Friday, March 14, 2014

a new adventure

It's with a lot of joy but also a lot of sadness that I share this news with all of you.

After almost three years of living in community here at L'Arche Heartland, I have decided it is time to move on. It was not an easy decision. I have loved experiencing life with my brothers and sisters here in L'Arche. Life has never been dull. Every day has been different. I have felt extraordinarily welcomed, unabashedly accepted and unconditionally loved during my time here. I have gotten to know so many wonderful, amazing, compassionate and fun people and they have definitely impacted my life and made me a better person. Experiencing life in L'Arche has been one of the best things I think I've ever done. So to think about leaving here hasn't been easy, it has brought (and will bring) a lot of tears, but I'm thankful for the way that my life has been changed because of my time at L'Arche. My last day here at L'Arche will be Friday, March 21st.

So, what's my next adventure? I am going to move to Dubuque, Iowa where I have been called to serve as the Admissions Specialist at Wartburg Theological Seminary. I worked as an Admissions Assistant during my years as a student there, and loved it a lot, so I am excited for the opportunity to do it on a full-time basis, to journey alongside people as they discern the call of God in their lives, and determine if Wartburg Seminary is the community for them. It will sure be exciting work, and meaningful as well, and I'm looking forward to working with all of the wonderful people in the Department for Vocation of Wartburg Seminary. My first day on the job will be April 7th.

So I would appreciate your prayers, for myself of course, but also for the communities of L'Arche Heartland and Wartburg Seminary during this time of transition.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Community as a Rock Tumbler

A couple of years ago I attended an event sponsored by the L'Arche community in Saint Louis. They had brought in a speaker to lead a workshop in the afternoon and then speak at an event that evening. The speaker they had brought in was Sister Sue Mosteller, a Sister of St Joseph, who is affiliated with the L'Arche Daybreak community in Canada. She was going to be presenting and speaking about accompaniment in community. Sue had spent the previous 30 or so years as a member and community leader of L'Arche Daybreak, and so she knows a thing or two about life in community.

She shared a lot of stories about how she has accompanied people in community life, and shared some practical ways that we can accompany others. There is one thing that she said that has stuck with me for quite some time, and it is something that I have found to be true. In one of her talks she compared life in community to a rock tumbler.

When I was younger, I had a rock collection. These weren't special rocks, at least to anyone other than me, but they were rocks that I had found and I thought they looked cool, or that they were an interesting color or pattern. I kept most of them in a box in my bedroom. I never really did anything with them, but I remember looking in a catalog and seeing a rock tumbler and how it was advertised to make your rocks shiny and smooth. I remember thinking that I really needed one so I could polish my rock collection.

The way a rock tumbler works is that you put a group of rocks into a barrel, and then you add some sort of abrasive element and then a bit of water, or some other lubricant. Over a span of time, sometimes multiple weeks, the barrel slowly rotates and the rocks tumble around. They bump into each other and rub against one another, often through different stages of tumbling involving abrasive grit of varying hardness. The length of time that a rock remains in the tumbler depends on the hardness of the rock and the smoothness that is desired.

I can appreciate this analogy. After living in L'Arche for the past three years, I can say that it sometimes feels like a rock tumbler. There are days when we bump into each other, when we rub one another the wrong way. There are times when even the slightest action can cause someone to get upset. It's when someone else has bumped into one of our rough edges. It hurts. It reminds us that we aren't perfect.

But even just three years in, I can see some of the results. The way I might have handled a situation even just a year ago might not be the way I would handle it today. A community member who may have gotten on my nerves in the past is now a friend (or at least tolerable). Something which seemed completely awful before doesn't elicit quite the same dramatic reaction as it once did. After living with people in community, after bumping up against the others, even for such a short time, some of my rough edges have begun to wear down.

With a rock tumbler, the end result is a rock that has become smooth and shiny. The rough edges have been worn down through the process of the rocks tumbling into one another and the result is something beautiful.

I'm not saying that I'm a smooth and shiny rock. Pretty far from it, most days. I think that someone could live in community for years upon years and people could still find some rough edges to bump up against. I would even dare to say that Sister Sue Mosteller, or even Jean Vanier (the founder of L'Arche who has been living in community for 50 years) have some rough edges of their own left. But life in community makes us into something better than we are on our own. It rubs away that which detracts from our inner beauty and it brings forth that which shines. It helps us reveal those things inside of us which are special and colorful and brilliant. I think it also makes us aware of our own rough edges, so we are more forgiving about and willing to turn a blind eye towards the rough edges of those sharing life with us.

Community as a rock tumbler. It isn't easy. It can even sometimes even be painful. But it calls us toward being the best versions of ourselves, and it brings out the beauty in each one of us. And, for that, I'm thankful to be bumping around in this barrel we call L'Arche.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

life together school

Before I moved to L'Arche, I worked at a church in Minnesota. Before I worked at a church in Minnesota, I attended a Lutheran seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. This school, Wartburg Theological Seminary, has a strong sense of community. The majority of students live in on-campus housing, which is very family friendly, and so people of all different ages call Wartburg Seminary their home. Wartburg sends out a magazine a couple times a year with various updates and news about the community and the people connected to it. The name of this magazine is "Life Together," which speaks to this sense of community, but also to the book of the same name by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I received my most recent copy of "Life Together" just the other day. After I had flipped through it and read some of the articles, I left it sitting on our dining room table. Alex, one of the gentlemen I live with, happened to be passing by the table and he saw the magazine, so he stopped to look at it. "Where did this magazine come from.... Life Together?" he asked me.

"Oh, it's from the school I used to go to," I replied.

"You went to Life Together School?" he asked.

At first, I wanted to correct him and say, "Well, no, Alex. I went to Wartburg Theological Seminary," but what would that mean to him? Not a whole lot, truthfully. So I said, "Yeah, pretty much." Because my time at seminary taught me a lot about life together and choosing to be a part of a community.

I've been thinking a lot about this interaction, and the idea of "Life Together School," and it occurred to me that I am still in Life Together School. I think that really is what L'Arche is - a place that teaches us how to live together. It is a place where we are called into community with all sorts of people, who are very different, and we are invited into relationships with them.

This isn't always easy. In fact, it can quite often be very difficult. We can make mistakes, or lose our temper or patience. We can handle a situation in a nonproductive way, we can say things we regret. We might disregard someone's feelings, or lash out when we feel that our own are being disregarded. We might overlook the gifts that someone offers and instead see only those things that irritate or anger us.

But these are all learning opportunities, if we choose to look at them that way. Maybe the next time I am in a similar situation, I can remember how I dealt with it before and choose another, better way. Perhaps I can choose to take some deep breaths instead of responding to someone in anger. Or maybe I could put myself in someone else's shoes and see how a decision might impact them before I make it. I might be able to realize that my needs are not the only or even the most important needs in the community, and acknowledge t hat sometimes I need to be more graceful in how I handle those times when my wants or desires are not met in the way I would choose.

And here, in our Life Together School at L'Arche, we have some wonderful companions to journey alongside us. I don't want to paint the core members out to be perfect or extra holy, because they can be just as quick to lose their temper or be impatient or say hurtful things. They are, after all, only human, too. But they are also quick to forgive, to let past indiscretions slide, and to extend a hand of friendship and love. They help us to create an environment of compassion and acceptance and love that allows me to continue living and learning in this Life Together School we call L'Arche.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

wisdom in a cup

This past week, I attended a retreat for intentional members of L'Arche communities. What this means is people who have been in L'Arche longer than the exploratory, or introductory, term of two or so years.

As part of this retreat, we were asked to bring an item that symbolizes where we are right now in our L'Arche journey. As I began to wonder what to bring, I immediately thought of my favorite mug. Allow me to tell you the story of this mug.

To begin, let me give you a brief history. I first heard about L'Arche in the books of Henri Nouwen. For about ten years prior to his death, Henri was the pastor at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Through my reading of Henri's experience, I felt a deep connection to L'Arche. And because he shared about his experiences in L'Arche Daybreak, I have always felt a kind of connection to that community. So it was important to me that I visit them.

In July of 2012 I took some vacation from my L'Arche community here in Kansas and drove up to Canada. I stayed at Daybreak for just about a week. While I was there, I had a room in one of their homes named New House which happens to be the house where their core member Adam lived during his time at Daybreak. Henri wrote a book about his relationship with Adam shortly after Adam's death. It was this book that introduced me to L'Arche, so it was kind of special to me to be able to stay in that home.

While I was at Daybreak, I visited their Craft Studio to buy gifts for some people. In their studio they make all kinds of things including cards, candles, mugs and other pottery items. As I was looking over the shelves of items, my eye was drawn to a particular mug. This mug was two shades of blue and a core member had decorated it with drawings of several people, a few of whom were in wheelchairs. At the top of the mug was written, "All Are Welcome." I looked at this mug and immediately thought, "This one is mine."

So, I bought it and brought it home. And almost every day since then, I have drank my morning coffee out of that mug.

Well, one day last month (Oct 2013) I was sitting in the living room of our home, drinking my morning coffee out of my mug, and enjoying the light breeze provided by the ceiling fan. That's when one of the core members I share life with came out of his room complaining that he was cold. He seemed convinced it was because of the ceiling fan (which was on the lowest setting), and he was determined to turn it off.

Now this man is Deaf and communicates using sign language. I am learning ASL, but could definitely be better. .I tried nicely to explain to him that I wasn't cold and that I would like the ceiling fan to remain on. He disagreed and made a move to pull the cord to turn it off anyway. I asked him to stop, and that is when our exchange became a little more heated and, as a result, a little more animated.

I was telling him that I wanted the fan to stay on and I brought my arms back to make the sign for the word "want." That's when my elbow bumped into my mug which sent it toppling to the floor with a crash and a splash.

And there my mug lay, broken to pieces on the floor, in a pool of its own coffee.

Of course I was upset, but I tried to remind myself that it's just a mug. I gathered up all the pieces and placed them on the counter next to the coffee maker and cleaned up the mess. (While I was doing this the core member turned off the ceiling fan and went back to his room... but that's another story.)

It's just a mug, I told myself. We have many other mugs to choose from. There is even one that a former assistant bought for me when she visited the original L'Arche community in Trosly, France. Surely that mug or another would do.

So, the next morning I drank my coffee out of a different mug. But it just wasn't the same. It's hard to describe but there was just something not as good about it.

I know what I'll do, I thought. I'll glue my favorite mug back together! Luckily, I had kept all the pieces of the mug and hadn't thrown it away. That afternoon, I went to the store and purchased some glue that is known for being strong and holding things together well. I sat down at the kitchen table and carefully glued and pieced my mug back together. When I had finished, it didn't look exactly the same as it had before it broke, but I thought it looked good.

There is one thing this particular brand of glue could be better at sharing about itself and that is it expands as it dries. Quite significantly, in fact. So as the glue dried between the pieces of my mug it puffed up and pushed them apart, opening cracks and holes and revealing some jagged edges. But the glue had dried solid, holding the pieces firmly in their new places. This makes my mug basically unable to drink out of.

So, this is the item that I brought to the retreat to symbolize where I find myself at in L'Arche these days. And here is basically what I said to explain it (with a few things expanded upon):

This mug shows people being together. Some have disabilities and some don't. But at the top it proclaims, "All Are Welcome." This has been my experience of L'Arche. I have been warmly welcomed, just as I am. The core members don't place any stipulations or requirements on that welcome. I just am welcome. And this has opened my heart so I am more willing and able to welcome others in a more unconditional way.

This mug is still my favorite, even though it is broken. It might not be perfect, or work exactly how I want it to or think it should, but I still see value in it and I still believe it is beautiful.

L'Arche is not perfect, just like each person who lives in L'Arche. There are days it doesn't work like it should, when things fall through the cracks, or when someone is hurt by another's rough edge. But when I step back and look at L'Arche I realize that in the midst of the brokenness it is still beautiful. It is still worth loving. And so is each person in it, whether we have a disability or not.

All of this didn't occur to me the day I broke my mug. It took some time and distance from the event for me to have these realizations. And maybe it seems silly to take such wisdom from a broken cup, but that is something else that L'Arche has taught me - wisdom can come from unlikely places, if only we are willing to stop and listen.

Here is a picture of my mug post gluing and drying.

Friday, August 16, 2013

a farewell

One of the hardest parts of living in community, I think, is saying good bye.

I might not always agree with you. I might not like everything you do. But you have become a part of this place that I call my home. And when you leave, the community changes - my home changes. You take with you all of the gifts that you shared with the community, all of the things you brought and offered to the rest of us here. The community is inevitably a different place once you've left it.

Sure, we can console ourselves and we can say that we are different now because of your time with us. You have changed us all in ways which we might not yet know or understand. We can say that we are better people because of our time together. We can also say that you are taking us with you. You have been changed because of your time with us and you will take what you have learned and what you have become during your time here with us out into the world. And all of that is true. And all of that is good.

But the truth still remains - you will no longer be here with us. We will not get to hear your stories or listen to your music. We will not get to enjoy each others' company in the same way that we have while you've lived here. There will be empty spots that were once filled by you. We will all adapt, us and you. Other people will come and that space will be occupied, although never really filled.

Life will go on. That's what it does. This community will go on after you are gone, just like it did before you were here. But please know that there will always be a place here for you. There will always be a hole that only you will be able to perfectly fill. No matter where you go, or how long you are gone, I hope you know and feel and believe that you will always have a place here that you can call your home.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

the joy of gardening

My house has undertaken a project this summer. With the help of another local community called Jerusalem Farm and some other volunteers, we have tilled the earth and planted a garden. Right now it's teeming with life and we are looking forward to a hopefully abundant harvest. We've been picking lots of green beans, and  there are some nice green tomatoes on the tomato plants. The zucchini is looking big and it's starting to sprout some little zucchinis, and the onions and potatoes are showing promising signs of working their magic underground. The sunflowers are growing quite high, and one has almost reached the roof!

One of the other houses has been coming over about once a week to help us take care of the garden. They have helped pull weeds and water the plants. They've also been helping us pick green beans and lettuce. It's been a fun set up, because we get to enjoy their company, they help lighten the load of the work the garden requires, and then we share the vegetables that we harvest with them.

Tonight they were at our house helping pull weeds and pick beans. Then we started talking about music and one of the other assistants mentioned a core member's new favorite song. So as we were working, an assistant pulled up the song on their phone and started to play it. The core member whose favorite song it was immediately got excited. He clapped his hands and let out a little squeal of excitement. Then, he started to dance, right there in the side yard of our house.

It didn't take long for me to join in the dancing. And then another core member joined in, followed quickly by a couple other assistants. Pretty soon almost everyone in our yard was dancing along to this new favorite song. When that song ended we quickly chose another one to dance to, and before you knew it there was a conga line weaving through the yard.

Neighbors walked by with their dogs and saw our little dance party. I'm sure others saw it happening from their windows or front yards. We were having a great time right there, enjoying the music and each others' company. It started from the joy one core member experienced because of a song and it spread from there.

That is one of my favorite things about living in a L'Arche community: the joy we are blessed to experience. Sure, there are struggles and conflicts. We don't always get along. People aren't always happy or friendly or nice. But right then, in the yard beside our house, while we were standing by the garden, all that mattered was that we were together, there was a really good song playing, and a core member had enough joy to share with the rest of us.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

incredible gifts

"It is my belief that in our mad world where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality, and oppression, it is people who are weak, rejected, marginalized, counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals as well as for our world. And it is my hope that each one of you may experience the incredible gift of the friendship of people who are poor and weak, that you too, may receive life from them. For they call us to love, to communion, to compassion and to community." - Jean Vanier

I receive daily Jean Vanier quotes in my e-mail. They are always insightful, but sometimes they just seem to speak to me on a very personal level. This quote happens to be one that I received during our annual Faith and Sharing retreat and it seemed very timely.

For those of you unfamiliar with Faith and Sharing, let me take a quick second to catch you up to speed. Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche (click here to learn more about L'Arche). Faith and Sharing retreats are sort of an offshoot of L'Arche itself, and were started when Jean was invited to speak at a retreat and agreed to do so on the condition that people with developmental disabilities were invited to attend and participate, as well. This model of retreat then branched out all over the world and the first Faith and Sharing retreat in Leavenworth, Kansas was held about 24 years ago and was started by the founding Community Leader of L'Arche Heartland, where I live and work today.

I happened to read the e-mail containing the quote while I was sitting on a bench enjoying the warm weather with J, one of our core members. We had some free time in the afternoon and J loves to sit outside, so we were sharing a bench and just relaxing. As I was sitting there I read the e-mail and I was reminded of how blessed I am to be a part of L'Arche and Faith and Sharing.

At the Faith and Sharing retreat I was surrounded by a group of men and women who accepted me unconditionally. They expressed their love for me openly (and often). They cheered for me when I got up to speak. They asked me to sit by them on couches and at dinner tables. They weren't afraid to be themselves, and they invited me into relationship with them. Just by being themselves, they gave me permission to be more open and honest, as well.

I think often in our society people with any sort of disability are regarded as lacking something. It's as if since something about them doesn't work in the "normal" way, and because they themselves do not fit our narrow definition of "normal," then they must not have any value or anything to offer society. This can cause them to be ignored, sent away or institutionalized, pitied or even ridiculed.

But when we do that, I think we overlook something of great value. We fail to see the gift that a person with a disability is. When we focus on what is "wrong" with someone, we fail to notice and appreciate all of the things that are right. We fail to recognize the gift that that person is, not in spite of what they are missing or lacking, but because of all of the things they are and all of the things they have to offer.

The sense of community that was formed those few days we were all together was really quite amazing. It was a community of camaraderie, of fellowship, of encouragement, and of compassion. There was no competition, but each person's contribution was lifted up and celebrated. People were included and warmly received into the group. Even those who couldn't participate in the same way, who spent most of the time lost in their own thoughts or activities, were lifted up and celebrated for their presence.

You could say that this is because of the work of the retreat planners. You could say they came up with activities or created a safe space for everyone. You could say that it was because of those of us without disabilities who were there to accompany and participate with the core members. And that is part of it. But I believe the main reason is because of the gifts of love and compassion and openness that were present in, and that emanated from, each of the core members and other people with disabilities that were present. And because we were open to recognizing and receiving these gifts, all of us were immeasurably blessed.