Saturday, May 11, 2019

Eight lessons from eight years

Eight years ago this month I moved into L'Arche Heartland. Even though I had done a lot of research, like reading the writings of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier and others who had lived in L'Arche communities, I really didn't know what I was in for. There have been a lot of ups and downs over the years, and there have definitely been times when I wondered if I should stick around (I actually did leave for a few months but realized I needed to come back), but my relationships with the core members and the ways I have seen and felt myself grow have made me ride out the hard times and stick around.
As I've been thinking about my eight years in L'Arche, I thought it might be fun to write down eight lessons I've learned. They are definitely not all the things I've learned, but they are what came to mind and what I felt like sharing as I began writing. Some are more light-hearted than others, but all of them speak true to my time in community. 



Eight Lessons from Eight Years in L'Arche

Faster is not necessarily better
When I lived with Brian, one of our daily tasks was to go on a morning walk. Towards the beginning of our time together I saw these walks as things that just needed to be done as quickly as possible. We had a regular route that we walked and I thought it was better to do just get it over with.

But going for a walk with Brian is not just something that you do quickly. Brian would walk with a slow and deliberate pace and this frustrated me. On these walks, my mind would be occupied with all of the other things I needed to do, and this walk through the neighborhood was keeping me from doing them. I would try to make Brian walk faster which only resulted in him dragging his feet and pulling on my arm and both of us getting upset with the other.

At some point, in the time that we lived together, I grew to accept that these walks were going to be done at Brian's pace and not mine. That's when they changed for me. They stopped being a task or a chore and became something I enjoyed. They were moments of peace in what could be otherwise busy and hectic days. The slower pace allowed me to appreciate things we saw along the way like flowers and trees and decorations in yards. It gave me time to think and to breathe. 

Often times, in my life in L'Arche, things that I am used to being able to do quickly end up being done at a slower pace. Leaving the house to go somewhere. Cooking a meal. Brushing teeth. All of these things, and many others, usually end up taking more time when they are done with core members. It can be frustrating to do these things so slowly if your goal is to just get them over with. But L'Arche has taught me that while the end goal is important, it is often secondary to the process it takes to get there.  A slower pace often opens up the possibility for building relationships, having fun, experiencing joy, and strengthening community.

Dance parties make everything better
Several years ago, Justin undertook an endeavor to have a good-sized garden in the yard of Mercy House. It required a lot of work to maintain, and sometimes one of the other houses would come over and help to weed or pick green beans and other vegetables. One time there was a group of us out in the garden and we were listening to some music. A particular song came on that Matt enjoyed and so there, in the middle of our yard, he started dancing. Slowly, we all stopped what we were doing and joined Matt and it turned into a conga line.  What was an ordinary task of bean picking and weed pulling became a dance party in the side yard of Mercy House for all of our neighbors to see.

Dance parties are not uncommon in L'Arche. In fact, just the other day I was helping out at one of our other houses for an evening and Matt and I had several dance parties in the living room. I've had dance parties in the kitchen, in a bedroom, in the laundry room, even in the van. They are moments of spontaneous joy that can lighten a mood, bring a group of people together, spread happiness, and make people smile.

You are beautiful
When I first moved into L'Arche, one of my housemates was a gentleman named Pat. He held the honorable title of "King of L'Arche" in our community because he had been here the longest, around 27 years.

Pat loved to compliment people and shower them with praise. He constantly told people they were beautiful or handsome, that they needed a vacation or a thousand dollars, that they looked skinny or healthy, that they looked good in their outfit, that they cooked good food or did whatever it was they were doing at the time really well. I knew that there were people he didn't like or that he didn't care to be around, but Pat would never tell them that. He'd tell them they looked handsome and then he'd duck out when no one was paying attention and go sit on his swing in the backyard.

Pat ended up being diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2016. I remember the last thing he said to me, the day he ended up getting admitted to the hospital. I was in his bedroom to help administer some medication, he was lying in bed probably feeling pretty awful, but he looked at me and said, "You're as skinny as a horse, Mark. You need a vacation." Even at his worst, he was still giving people compliments.

Even though he's been gone for almost three years now, he still comes up in our conversations quite often. We joke about how he'd respond to a situation, or we give each other "Pat compliments." And I think that's one of the lessons I learned from Pat: Compliment each other often. Tell people what you love and appreciate about them whenever you get the chance. No one is going to live forever, so don't let a moment go by without telling someone why they matter to you.

We are more than our abilities
I think a view that is common to the outside observer is that people with disabilities are weak and that they need help in their daily lives. That very well may be true. The reason the core members come to live in L'Arche is that they have a disability and often need help to do things. Some of our core members need help eating. Some need help accomplishing daily tasks. Most need help getting to and from places like work or their day program or appointments. 

But one of the greatest things I have learned at L'Arche is that to see them only as being weak and in need of help is a huge mistake, because each of the core members has amazing strengths and so much to offer. A few of the strengths that I have witnessed in different core members are a deep loyalty, the ability to forgive, fierce determination, warm hospitality, joyful optimism, and selfless compassion. Not to mention skills like being able to spotlessly wash a car, paint a beautiful work of art, or to almost instantly tell you the day of the week for any date that you give. 

Core members in L'Arche are far more than their disabilities. They are more than someone who needs assistance with parts of their life. They are people with interesting lives, with their own strengths and abilities and gifts. Getting to know them, and becoming their friend, has blessed me immeasurably in my own life.

Everyone deserves to be honored
David is a member of our community who loves to plan parties and to celebrate. He hosts parties for Valentine's Day, Christmas, and New Years, among others. At our July Community Night, he leads the All American Parade where we march around to patriotic music waving flags and decorations that he's made. One of my favorite celebrations that he hosts every year is the L'Arche Academy Awards. These are not like the award ceremony hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where many are nominated but only a few win. At the L'Arche Academy Awards everyone present, and even some people who aren't there, get awards and are recognized for something that makes them special.

David gives people awards for being a good cook, for helping others, for singing, even for liking chainsaws. Each person gets their name announced, they get to come forward and receive a certificate that he's decorated and get a little trophy from the dollar store, and everyone claps and cheers. David decorates with a red carpet and people get their pictures taken and everyone gets to be celebrated and honored. 

This celebration is the epitome of  what L'Arche stands for: Everyone has value, everyone  has gifts worth honoring and celebrating regardless of their abilities.

You're never too old for a new adventure
When I was serving in the role of Community Coordinator, part of my responsibilities included coordinating visits for volunteer groups, or friends from other L'Arche communities who were visiting or passing through, or people interested in being assistants in our community. One day, I received an email from someone in the L'Arche USA office connecting me with a woman named Katharine who was in Colorado and interested in being an assistant in the community that was in the beginning stages of formation in Fort Collins. They wanted her to experience life in a L'Arche community and as we are the closest one to Colorado, it made sense for her to come and visit us 
Through my coordination with her, we made plans for her to come and visit around Thanksgiving as she would be spending the holiday with her brother and his family in a town about 45 minutes from us. 

The day she arrived, I was out running errands when I received the call that she was in the office. So I returned and walked in to see a small woman in her 70's standing in the office. "Can I help you?" I asked. "I'm Katharine," she replied. I was a bit taken aback. A large portion of the people who come to be assistants in L'Arche communities are right out of college. My conversations with Katharine had all been through email, so I'd never heard her voice, and we had never mentioned her age. I assumed since she was free over Thanksgiving that she was a college student on break from school at that time. She was not at all what I was expecting.

But she was amazing. She had spent her professional life as a first-grade teacher. She had then devoted the last couple of years as a caregiver to her partner as she was sick. When her partner passed away, Katharine wanted to live in community and do something meaningful. She and her partner had talked about L'Arche before, and so she was looking to be an assistant in a L'Arche community, and that's how she ended up coming to visit us.

Her visit with us was wonderful. She loved getting to know us and we loved getting to know her. She ended up applying to L'Arche USA to be an assistant, and after some consideration, they asked us if we were interested in welcoming her into our community. We jumped at the chance to welcome her back.

We all fell in love with Katharine. She was gentle, kind, friendly, and funny. Her presence in the home was calming and nurturing. Katharine quickly became a beloved member of our community.
It was devastating, then, nine months later when she was diagnosed with cancer. She ended up leaving our community to stay with her brother and it wasn't much later that she passed away. We held a celebration of life for her and invited her friends and family that were nearby. We sang and prayed and shared stories and thanked God for sending Katharine to be a part of our community.

We still talk about Katharine, more than a year after she left us. The impression that she left on our community belies the short amount of time that we got to have her with us. And, if she would have let her age stop her from looking into living in a L'Arche community, then we never would have been blessed to know her at all. At 74, she was eager to embark on a new adventure and I hope that I, at any age, can follow her courageous and compassionate example.

Community is like a rock tumbler
I can't take credit for this bit of knowledge. This was relayed to me by the wonderful Sue Mosteller, who was the Community Leader of L'Arche Daybreak in Canada, and the first International Leader of L'Arche after founder Jean Vanier.

She compares community to a rock tumbler. You put rocks in it and they tumble around. They bump into each other, catching one another on their jagged edges and their bumpy spots. But, eventually, through this process, they become shiny and smooth and beautiful. They were beautiful before they went in, of course, but the process brings out more of their natural beauty. 

We enter community much like those rocks. We tumble around together, bumping into one another, catching on each others' jagged edges and bumpy spots. It can be stressful, even painful. But, eventually, we get smoother. Our natural beauty emerges. We become shinier, smoother, more beautiful versions of ourselves.

I've noticed this happening to me after eight years. Things that would have earlier caused me to lose my temper, or freak out, or become frustrated don't elicit the same responses. They don't catch my rough spots as much as they used to.

The other day I was driving in the van with a couple of the guys in my house, and I just felt this sense of comfortableness, a sense of ease. Like I was smooth. Don't get me wrong. I know I have plenty of bumps and rough edges left. I'm sure it wasn't too long after that moment in the van that I got upset about something or one of my housemates frustrated me. But I know that it's happening. This rock tumbler called L'Arche is smoothing me out, making me more patient, more compassionate, wiser, and more loving. I could bump around for the rest of my life and never get completely smooth, but I know I'm making progress.

Have an open heart
Change is constant. During my time at L'Arche, there have been many assistants who have come and gone. We've had transitions in our leadership. We have even lost people because of death. People who I thought, or hoped, would still be here are now other places and there are people that I never could have imagined who are part of our community now. The community I am a part of today looks very different than the one I joined 8 years ago.

The core members consistently face all of these changes with open hearts. I know it would be easy, after years of seeing people come and go, to close up, to not get too attached, to realize that the chances are that this person will move away sooner or later. But that has not been what I have seen.
The hearts of the core members continue to be wide open, ready to receive and welcome those who come, to engage in love and friendship with those who are here, and to joyfully celebrate those who leave. The welcome they offer to assistants who newly arrive today is no different than the welcome I received when I arrived and I have a suspicion that the welcome I received is pretty similar to assistants before me. They still hold parties to celebrate and to send off assistants when they leave for other places. David, a core member who has been in our community for 20+ years, will still sing “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand for assistants who move out of his house. 

What the core members have taught me is that life is richer and better and more well-lived when greeted with an open heart. It might be safer or easier to close your heart to protect yourself from change and the pain that accompanies it, but then you don't experience the good parts as much. You close yourself off to relationships and experiences and opportunities that could be life-changing.
Change is inevitable. The way we respond to that change is not. The core members have taught and shown me that the best way is with an open heart, willing to receive and to send with joy and love.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Hugging it out

Despite my best efforts, one of the core members I live with has racked up a hefty fine at our local library. I try and keep him to a limit of items that he has checked out at one time, but he also goes to the library with his day program and they have not historically kept much of an eye on him when he's there, and he'll end up leaving with a resusable grocery bag full of CDs and books. This becomes hard for him to keep track of, and hard for me to help because I don't even know that he's checked these things out. Because the amount of his fine has reached over a certain limit, he isn't able to check out any more items until that is paid off. We are working on having him pay it off in portions, so it doesn't use up all of his spending money all at once.

Mondays are the day of the week that we traditionally go to the library as a house. It's something that most everyone looks forward to doing. As we were preparing to leave today, I was wondering how I would handle it with this particular core member. If I took him with us, there was a good chance he'd try to check things out and then become frustrated when that was refused. If I left him at home, there was a good chance he'd leave the house and walk to the library on his own while we were gone. So, I thought I'd try to nip it in the bud, and before we left I explained that he was more than welcome to come with us to the library, but because of his fine he wouldn't be able to check anything out. He let out a hefty sigh, and cast his eyes downward, but he seemed to understand what I was telling him.

So we were at the library, and I was perusing the shelves of new fiction, when I glanced over to the CDs and saw him looking through the selection. With one hand he was looking through the CDs on the shelf, and I noticed in the other hand he was holding three CDs. I casually walked over and softly reminded him that he woiuldn't be able to check out those CDs due to his fine, so he should think about putting them back. He responded in an angry tone, so I walked away and gave him some space. Often, if you give him time to think about what you've said, he will end up complying.

However, he moved down the shelf, continuing to look at CDs and kept the three in his other hand. After a couple minutes, I walked back over to him, and told him that if he tried to check those CDs out, that he would be unable to do so, and he would find that frustrating, so I was trying to be a good friend and help him not be frustrated. He said a few more angry things to me.

Fine, I said. Go ahead and do what you want. I was just trying to help. I walked away and went to sit in a chair and wait for everyone to finish up what they were doing. A few minutes after I sat down, one of our other housemates came up to me and handed me a DVD, and told me that he had checked it out for the first core member. I asked him why he did it, and he said because he had asked him to. So, I took the DVD and dropped it in the return box, and went and found him. I told him that he could not check things out, and it wasn't appropriate to ask our housemates to check things out for him. He sighed and grumbled at me again.

Afterwards, as we walked out to the van, there was an air of tension between us. He was mad at me because he was blaming me for being unable to check things out, and I was frustrated with him because my attempts to help were being met with anger. So we drove home without saying much to each other.

A little later this evening, we were all sitting in the living room watching wrestling on TV when he turned to me and said, "Sometimes brothers fight. Can we just hug it out like men?"

In case you were wondering, we hugged and we're not upset with each other anymore. There's a good chance that something similar will happen the next time we go to the library, if he hasn't paid off his fine yet, and there's a good chance that it will be resolved by "hugging it out like men."

This is a lesson that the world could stand to learn from L'Arche - sometimes when we are part of a family we will get angry with each other. But, hugging is always a better alternative to fighting.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Here's to new beginnings and fresh starts

So, it's been a hot minute since I've written anything. And I miss it. My blog has never been anything exceptionally huge, it's never raked in a lot of views, it's never received very many comments, but it has been a place for me to share some thoughts about life in my little corner of the world. So I've decided I'm going to try to write more often, for my own benefit.

This resurgence in wrting was sparked by an event that happened in our community last night. We publicly affirmed our new Community Leader, in the presence of our community members, family, friends, board members, and even representatives from L'Arche USA staff and board. We sang and ate and fellowshipped and affirmed and looked to the future with excitement and hope. We think this is a good and exciting new beginning for our community, and we look forward to seeing where Jamie, our new Community Leader, will take us.

That new beginning has led me to start a new beginning with this blog. I don't imagine it will be  anything spectacular or earth-shattering, but it will be a space for me to consider the immense grace and life-changing love I experience every day here in L'Arche. And I imagine that will be good enough.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

On Leaving

L'Arche is meant to be a place where people with developmental disabilites can find a home for the rest of their lives. So, then, what does it mean when one decides that it is no longer the place he wants to call home?

This is something I've been pondering the last few months. A core member who has lived with us here at L'Arche Heartland for 10 years has made the decision that it is no longer the place for him. With the help of his case manager he has explored other alternatives and at the end of this month will be moving into an apartment run by a residential service provider in town.

L'Arche is good, but it isn't perfect. It's not the right place for everyone. Assistants come and go. Some are here for a short time, others for a relatively long time. It is rare, these days, for an assistant to commit to L'Arche for their lifetime. And we understand that. We might be sad when an assistant decides to leave, but we understand that they are moving on to the next step in their journey and we send them off with our love and best wishes.

So, then, why do we assume that every core member will want to spend the rest of their life in L'Arche? Why do we view it as a failure on our part, that we weren't able to provide them what they needed, if they decide to go? Granted, in my experience it hasn't been common for a core member to decide to leave, but does that have to mean it is a bad thing?

The founding story of L'Arche talks about Jean Vanier welcoming Pierre and Phillipe into his house and sharing life with them. But the part that often gets left out is that there was a third person who moved in, another core member named Dani. But it became apparent that L'Arche was not the right place for Dani, and he ended up going back to where he had been before. This part of the story doesn't often get shared. I think many people think it tarnishes the beautiful story. But does it really?

I think it shares the very human nature of L'Arche. We aren't a solution, we aren't able to save everyone. We are just a sign of hope that life can be lived differently, that beautiful things dwell in unlikely places, that everyone deserves to have a community that loves and supports them. It isn't perfect. L'Arche can only do so much, and sometimes what we can do isn't what is needed or wanted.

That is what I've been reminding myself these past few weeks, and what I will cling to during these days of our core member's transition. We are not perfect, but we were good for him for a time. He's now decided that another living situation is what he needs, and that doesn't mean that we've failed. It means that we have been his home, recognized his gifts, celebrated his life, and done our best to love him while he was with us.

And that, to me, is the opposite of failure.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

the dance of community

Tonight, I was at a dance that was held in our day program space. It was after a long day at work, followed by our weekly prayer night gathering, and then capped off with the dance. Earlier this afternoon, I had been dealing with some emails about one of our core members from the day service they attend that were less than positive. I also had a conversation on the phone with another core member who is in the midst of a process that they hope will end with them moving out of L'Arche Heartland and into a different residential community. Then, at prayer night, a couple things had happened that left me a little frustrated. So at this dance, I wasn't in the best emotional space for dancing, and one of the assistants caught me sitting down, staring off into space, with my chin in my hand.

"What's the matter, Mark?" he asked.

"Oh, nothing really," I replied. "I was just remembering when I thought that L'Arche was a beautiful little community where everyone loved each other and got along."

The assistant laughed, and then our day program coordinator, who previously had spent a long time as our community leader, said with a chuckle, "See, he read about it in this book..." She was referring to how my introduction to L'Arche came through the book Adam: God's Beloved, which is a lovely little book about Catholic priest Henri Nouwen's relationship with a core member named Adam at a L'Arche community in Canada. Which, as I said, is a lovely little book. But any assistant will tell you that it doesn't give you the whole picture of what life in L'Arche actually is.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love L'Arche. Even on days like this, when I'm tired and frustrated and maybe a little disillusioned, I will openly admit that L'Arche is one of the best things that has happened to me. There are things that happen here that are lovely and beautiful and life altering and, I think, are glimpses of the Kingdom of God.

But the reality is, L'Arche is full of people. Broken, hurting, awkward, sensitive, lonely people. And any time you put people together in one place there is sure to be drama. And L'Arche has its share.

One of the beautiful, life altering parts of L'Arche, at least for me, has been the part where it says that it's ok to be broken and hurting and awkward and sensitive and lonely, and that being any (or all) of those things does not mean that you are any less beautiful or loved or valued or part of the community. It's the part that says that maybe things aren't going well for you at your day program, but that isn't the end of the world, because at the end of the day you are more than your behavior or your shortcomings or your flaws. It's the part that says, it's not a failure if someone decides that L'Arche is no longer the place where they want to live. Because people change and grow, and what they might have needed at one time isn't what they want or need anymore. So it's ok to celebrate the part of the journey that they shared with us and to send them off to the next stage with our love and best wishes. It's the part that loves you, even when you are frustrated or not at your best, when you let things you can't control upset you or drag you down. Because you are surrounded by people who love you, and will be there waiting for you when you are ready, to reach down and give you a hand back up.

And it's filled with people who, when you aren't in the mood to dance or feel like you can't, will be there to dance for you. People who will receive you with open arms when you feel like you're ready to get back up and give it another try.

Friday, September 16, 2016

the King of L'Arche

This past month, we had to say good bye to one of our core members. After months of chemo, and doing surprisingly well and staying upbeat and active,our friend Pat took a turn for the worse and quickly made his exit. He was a much loved member of our community, having lived in L'Arche Heartland for 27 years - we would actually sometimes refer to him as the King of L'Arche. He was quick with a compliment, always telling people they were handsome or skinny or beautiful, that they needed a raise or a vacation or a thousand dollars. He'd tell people they were good cooks, even if they weren't the ones who had prepared the meal. In fact, the evening before he went into the hospital, which is the last time I spoke with him, from his bed with his blanket pulled up to his chin, and his bare feet sticking out the bottom, he looked at me and said, "You look handsome, Mark. You're as skinny as a horse!"

He also had a good sense of humor. One time, when I was living in the house with him, I was cooking dinner. We had chosen to have these frozen, breaded chicken breasts for the meal. There were cooking instructions on the bag for a conventional oven or a convection oven. In my quick glance at the instructions, I chose to read the wrong ones and cooked the chicken in our conventional oven following the convection oven instructions. We sat down at the table, said grace, and started to eat. I cut a piece off of my chicken and put it in my mouth and immediately knew it was wrong. I spit it out and told everyone to stop eating their chicken right away. "Oh my!" Pat exclaimed. "Mine's pink!" For years afterward, even just days before he died, when Pat and I were around other people, mixed in with his usual compliments would be "Mark's a good cook. He makes good chicken." Everyone would think he was paying me a nice compliment, but I knew, and he knew that I knew, that he was referring to my "pink chicken" as he liked to call it.

Living with him, I got used to the sound of stomping, clapping, and whooping coming from upstairs. His bedroom was in the attic and he spent a lot of his time watching game shows and sports games. He was an enthusiastic viewer, and would cheer for his favorites, clapping and whooping when they did well. He'd also stomp or shout when they did poorly, too. After living with him for about a week or two, it just became part of the background noise of the house.

His singing voice was kind of a surprise. I remember the first time I heard it. I had been in L'Arche for about two weeks at this time, and we were at our annual Faith and Sharing retreat. We were getting ready to sing some songs, and Pat and I were sitting next to each other on a couch. The guitars started to play and we began to sing and Pat, who was kind of a bigger guy, busts out in this operatic falsetto singing voice. It actually startled me, and I reacted visibly. Another assistant on the other side of the room from us noticed and she started laughing. Then I started laughing. Pat saw me laughing so he started laughing.

Pat's laugh was something else, too. It was always interspersed with loud snorts, which would always make the people around him laugh harder. I never was sure whether he was doing it on purpose, or not, but I kind of have a feeling that it was on purpose because he liked the reaction that they received. Pat enjoyed making people smile and laugh and feel good.

He liked people, and liked to be social, but wasn't always a fan of large crowds. A lot of times he'd find his way to the back of the room, or to a quiet corner, or even out in the hallway or the parking lot. If you didn't know where Pat was, you just assumed he snuck out early, and then you'd have to go out and find him.

I feel like that's what he did when he died, too. He just snuck out early. He didn't want it to be a big deal. He didn't want people gathering around and making him the center of attention. He just wanted to quietly leave while people were paying attention to something else.

After he passed, we had a Celebration of Life to honor his memory. We sang some songs that we knew he would have enjoyed, and we shared stories and memories about him. There was a lot of purple decorations (it was his favorite color) and pictures of him throughout his life, and his 27 years in L'Arche.

Yesterday, with the help of a few assistants, we finished moving his stuff out of his bedroom. I remember standing in the middle of his room, thinking that this was it. This was the final good bye. I was acknowledging that Pat won't be coming back to this room, he won't be singing or watching tv and cheering and clapping anymore. For the past 27 years, Pat has been a constant in our community. He has known six Community Leaders. He's welcomed several new Community Coordinators. He's seen many assistants come and go. Each one has come to know Pat, to enjoy his singing, to have their spirits raised by his compliments, to laugh along with him as he snorted. It is weird to think of what our community will be like now. It certainly will be a different community without him. But, then again, I am certainly a different person because of him. And I am thankful that I had the chance to journey alongside him for the short time that I did.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Beautiful and Terrible

A few weeks ago, I went on a road trip to St Louis with four other members of our community. We went to visit some friends in the L'Arche community there, but also to listen to Sister Sue Mosteller give a presentation. Sister Sue is a Sister of St Joseph who lives in Toronto, Canada, and has been a part of L'Arche since the 1960's. She served for a time as the Community Leader of L'Arche Daybreak near Toronto, where she became friends with Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen. She also was the first International Leader of L'Arche after our founder Jean Vanier. After her presentation, I had the opportunity to chat with her. She asked me a question about if my time at L'Arche was beautiful, and I answered with a very honest, "Sometimes."
"I understand," she answered. "I have always said that L'Arche is both beautiful and terrible."

And she's right. It is both things at the same time.

L'Arche, in its essence, is beautiful. It's a community of people of differing abilities who have come to share life together. It's the strong helping the weak. It's the weak helping the strong. L'Arche clearly states that we are not out to save the world, but that in our own very small way we are called to be a sign of hope. We are called to show the world a different, more compassionate, more human, way to live.

And I think that's beautiful. Henri Nouwen also believed that it was beautiful. In his book "Adam: God's Beloved" he shares about his own relationship with a core member (L'Arche's term for community members with intellectual disabilities) and how this man who was nonverbal and needed assistance with almost every aspect of his life was a manifestation of Christ, and how his relationship with Adam impacted his own life. That is all very beautiful, and a very real part of what it means to be in L'Arche.

To be a part of L'Arche is to experience that beauty: The joy a core member expresses when his favorite song comes on the radio, or he does a good job at bowling. The unconditional love that is offered, not because you've deserved it or earned it, but just because a core member loves you. Constant comments of how handsome or skinny you are, and how much you need a vacation. The connections that are formed by sharing life with core members, being present with them daily. These are all things that I have experienced, and which have made my time at L'Arche to be a very beautiful thing.

But, sometimes, if we are honest, L'Arche can also be pretty terrible. When you form relationships with anyone, you are opening yourselves up to the beautiful parts of them, but also the not so beautiful parts. If we are honest, we can admit that we all have some not so beautiful parts. It's just that most of us have spent years learning how to cope with them, or to hide them. People with intellectual disabilities are often much more open with and about this part of themselves.

So, sometimes L'Arche can be terrible because a core member acts out in violence towards you or someone else. It can also be terrible when you realize that it is a very human place, filled with broken and hurting people, with and without disabilities. It can be terrible when you find yourself feeling lonely, even though you are constantly surrounded by people.

It can also be terrible when you are unable to help the core members in a way that you want. When you talk with a core member about how he wants to be seen as important and popular, but because of his disability he is ignored or disregarded. Or when you sit nearby as a core member experiences a seizure, knowing there isn't anything you can do to make it stop. Or when one of the core members is given a life altering health diagnosis, and you can only do so much as you accompany them through their sickness and death. And then you are faced with the reality of life in a community that is now different, because they aren't there anymore.

To be a part of L'Arche is to also open yourself up to experience that which is not beautiful. To experience the very real, and sometimes messy, loud, chaotic, troubling, painful lives of people with disabilities. To live day by day, side by side, with people with developmental disabilities (and, let's be honest, people without them, too) is to invite all that they are to be in relationship with all that you are.

And that's where it gets beautiful again. Because you can't have an encounter like that and leave unchanged. Living in L'Arche will broaden your mind, open your heart, increase your capacity to love, change how you view the world, even change how you view yourself. Living in authentic relationships with people with and without disabilities, recognizing that each has something valid and unique and important and special to share - including yourself!! - helps us all to become better, stronger, more compassionate versions of ourselves.

So, yeah. L'Arche is beautiful. But L'Arche is also terrible. It is both things at the same time. And I think that's pretty beautiful.