Good morning everyone,
This is not the first time I have been asked to speak about my experience of L’Arche and I think that has a lot to do with the Canadian appreciation for the English accent. But, whatever the reason for my invitation I’m thrilled to share with you today at St Johns, because I believe God’s mission for His Church is seen in his leading and blessing of L’Arche’s story.
I’m also very grateful to Linda for agreeing to partner with me as we share with you today. We have been housemates together for the last l Omonths and her friendship has been a great joy to me.
Perhaps we can start by telling you about where L’Arche came from.
L’Arche is an international group of communities where people with and without developmental disabilities (by which we mean severe learning difficulties) live together and care for each other.
It started in 1964 with three men in France, when Jean Vanier followed the advice of a priest friend of his and asked two disabled men to come to live with him. Not long after this Jean was asked to take over the running of a large institution for mentally disabled men. Based on what he had experienced of the humanizing effect of living in community, Jean flung wide the doors of the institution, and resettled the men in small homes around the local villages in an interconnected community. The aim was to live together in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and in communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
Before long this movement had started to spread round the world to India, England and to Vanier’s native Canada and become an ecumenical and interfaith organization. Our
community was-funded in 1974.
And now Linda and I would like to introduce ourselves more fully. Linda has lived in Unity House at L’Arche for nearly four years.
I am from South London on the edge of Kent and I studied Theology at Oxford University, graduating last summer. I have lived in L’Arche for the last 10months. Yesterday was my last day living in community, and next weekend I am flying home to England.
I heard about L’Arche from a friend in the summer of 2007. He told me about a community that his brother lived in where people with and without disabilities lived together. He told me about visiting the community and how he had shared a meal and been made to feel very welcome as every person round the table, without being prompted, thanked God for his visit. He was also struck by the ethos of the community, exemplified in signs on the wall, saying `I do not TAKE someone for a walk, we go for a walk together’…. “I do not GIVE someone a bath, I assist someone in having a bath”. I was very struck by this humanizing ethos. People with disabilities are to be treated with respect as adults and as unique individuals.
This conversation kept going around my head as I went into the last year of my degree. I began to read books by Jean Vanier (the community founder) and Henry Nouwen, a priest and academic who lived in the Daybreak community in Toronto. There was so much in the story of L’Arche that I was drawn to. Studying in such an academic environment was a wonderful blessing, but it also meant being surrounded by the idea that you were worth as much as you could achieve. It was easy to become competitive and to let a need to succeed that was driven by fear of failure rule. In that context, the ethos of L’Arche (in which the last were made first and competition was pointless) seemed to be God offering me an oasis and a place of healing.
I knew though, that L’Arche would also be a place of challenge. — I experienced the temptation that James talks about in our New Testament reading today, of `hearing the truth, but walking away and forgetting it’.
I had had little experience of life with the disabled, and frankly found the idea of others being dependent on me scary.
Moreover, community would mean living with whoever I was landed with, and not necessarily having much in common with them.
14, Ultimately I found that `Christ’s summons echoed true’.
University for me meant the blessing of great friends who shared many of my ideals, hobbies and character traits, but studying the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard I found this way of life, when sought as an end in itself, questioned,
In `Works of Love’ Kierkegaard writes of Christ’s challenge not simply to love and give our time to those who appeal to us, who make us feel smart and beautiful, but to just love those who God puts in front of us. I knew this was exactly what L’Arche was about!
So now perhaps, Linda and I can tell you more about the house we have lived in together
Linda can you tell everyone the names of some of the people we live with…
In our house there are 4 `core members’ this is the term we use for the people with disabilities — they are the heart of L’Arche.
Can you tell everyone a bit about our friends Linda? What does Ilonka really love? What do you and Delinda really like to do together?
What does Lawrence call everyone?
There are normally 3 live in assistants plus 2 more full time members of the team and we are a very international bunch.
Where am I from Linda?
The team over the past year has been German, French, Korean, Ugandan, and Canadian. Which makes for some funny miscommunication- as you can probably imagine! We must not forget two very important members of the house, Linda who were the two four-legged furry friends who lived with us?
What were their names?
Our community is made up of 6 houses and 25 core-members. We commit to core-members for life and as our community is 35years old, many of the core-members are in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Many of thea,e Wtill going out to day programs during the week, but we are constantly having t?jchanging needs as people age. We meet together as
a community for prayer, parties and to share news. A central part of life in the home is the evening meal and we value weekends as a time to relax together.
I cannot speak for Linda or the other core members to tell you how they experience life in community. I know there are many challenges for them, as assistants from around the world come and go, and they live away from their families. However, it does seem to me that the experience of throwing in our lot together is ultimately a source of strength, hope and light for us all. Certainly I have gained much, learnt much and travel home to England enriched by the experience.
I have appreciated the international, ecumenical and interfaith aspects of L’Arche. Coming from the diverse cultural mix of South London, with Anglo-Catholic parents, evangelical friends and attending a liberal Baptist college, I am excited to be involved in a community that CELEBRATES difference, and seeks to muddle out a way for people with different beliefs to share a common life of service, fun and prayer.
One important lesson I have learned is the value in slowing down, in speech, action, and way of life. I’m of a personality and at an age where I want to be doing 5 different things at the same time, L’Arche has taught me the importance of simplicity, and being present to people, to hear their worries or the things they look forward to. That’s not an easy task, particularly when you are told the same thing 20 times in one day, but as I say to Ilonka when she gets mad at me for encouraging her to take time with her food, `patience is a virtue, a virtue is a grace, and grace is a little girl who wouldn’t wash her face’.
On Maundy Thursday, we had a foot washing service, where everyone in the house washed the feet of the person sitting next to them and received a blessing. To me this was an enacted parable of the blessing of the humility of the people I live with.
They are often very gracious in allowing others to help them, and it is a challenge to me as I want to show I can do everything by myself. Together we sang “Let me be the Christ light for you” and I was deeply moved by what it meant for them to allow me to be Christ to them and for me to receive them as Christ.
Yesterday, which was my last day in community; we had a big garden party, which we called `a festival of friends’ to celebrate with our family, friends and neighbors 35 years of community in L’Arche Greater Vancouver. L’Arche really knows how to celebrate! Everyone was welcome, there was such a mix of ages, nationalities and cultural backgrounds.
We were united by the blessing of people with disabilities. The charter of L’arche states that `people with a mental handicap often possess qualities of welcome, wonderment, spontaneity and directness. They are able to touch hearts.’
It is in a community that manifests this goodness of God in his gift of life, that my faith has grown. Living in L’Arche has given me eyes to see God’s kingdom at work, as ever amongst the least in society and as a force that unites.
We sing a song in community’ we shall go out with hope of resurrection, we shall go out, from strength to strength go on, we shall go out and tell our stories boldly, tales of a love
that will not let us go. We’ll sing out songs of wrongs that can be righted, we’ll dream our dreams of hurts that can be healed, we’ll weave our cloth of all the world united within the vision of new life in Christ’.
I think the purpose of talking to you today was simply to encourage you with a std of how God is moving in our society, to tell our story because we can’t keep it to ourselves! If you would like to know more about L’Arche you can talk to Linda and I after the service. I recommend any books written by Jean Vanier or Henry Nouwen. We invite you to visit our community, to come for dinner, or our weekly community prayer.