Sunday, February 8, 2015

community on the dance floor

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of accompanying six other members of my community on a trip to Mobile, Alabama for the L'Arche Mobile marathon. Technically, it's the Servis1st Bank First Light Marathon, but all of us in the Central Region of L'Arche USA call it the Mobile Marathon, because it is hosted by L'Arche Mobile and it's a fundraiser for them.

Every year members of the L'Arche communities in the region travel to Mobile to participate in the marathon weekend. The seven of us from L'Arche Heartland were there to run the marathon as a relay team. Since so many people from our region are there, we always have times set aside for us to get together and spend time with each other.

One of these times in particular was the evening after the race, which was the night before most of us would be heading home. We had a party room at a restaurant in Mobile called Felix's. There was eating, because it cannot be denied that we like to eat in L'Arche. A lot of fellowship and hospitality and friendship happens around the table, and L'Arche is really good at all three of those things.

But after we had gotten our fill of steak or fish, cheesecake or key lime pie, and donut holes, and after we had chatted with our neighbors at the table, quite a few of us drifted into the next room where a musician was on stage singing and playing his guitar and harmonica. It did not take long for us to show the rest of the people in that restaurant what we are good at in L'Arche - Celebrating!

There was a small dance floor in front of the stage and it did not take long for it to be filled with assistants and core members, friends and volunteers and community members. There was twirling and spinning, laughing and singing, and even a dip or two. As we were on the little dance floor, enjoying ourselves, I turned to the person next to me and said, "It wouldn't have been a real L'Arche gathering without some dancing!"

That celebration, the joy of being together, is a central part of L'Arche. In his book Community and Growth, Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, says that "celebration is the specific act of a community as people rejoice and give thanks to the Father for he has bonded them together; he is looking after them and loves them. They are no longer individuals locked up in their own loneliness and independence. They are one body and each of them has their place in the body. Celebration is a cry of joy from all of them convenanted together, for they have been led through the passage of loneliness to love, of discouragement to hope." (pg 314)

There are many things I love about L'Arche, and many reasons why I have chosen to be a part of it. Nothing quite sums it up as well as what happened on that dance floor. Much in this world tries to convince us to be individuals, to look out for ourselves, to worry about getting ahead or being better than other people. But in L'Arche, we have chosen a different way of life. We have chosen to get out there on that dance floor together. Sometimes we bump into each other. Sometimes the dance move we think is going to look amazing ends up leaving a little bit to be desired. Sometimes a toe might get stepped on. But, most of the time, we are happy to be with each other. We have decided that the best way for us to live this life is with one another, spinning and dancing and laughing together.

Our life together, much like our dancing, might cause people to stare. Some of them might be intrigued by what's going on. Some might think that what we are doing is wonderful. Still others might have a hard time understanding why we're doing it. But, regardless, we continue dancing together, showing other people that you can sit at that table by yourself, or you can get up, kick off your shoes, and get your groove on!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Daily lessons

I'm not sure what my deal is today. Despite nothing going wrong, I've had a bit of a short temper and I've been kind of snippy with people. I even called someone a mean name in the parking lot of our local grocery store. I was in our minivan by myself with the windows rolled up, so I'm sure they didn't hear me. But still, I'm generally not the kind of guy to call people names!

This morning, when I was helping one of the core members in my home get dressed, I noticed that he had taken the pair of jeans he wore the day before and put them back on a hanger and hung them on his closet door. I'm ok with wearing jeans more than once, but not if they have stains from dinner the night before on them. This is not the first time he has placed a dirty article of clothing back in the drawer or in the closet, and we've been encouraging him to remember to put dirty clothes in his hamper.

This morning, for some reason, this dirty pair of jeans was enough to irk me and so I kept repeatedly asking him where dirty clothes go, to which he'd reply, "The hamper." And I'd ask again, and he'd give me the same response. "Then why don't you put them there?!?" I snapped. Then I put the clean clothes we had chosen on his bed so he could change and stomped back upstairs.

On our way to work, this particular core member was in the backseat of the van. I had not been the most pleasant with him for most of the morning. As we were waiting at a stoplight I heard him speak up from his seat. "Hey Mark," he said. "Yes?" I asked. "I love you, Mark!" He replied with a big, beaming smile.

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, has said that L'Arche is a school of the heart. It is through our relationships with the core members that our hearts are opened and we grow in compassion and kindness and love. Today, while I was sitting in the driver seat being all grumpy, I think I received a lesson from one of my unlikely teachers in this school of the heart about unconditional love and forgiveness.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

There and back again

Here is a letter I shared this past week with my seminary community. I wanted to share it with you to let you know about what is next in my great, big adventure.

To the Wartburg Community,

I want to take a moment to share with you a part of my story. I feel like it’s a little long, but it is how and why I came to this place in my discernment.

During my time as Admissions Specialist, I have been given the gift of having many conversations with people who are discerning a call to ministry. I’ve heard them talk about what gives them joy, things that they are excited about, and where they feel they might be called to go.  In the midst of these conversations I have been engaging in some discernment myself, and thinking about some of those very same things in my own life.

Wartburg has been a special place for me since I first visited as a college student. It became even more special when I finally made the decision to come and be a student here. It was a community where I was supported, encouraged and loved. I grew immensely during my time here. I especially loved my job as a student worker in the Admissions office. It was then that I began to think that working fulltime in the Admissions office at Wartburg might just be my dream job.

So, in 2011, when I met Karla at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza and talked with her about the transitions that were occurring in the Admissions office and that they would soon begin looking for an Admissions Specialist, I was excited about the possibility and I asked her to keep me in mind when they began the search. But at that time, I was in the midst of a crossroads in my journey.

I first heard about L’Arche communities through some of Henri Nouwen’s books. L’Arche is an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. The first L’Arche community was founded in France, and means “The Ark,” to symbolize Noah’s Ark and how it was a shelter in the midst of storms. There are L’Arche communities on six continents and in about 40 different countries throughout the world. They offer homes for people with intellectual disabilities where they are not just taken care of, but where they are seen as people with their own unique gifts and talents and spirt to share with others. Henri Nouwen lived the last ten years of his life in the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto, Canada and served as their pastor.

My first year of seminary I really began to get into some of Nouwen’s writings, and so a friend suggested I read his bookAdam: God’s Beloved, which is the story of Henri’s relationship with Adam, a core member of L’Arche Daybreak (Core member is what we call the members of L’Arche who have intellectual disabilities, because we believe they are at the heart, or the core, of the community. Those without intellectual disabilities who choose to live in the community are called assistants). I knew as soon as I read that book that L’Arche was something special and something I wanted to find out more about. I didn’t see it as a potential reality for me at that time because I had already started the seminary process and didn’t think I could deviate from that.

The idea of L’Arche kept popping back into my life at various times, but I always had a reason as to why it wouldn’t work out or be possible. But in 2011, after I had served in my first call congregation for about 5 years and was coming to the realization that I needed to be somewhere else, the idea of L’Arche popped up again, and I didn’t really have an excuse this time. So, in conversation with some friends and with a spiritual director, I decided to explore the idea of L’Arche further. I contacted L’Arche USA (which oversees the 15 L’Arche communities in the United States) and began the conversation with them about joining a L’Arche community.

When Amy and Karla contacted me, then, in 2011 when they were ready to begin the process to look for an Admissions Specialist, I told them that I was happy they thought of me but that I had discerned myself in a different direction and wouldn’t be applying for the position. It wasn’t an easy decision, I mean here they were asking me to apply for what I had thought for years would be my dream job, but I was in conversation with L’Arche and wanted to honor that. In May of 2011, I moved into L’Arche Heartland in Overland Park, KS.

L’Arche Heartland is a great community made up of four homes which house 15 core members and about eight assistants. While the homes operate separately, there is a lot of interaction between them. The entire community is constantly getting together for weekly prayer nights, monthly community nights, birthday and anniversary celebrations, weekend trips to places like the zoo or a Kansas City Royals game, and often just to share meals at each other’s homes or to go to the park. I really enjoyed my relationships with the core members and the other assistants and really began to think that L’Arche might be becoming my vocation.

At the end of 2013, when I heard that the Admissions Specialist position was open again, I admit I was intrigued. It had been my dream job for quite some time, and so I emailed back and forth with Jealaine and Karla about the position. When Amy contacted me to have an initial conversation about the position, I thanked her but said that I didn’t think I was interested. I felt that I was happy in L’Arche and was content to stay there. But then, one day out of the blue, Jealaine emailed me the position description with a comment about how it was just to keep me on my toes, or something like that.

I read the position description and it reminded me of everything I loved about working in  the Admissions office as a student. I laid awake for most of that night with the idea running through my head. So I told myself that I would just apply and I would have an interview and then I would tell them thanks but no thanks, and that I was still called to stay at L’Arche.

So the next day I wrote an email to Amy explaining everything that had happened between my last email, where I said I wasn’t interested, and this current email saying I hoped I could still apply. Luckily, Amy understood (she really gets discernment, in case you haven’t figured that out yet) and said I could, indeed, still apply.

I applied, and figured that we would have an initial phone interview and after that interview would be when I would tell them I wasn’t really interested. But instead they called and said they wanted to fly me from Kansas City to Dubuque for an in person interview. So, I flew out, and had a really great conversation with Amy, Karla and Eileen. I really felt like they were people that I could work well with, we had a lot of similar ideas about call and vocation and discernment and what an Admissions Specialist’s role is in the midst of that. I also loved being back on campus, which I hadn’t been since my three year retread in 2009. So it didn’t work out like I had planned. I couldn’t tell them that I wasn’t interested in the position because, after my interview and time on campus, I was actually really excited about it.

So when they offered me the position, I decided I would accept it. I told my bosses at L’Arche that I was going to accept it and we came up with an end date for my time in the community there. It wasn’t an easy decision, and the two weeks leading up to my departure were definitely not easy. I was filled with second thoughts, which I told myself was natural. Of course it would be sad to leave this community I love, but I would be going to another community that I love. It would work out.

Since I have been here at Wartburg, I have met some great people. The faculty, staff and students of this place continue to be pretty amazing, just like they were when I was a student. The prospective students I have had conversations with have been faithful people, earnestly trying to figure out God’s call in their lives. The work of an Admissions Specialist is really good work.

But throughout all of those conversations, I have come to discern that while it is good work, it is not the work I feel called to do. I think if I had taken the call in 2011, when it was originally presented to me, it probably would have been the dream job that I thought that it was. But the truth is, in between 2011 and today, I have had the opportunity to get to know the people and work of L’Arche and I think it was there that my sense of vocation shifted.

I don’t think I made the wrong choice to come to Wartburg. I think I needed to come here to see if this was my call. During my time here I think I have realized that while it is a good job, my heart just is not in it. My heart is still with the people at L’Arche Heartland and so I need to go back there. I deserve to be in a place where I feel called and Wartburg deserves to have someone in this position who feels like their heart is in it.

I am grateful for the time I have had here, for the people I have met and the relationships I have formed. I am extremely grateful for the wonderful people in the Department for Vocation. The office is always a good place to be, with constant laughter and fun. So that makes the decision that much harder, but I still believe it is the choice I need to make.


I make the trip back to L'Arche at the end of next week. It's with a lot of excitement, anticipation, eagerness and joy... but it comes with some sadness. I will definitely miss the colleagues and friends I have made during my time here. I would appreciate your prayers for everyone involved in this transition.

Here's to the coming new adventures!

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.