Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Taking a Walk

A couple days ago, I went for a walk around the neighborhood with one of the guys I live with. He can be a little unsteady on his feet, especially on uneven sidewalks, and so when we go for a walk it is always with his arm linked through mine for added support and stability.

This day, as we were walking down the block, I wanted to walk faster than we were going. But my walking partner was having trouble with the pace that I wanted. I pulled and tugged and grimaced, trying to coerce him to speed up. He pulled and tugged and grimaced, trying to continue walking at his slow pace. As I kept trying to walk faster, and he kept trying to maintain his slower pace, his hand kept pulling at my arm and shirt. I kept having to readjust his hand so it was in a spot that was more comfortable for me.

I was quickly growing frustrated with him. I wondered why he couldn't just speed up and walk just a little faster. I was regretting going on this walk, and was beginning to wish that I had just stayed at home instead.

But then, something happened. I decided that instead of trying to convince him to walk at a pace that was uncomfortable or that he was unable to maintain, I would try to slow down to his pace. As soon as I did that, the struggle ended, and we moved into a nice, pleasant, leisurely stroll through the neighborhood. The obvious frustration that we were both feeling with each other dissipated and we began to enjoy the walk.

When I stopped trying to force him to be what I wanted him to be, and accepted him as he was in that moment, we were able to stop struggling and begin to enjoy one another. When I gave him the space to walk at his own speed, the walk turned from a cause of conflict into something that we both enjoyed.

This is the gift of L'Arche, where life lessons pop up in unlikely places from unlikely teachers. And my walking partner helped me learn this lesson, which applies to more than just going on a walk, without even saying a word.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lessons in relationship

The past month or two here at L'Arche Heartland has been full of transition. Our Community Leader, who had served in that capacity for 17 years, has moved on to pursue other adventures. One of our Community Coordinators was selected to move up and fill that role, so that meant that his position was open and, after a search process, we welcomed back a much loved former assistant to fill it. We've also had a handful of assistants leave or announce that they are leaving soon, and we've welcomed a couple new ones. There have been a lot of hellos and goodbyes recently.

One thing I have learned about life in community is that this is a pretty consistent reality. People are always coming to our community. Some stay for a long time, some for a while, and some are just here for what seems like too brief of a moment.  Some of the assistants I've worked with have become good friends, we make time to see each other and spend time together. Some have even remained good friends once they have left the community, while others have moved on to become Facebook acquaintances, or characters in fun stories I share over coffee.

But through all of this transition, there is a steadfast presence, a presence that has been here and will most likely continue to be here even as assistants come and go. That is the presence of the core members. They have been here for the assistants that have spent a couple years in this place, they have lived with the assistants who were here for too short of a time, and they have kept on with the assistants who probably stayed longer than they ought. They have welcomed new people into their lives and then celebrated them as their journeys took them elsewhere. They have sat at the table as countless pairs of hands have prepared them meals or administered their medications. They have continued to journey alongside all sorts of people for however long their pathways have coincided.

It would be easy for them to become worn-out by this, to realize that the assistants who come in the front door will most likely exit at some point. They could realize that the people who they have grown to trust and love as housemates and friends will probably move on to other homes and people. They could allow this to affect how they interact with people, to harden their hearts or create a tough exterior that makes forming relationships hard.

And maybe some do, but that has not been my experience. From my vantage point, the core members I have gotten to know have continued to welcome assistants and volunteers and friends with wide open hearts and arms. They have continued to celebrate as new assistants come into the community, welcoming them into their homes, sharing with them their lives and stories. Each new assistant is welcomed and loved, regardless of how many have come and gone before.

In this way, the core members have been good teachers for me. As new assistants join our community, it's easy for me to look at them and wonder how long they will remain. Will this one stay for a year? Maybe longer? Or will they move on after three months, or even before that? Why is this one even still here? Why does that one have to leave so soon?

But it is not my job to ask these questions. Some may leave before I am ready, and some may stay longer than I expect, but each one's journey is unique to them and ultimately up to them to decide. The core members have shown me that my only job is to journey alongside them, and to love and accept them, for as long as I am allowed. 

And in my time here at L'Arche Heartland, I have been blessed to be in relationship with some pretty amazing teachers, who have taught me by example, who have shown me what this looks like, and who I can only hope to emulate in my relationships with others.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Jubilee celebrations reflections day 2

Today was the first full day of L'Arche USA's 50th anniversary jubilee celebration. The highlight for me had to have been the party we had this afternoon. As part of the celebration, representatives from each community paraded around carrying banners with the names of the community and the year it was founded on them. Alex, one of our core members, and I were the representatives from L'Arche Heartland.

It sort of reminded me of the Olympics when they have the parade of nations. The different athletes parade behind the flag of their countries. Each athlete comes to exercise their talents in their sports with the hopes of winning a gold medal.

Of course, our parade was a little different. We come, each with our own gifts, but not to compete. We come together because we are on the same team and we want to celebrate our shared journey together in L'Arche. We come to build one another up, to celebrate the great things we have done together, and to hope for and envision the great things to come.

As we walked around the group that was gathered, we were all singing the song "This Little Light of Mine." I thought that was fitting. L'Arche is a light in the world, shining hope and love into dark places. As we walked, carrying the banners from our respective communities, we were bearing witness to the lights that we are shining in our own little corners of the world.

We also had a solidarity fair, where our communities sold handmade arts and crafts to raise money for solidarity, so that we can be in relationship with and continue to support L'Arche communities throughout the world.

For 50 years L'Arche has been a light throughout this world. My prayer and my hope is that we might continue to be a light in the dark places for many, many, many more!!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jubilee Celebration day one reflections

So today, after a 21 hour, 2 day van ride from Kansas to Washington DC, we are now participating in L'Arche USA's celebration to mark the 50th anniversary jubilee of L'Arche Internationale.

After eating dinner (because that's important to us in L'Arche) and singing songs together (because that's another important thing to us) we were blessed with the opportunity to hear from Eileen Glass, the Vice International Leader of L'Arche Internationale. She started out by sharing with us some of her memories from the early days of L'Arche when she was living at a L'Arche in Winnipeg in the 70's and two people from L'Arche Erie in Pennsylvania came to visit them. At that point, L'Arche Erie, which is the oldest L'Arche community in the US, was only two years old. She shared how at that time there were only a couple of L'Arche communities in the United States.

As we gathered in that room today, 50 years after Jean, Philippe, and Raphael moved in together to start this movement we call L'arche, it was filled with representatives from the 18 established communities in the US, as well as some of the 3 emerging communities.  It was so full we were even asked to squeeze together so more people could have places to sit.

To me, that was a sign of hope, which is the mission of L'Arche. It's a sign of hope that in the midst of this world that can so often be filled with things like hatred, violence, racism, sexism, and that can leave people feeling unwanted or unloved, that there are still people in this world that believe in community and acceptance and love and compassion and kindness and joy.

This makes me thankful for Jean Vanier, and for Raphael and Philippe who were brave enough to step out of their comfort zones to attempt a different way of life 50 years ago. It makes me thankful for all of the people who have come since then, to live in communities that have already been established, and to bravely step out and start new ones in places where the witness of L'Arche is greatly needed. It makes me thankful for Henri Nouwen and others who have shared stories of life in L'arche with people who might not have heard of it otherwise. It makes me thankful that I read that book by Nouwen that sparked my interest in L'Arche and began the journey that led me to living in L'Arche. It also makes me thankful for opportunities like this, to gather together with so many wonderful and beautiful and amazing people who believe that the mission and vision of L'arche are important in our world and strive to live it out everyday.

I am eager to see and experience all of the fun and joy and celebration and love that these next few days hold for all of us!!!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Someone loves you!

Here in our community we have the tradition of gathering weekly in one of our homes for a time of fellowship and prayer. We call it Prayer Night, and the assistants take turns cooking a meal for everyone, and we spend some time together in fellowship, talking and socializing. After the meal, we have a discussion or an activity led by an assistant based on a particular theme. For a few weeks we are focusing on the theme of "Looking forward with trust and call in the mission."

At one of our recent Prayer Nights, one of our assistants was leading a discussion about our future and we were thinking what that might look like for each one of us and for our community. We drew pictures of how we see ourselves today and what we hope to be in the future. As a way to wrap it up the assistant was sharing how each of our futures might be different, and might include different things, but there is one thing that is consistent in all of them and that is that there is someone who will always love us, no matter what. Then she asked the group who that someone might be.

One of the core members who was sitting close to me answered the question with a loud, "MARK LEPPER!"

Now, I know this isn't the answer the assistant was hoping people would say. She was expecting them to say God, or Jesus, and several of them did. And while I laughed at the humor that I saw in the particular core members answer, I was actually touched by his response.

In the Bible, there is a lot of talk about love. Jesus tells his disciples numerous times that they are to love one another, love their neighbors, love their enemies... pretty much love everybody. The second most important commandment, next to loving God, is that we are to love others.

I know that I fall short of this command pretty often. I can sometimes be impatient, unfriendly, short-tempered, and even rude. But at our Prayer Night, this core member's answer helped me to see that I must be doing something right.

"We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love." - Jean Vanier

Saturday, April 25, 2015

the Academy Awards

This evening was the Academy Awards. Now, I know what you might be thinking - the Academy Awards were in February. Well, that was the award show put on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The award ceremony that was held tonight was put on by L'Arche Heartland and, in my opinion, was much better!

Our version of the Academy Awards is the brainchild of one of our core members. He loves all things Broadway, and is a big fan of Lawrence Welk and Carol Burnett and things of that nature. I'm not sure how long we've been celebrating the Academy Awards, although he announced tonight, on a microphone and broadcast by a karaoke machine, while wearing a suit and tie, that it was the 28th annual L'Arche Academy Awards. But our community has only been around for 28 years, and he hasn't been here the whole time, so I know that number isn't quite accurate. It's been at least four that I have attended, and I've seen awards from years prior. So, anyway, it's been a while.

Preparations for this award ceremony start weeks in advance. He will go to the store to buy party supplies and decorations. He makes a list of things he needs, like sparkling grape juice and a cookie cake. Then, at some point, he sits down and, with the help of an assistant, comes up with awards for members of our community and then decorates them.

Now, in Hollywood's version of the Academy Awards, lots of people get nominated for an award, but only a few people win them. In this way, there are perceived winners and losers. In L'Arche's version, everyone wins. Every current community member gets an award, assistants who are no longer working in our community get an award, even the music therapist who volunteers once a week gets an award. And some of them are for what we might consider pretty ordinary things. For instance, one gentleman in our community got an award because he likes the Power Rangers. Another got an award for his eagerness to wash our vans. One guy got an award for his appreciation of chainsaws. And, while you might think that these are silly and meaningless, they mean a lot to the people who get them. The gentleman who won the award for chainsaws, after receiving his award and returning to his seat, turned in his chair and held it up to me and said, "Look!" He was excited and happy to win an award, to be recognized and honored by his community for being who he is.

And that is very L'Arche. All sorts of people who would be overlooked by Hollywood's version of the awards are seen as special, and unique, and as worthy of being noticed. People who can sometimes struggle to get along in society are honored and seen as important and valuable in L'Arche. Their contributions, no matter how small or meaningless people in the world might deem them, are seen as important and invaluable and worthy of being celebrated.

So, we handed out a lot of awards. And then we drank sparkling grape juice and shared a giant chocolate chip cookie. And there was even a little dancing, and a lot of laughing. And people felt appreciated and honored and known. So I will gladly take our little, messy, simple version of the Academy Awards over Hollywood's big, fancy and flashy version any day.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Beauty of L'Arche

A local church has started gatherings once a month on Sunday nights, and have been focusing on community and the various ways that can take shape. The pastor who is in charge of planning these gatherings has some connections to our community here at L'Arche, and so he asked if we'd be willing to bring a group and to share with them about our community and how it is shaped. The person on our end who kind of took the lead in setting it up asked if I'd be willing to share for about ten minutes on what I see as the beauty of L'Arche. So, what follows is what I shared.

First, I do have to say that I borrowed a bit from my last blog post. There are some ideas that I first expressed in that post that I thought fit well with what I was trying to say, so I used them. So if you think some things about this blog post sound familiar, and you happen to have read my previous one, then that would be why.

Second, I don't think you get the full effect of the presentation without Alex, a member of our community, constantly interjecting with things like, "That's the truth." and "I remember that." and "I love you Markeeeeeeee!!!!!!" So just throw some of those in there, followed by the amused chuckling of everyone else, and you'll get a better idea of how it went.

The Beauty of L'Arche
When someone looks at L'Arche from the outside, they might think that the beauty of it is that L'Arche provides a home for people who might not be able to do it for themselves. In a L'Arche home, the core members (what we call the people who live in our homes who have disabilities) are provided with food and shelter, we transport them to work and to various activities and social gatherings. When people come to live in a L'Arche home, they are taken care of and all of their needs are met. So someone might think  that this is what makes L'Arche beautiful.

Or they might look and see the assistants, which is what we call the people who choose to come and live in a home, or to share time with people who have a developmental disabilities. They might think that the beauty comes from people who are willing to give their time and energy to help someone else live a better life. It can seem like a compassionate, selfless, difficult thing to do. But, for some reason, people choose to do it. And so that seems like what makes L'Arche beautiful.

These things are beautiful parts of L'Arche, and although the beauty of L'Arche would not be possible without both of these things, I wouldn't say that are what makes L'Arche beautiful. On their own, they are definitely good, but people with developmental disabilities can have their needs provided for and other people can come and do that work, and it can all be done in a way that is sterile and clinical. The work of maintaining a house and looking after the people who live there can often be just that: work. But what makes L'Arche beautiful is the thing that separates us from being just work.

The mission of L'Arche, which is a statement that every L'Arche community in the world follows and believes, states: We are people, with and without developmental disabilities, sharing life in communities belonging to an international federation. Mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our journey together. We celebrate the unique value of every person and recognize our need of one another.

What really makes L'Arche beautiful might not be as easily seen from the outside. It's something that needs to be experienced, I think. What I believe makes L'Arche beautiful is the life-changing relationships that are formed in our communities between people of all ages and all abilities. These are not one sided relationships, but like our mission statement says they are mutual. And I have found them to be transformative.

I think it is a common perception of many people who come to be assistants at L'Arche that it will be much like I described at the beginning. They believe that they are coming to do something good with their lives, to help people who might not be able to help themselves, and to do good work. But, once they get to L'Arche, and they engage with the core members, their original perceptions are changed. They begin to see that while they might be cooking meals, doing laundry, helping with basic hygiene, and administering medications, they are receiving something immeasurable.

I want to share with you a couple of the relationships I have formed and how I feel like they have been mutually transforming for me.

A couple weeks ago, I moved into the same house as Brian. Brian is nonverbal, and needs a lot of assistance in his daily life. Caring for Brian is pretty hands-on. People might look at my relationship with Brian and assume that it is pretty one-sided that it all comes from what I can or need to do for him. But, Brian is already teaching me to be patient. He's showing me the value of being gentle and careful. I can sit with Brian, or go for a walk with him, and just be with him. He's a good listener and doesn't seem to mind me telling him about whatever it is on a certain day that I might find frustrating. It can also be frustrating, when he isn't able to communicate with me as clearly or as quickly as I might like, but we are learning how to live together and he is helping me to become a better assistant and person.

Or there's Matt. I lived with Matt for about a year when I first came to L'Arche, and then again for about six months before I moved into my current house. Matt is gentle and friendly, and absolutely loves chainsaws and fire engines. In fact, seeing one of them in action can pretty much make his entire day. He could see a fire truck on his way to work in the morning, and then at supper time, he can turn to you and, with as much excitement as he had earlier, he can tell you that he saw a firetruck and wonder if it was going to help people. When I lived with Matt he was always asking me how my day or weekend was, and if he knew I was going to be going somewhere for an extended period of time, he would tell me that he was going to miss me. One time, we were walking through the Oak Park Mall, and he heard a song coming from a store that he liked, so he went in and started dancing. Matt has been a good friend to me, and shown me how to find joy in the simple things, to be kind and gentle, to care about those around you, and to dance when you feel like it.

Then we have Alex. I lived with Alex for about two years. He can be full of energy, and always has something funny to say. When he loves something or someone, everyone knows it. If he loves the CD of hard rock music that he checked out from the library, you'll know it because it's blaring from his room. If he loves a certain person, you will know it because he will scream their name and run to hug them when he sees them. I tell people that maybe besides my parents I don't know if I've ever had someone love me as much as Alex does. In fact, one day a couple of years ago, he was so excited to see me and loved me so much that he gave me a hug so hard that it bruised one of my ribs. Living with Alex wasn't always easy, in fact a lot of days it could be pretty frustrating. He has pretty strong opinions and isn't afraid to share them. His emotions, while they are strong when he is excited or when he loves someone, can be just as strong when he is angry or sad. But living with Alex I knew there would always be someone excited to see me when I came in the door, I knew that there was always someone who had my back or supported me, and I also had a good example of what it looks like to love someone and to not be afraid to express it.

These are just a few of the relationships I have formed in my time at L'Arche, although I could probably go person to person and tell you something that each one has taught or given to me or blessed me with during my time here but that would definitely make me run over the time limit that I was given. But that is what I have found to be the beauty of L'Arche, how each of us, core member and assistant, is changed if we are open to mutual relationships with one another.

The beauty of L'Arche is that we are choosing to live together, and while I am helping the core members to live a better life by cooking and cleaning, driving and administering medications, and helping them with the daily tasks that are not easy for them, they are helping me to live a better life by showing me how to love, how to be patient, how to accept myself, how to be a good friend, and all of the other things that might not be easy for me. The beauty of L'Arche is when we recognize that not only do people with developmental disabilities need us to live a good life, but we need them to live a good life, as well.