What Community Transformation Looks Like at L’Arche

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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!

International Development Awareness Week

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Probably all of us have heard the startling international development facts at one time or another throughout our educational and social careers.  These statistics disturb us.  They should trouble us, shake us, and make us question the way that we do treat the resources we are given. 

Did you know that today 22,000 children will die?  Are you aware that over 1 million people die of malaria each year (a disease that is treatable with Western medicine), and that many women around the globe are affected by fistula (a condition that causes incontinence after a woman has a stillbirth that is unheard of in the West because of our use of Caesarian sections?).  Women with Fistula in the global south often become abandoned by their partners, left to wander alone in the fields, and are occasionally eaten by hyenas during the night. In addition to the physical consequences, Fistula carries a lot of social stigma and emotional distancing to the individual.[1]

Many of us are aware of the discrepancy of wealth – how 5% of the world holds the majority of the world’s resources.  Many of us recognize that millions of people live with less than $10 a day, and that in many countries young girls and boys are still not able to attend school because they lack the resources to do so.  We know of the injustices of the sex trade and the modern slavery that still happens around the globe. These facts and figures are often unsettling and overwhelming.  It can become an easy response to think that because we are not personally affected (or so we think) that the problems are too myriad to tackle.  We may even question ourselves, “what’s the big deal?  Why spend time trying to combat global poverty?  After all, Jesus Himself said that we will always have the poor among us.[2]  Why not spend time instead trying to cure cancer or trying to land on Mars?”[3]

Today is International Development Day at Tyndale.  Professor and advisor of the Tyndale International Development program, Dr. Leah McMillian along with guest lecturer, Linda Tripp (a prominent figure in World Vision as well as a member of several philanthropic boards including Tyndale University College and Seminary’s Board of Directors and a board addressing Fistula) addressed the Tyndale student body today with these very questions and concerns.  They challenged us as young adults to step outside of our comfort zone, to really make a difference, and to become globally aware of what is taking place in our world.  Dr. McMillian also shared with us that this whole week is International Development Week in Canada.  It is recognized as such by the Canadian Government and we, at Tyndale, are very pleased that we can get the word out for the second year in a row on these topics.

Many of you are aware that I have a passion for International Development.  This passion began when I was a 15 year old and attended a Peace It Together Conference at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  While there I attended a special lecture by Ray Vanderzag.  Vanderzag shared with us how many children around the world ate mud because mud provided some of the nutrition that they needed and filled them up.  Along with this phenomenon, he also showed several graphs and charts depicting the global reality of disparity of wealth.  Although at 15 I lacked the maturity to fully grasp the concepts he was referring to, it began to stir in me a certain passion to engage with the Global World.  As I got older and finished by high school studies a budding interest in political science and peace advocacy began to take place.  When I went to Tyndale University, I began to be involved with a number of projects including serving with Meal Exchange as a Campus Food Strategist (Meal Exchange is a non-governmental organization that addressed issues of local and global sustainability).[4]  My interest also brought me into contact with my very first roommate who had written on her residence form that her interests were international development.  Her and I have since become very close friends sharing in a mutual passion for InDev and business administration as well as a close connection as Spiritual sisters.  My roommate has since graduated with her BA in Business Administration: International Development from Tyndale and has gone on to serve in a variety of non-profit organizational roles including in some key leadership positions in her field.   Upon graduating from Tyndale myself, I ultimately landed myself at a Mennonite seminary where I began to take courses in Peace Studies including a course on Economic Justice and through my field of study began to understand some of the changing needs in this field.  So when I speak on this topic, I am speaking through the lens of someone who is not only interested from a professional angle about what happens, but also as someone who believes that ALL Christians are called to be informed as to what is taking place. 

So, please do not get overwhelmed with the troubling statistics, although they are meant to overwhelm at some level, but rather, I would like to offer you a few suggestions as to how EACH ONE of us can make a difference whether or not we are professionally or scholastically in the field of International Development:

1)  Become InformedIt is easy to be overwhelmed just by a few key statistics, however, I would really encourage you to read and understand the reality that is happening around the world.  Not only are classic books such as those written by Mother Theresa, Ghandi, or Nelson Mandela helpful in understanding some of the issues outside of our own countries, but there are also many non-Christian books which I feel would benefit anyone to read.  Some of my favourites are A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Baeh and Banker to the Poor by Muhammed Yunus.  Additionally, I would recommend a host of movies including Blood Diamond, and many seminars and lectures which also address these topics.  If you are a Mennonite or go to a Mennonite university you may especially be interested in the Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship held at Bluffton, University in Ohio.  I attended this conference last year and it was not only a great opportunity to fellowship and network with likeminded individuals (which was very refreshing), but it was also very eye opening on some of the issues that are taking place in our world.  Additionally, general reading on topics of micro-finance, micro and macro-economics, and political science will add a broad basis for your knowledge and background in the field.  If you’re looking for a great place to start, consider, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

2) Make Smart Voting Choices Read the newspaper, watch TV, or listen to the radio to catch the news OFTEN.  Approach your politicians and ask them hard questions about international relations.  If you choose to vote, understand who you are voting for and why (don’t just make it about party allegiance but get to know their platform).  If you choose to abstain from voting be prepared to defend your reasons for why you aren’t voting this year.

3)  Make Smart Food Choices and Care for Creation– Start researching and becoming aware of issues of local and global sustainability and of how the food that we eat directly and indirectly  ravishes or replenishes our earth.  Cookbooks such as Simply in Season or The More With Less Cookbook are great additions to any kitchen.  Depending on where you live you may even consider starting a Community Garden as a more sustainable way of receiving food.

Consider investing in books such as the Green Bible or Sam Hamilton-Poore’s Earth Gospel as excellent additions to your devotional life or try intentionally praying some of the Psalms related to creation care and sustainability.

4)   Pray and Fast You may think, “how much can I accomplish just by praying?”  The Answer? A LOT!  Prayer changes things, prayer changes people, and prayer intertwines your heart with God’s making you more aware of how His heartbreaks for the injustices of this world.  When we pray and fast we are actively participating in bringing an end to injustice and asking God to make His reign of justice and peace come into this world just like it is in heaven.

5)   Actively ParticipateAlong with prayer, consider getting your youth group, college/seminary, or church involved with projects such as the 30 Hour Famine, Vow of Silence, or a service trip/project of some sort.  These experiences are great ways to open your eyes to the difficulties many globally face.  You may also try a discrepancy of wealth night where people are giving cue cards at random – one may receive a full dinner another only a small bowl of rich another nothing at all.   This is a great experiment that I discovered when I was in college.  It really brings things into perspective for you.  After all, we do not choose the life situations we are placed under. 

6)  Recognize that Disparity of Wealth is Not Just Overseas – Finally, recognize that disparity of wealth is not just a problem that is far from the Western mind but that is happening even in the world’s richest countries.  Even in Canada there are many people living on the streets or going to bed tonight hungry.  In Canada we still face issues of modern-day slavery, sex trafficking, and prostitution whether or not we want to acknowledge it.  There is still (unfortunately) a general mindset among many in Western nations that somehow women deserve abuse or that men should still make more money than a woman for doing the same job.  Thankfully overtime these unfortunate myths have begun breaking down and people are being educated on the truth that although different, men and women are equal.  Still, it stands that a white, middle-aged, heterosexual, married man with two children will have more privilege even in North America than a bi-racial African-Canadian, elderly, bi-sexual woman who although she lives with a partner is not married to her and is childless.  This is the unfortunate reality of our world even after all of these years.  In order to begin to understand the disparity of wealth that takes place in our world become familiar with words and phrases such as “white privilege”, volunteer among the homeless population, and do not just look on the ground when you are walking in a big city such as Chicago or Toronto. 

For sure, if you have the resources available to you checking out slums in other countries can indeed be very eye opening and helpful.  Witnessing the poverty in Brazil has forever shaped the way I approach my life.  However, we are also called to be missionaries right here in our hometowns and communities. 

The whole Gospel is about offering a cup of cold water to the stranger, validating the worth of each individual, and loving the least of these.  As I told my L’Arche mentor the other week in our coaching session, “For me, L’Arche is living out the Gospel.  That’s why I cringe when people tell me, ‘You are doing nothing related to what you studied.’  I say to them, ‘You need to come for dinner at L’Arche sometime or for a [religious] service and then you will see that that’s not the case at all!’  L’Arche is about caring for the least of these and that’s exactly what Jesus taught.  If we don’t care for the least of these it doesn’t matter.  We could have a PhD, we could be a pastor or a professor, but we haven’t understood the Gospel.  We are not living in the way that Christ intended.”


[1] Statistics provided at the February 4, 2014 chapel hosted by Dr. Leah McMillian and Linda Tripp

[3] A question posed in chapel by Linda Tripp