 2016. Revelation also tells us that this song included everyone in heaven, on earth, in the sea, and under the earth all proclaiming the song together in a loud voice. With this concept in mind, it is possible that people who lived thousands of years before John walked the earth joined their voices with our voices and the voices of those not yet born in this hymn of praise to our God.

It was a giant party including every Christian who ever walked this earth and whoever will walk this earth. As we assemble before God in worship today we are given the choice of whether we want to join in to this song or not. Whether we will choose to approach worship begrudgingly as simply a Christian duty or whether it will become so much more to us. As we go from this place, let us be encouraged by the worth of our God who alone is able to open up the most hidden and sealed places of our lives and to put our trust in Him as we await the day that we will one day continue to sing this heavenly song when we are seated with Him in heavenly places.


What Community Transformation Looks Like at L’Arche


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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