Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jubilee Celebration day one reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Someone loves you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

the Academy Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Beauty of L'Arche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

a deeper look

To the outside observer, a L'Arche house consists of two types of people. There are those who have disabilities (who we call core members) who come to live in the house because they are unable or don't want to live on their own. Then there are those who choose to come live in the house and help out (who we call assistants) who do not have the label of being disabled. It is the assistants' job to assist (hence the name) the core member to live as fruitful and meaningful of a life as possible. To someone on the outside this is what it looks like, and I would say that this is a pretty big part of life in L'Arche. But, when you take a deeper look, it's really not that simple.

Many of the assistants will tell you that when they came to L'Arche they brought with them some lofty ideals of how they were going to do such good works, and how they were going to help the core members live better lives, and how they were excited about all of the things they had to offer to the core members. But, once they spent some time in L'Arche, and once they developed relationships with the core members, they began to realize and recognize all of the things that the core members were offering to them. It is not a one-way relationship where one only gives and the other only receives. Life in L'Arche is reciprocal.

Along those lines, the assistants often come into L'Arche thinking that the core members are the disabled ones, and that the core members are the ones who need help to live a better life. But that notion is quickly disproved, too. Yes, it is correct that the core members have disabilities. Some require help eating or bathing. Some use wheelchairs or crutches to get around. Some of them are deaf or blind. So, it is true all of the core members do have some kind of disability and that is what has brought them to L'Arche, but it is also true that the assistants bring their own disabilities, it's just that we are often better at hiding them.

Assistants can struggle with being open with others, or with trusting people. They can have trouble sharing their emotions or developing close relationships with others. Maybe they find it hard to love themselves or someone else. These are all things that many of us struggle with, but they are things at which many of our core members excel. And these are only a few of the disabilities that assistants can bring with them when they move into a L'Arche house.

I recently moved to a different house here in our community. I have been a live-in assistant in this house now for only a little over two weeks. Often times, when assistants are brand new in a community, there can be a honeymoon period where everything is lovely and wonderful and the quirks and behaviors of your housemates are funny and cute. But then, after a while, you begin to bump into each others' rough edges. The things that were cute or endearing are now irritating or obnoxious. Instead of being funny, your roommate asking you the same question multiple times a day is now annoying. And the constant compliments from another roommate, which you once found charming, are now kind of aggravating and an obstacle to actual conversation. You find it hard to overlook how someone in your house consistently leaves their dirty cereal bowl in the sink, or maybe they constantly scrape their fork on their plate at dinner. This is when the honeymoon is over and the reality of life together sinks in.

Having had the privilege of being a part of this community for around four years, there really wasn't much of a honeymoon period with this house. I have known and interacted and been in relationship with the core members and the other assistants here for several years now. In this new house, I now live with a couple of our core members who have more obvious disabilities and who require more assistance and, whether I like it or not, they have been helping me to see and recognize and confront my own disabilities.

Lately, I have found myself getting frustrated and angry pretty easily. I get upset when one of the core members is constantly trying to move things that aren't where he thinks they belong. Or when another core member won't comply when we need him to eat or to get ready for the day. Or when another core member gets distracted and focuses on 2,000 other things instead of the one thing that we would really like. In the moment, these things frustrate me and make me aware of my short temper and my impatience. As a result, I can end up losing my cool or snapping at someone, which doesn't ever solve the issue, but in the heat of the moment I am not thinking about it that way.

Stepping back, I am able to recognize that these are examples of how life in L'Arche is like a rock tumbler, and we are the rocks bumping into one another. Our rough edges can be sharp, and they can hurt. Knowing what I know of rock tumblers, I know that when the rocks are done in the tumbler they are smooth and shiny and beautiful. I know that through the process of life in L'Arche I am becoming smooth and shiny and beautiful, much like those rocks. I just know that I am in the middle of that process now, and it isn't always smooth or shiny or beautiful in the midst of it. When the rocks are tumbling it is noisy and a bit chaotic and sometimes it can be painful.

But also, in the midst of this, I have my other experiences to look back on. I have been blessed to have lived for a time in two of our other houses here, and so I have some idea of how these things go, at least for me. There were times when I would get frustrated, and want to strangle a housemate in one of those other houses because they breathed funny or something silly like that. But I also know that after my time living in both of those houses, I came to love and appreciate each of my housemates. It wasn't always easy, and I struggled more with some than others, but I can look back now and see how my relationships with each of them grew and blossomed, sometimes in spite of but often because of the the times when we bumped into one another and rubbed each other the wrong way.

That is part of what I have found to be the beauty of L'Arche. Living with core members and other assistants, while it is not easy and it is not always fun or exciting or glamorous, it is always rewarding. Sometimes, in the midst of the day-to-day issues, when everything is happening up close and personal, it is hard to see it that way. But when you look at things from a panoramic view, and you are able to see where you have been, and how it has led you to where you are, it can give you a new perspective. You can see and appreciate how, even though when you came you had intentions of helping the core members live a better life, that they are, in their own unique and amazing and valuable ways, helping you to grow and change and to live a better life, too.

So, I will continue to bump along in this rock tumbler. I won't always handle myself well, and I am sure to be impatient and lose my temper when someone knocks into my rough edges. But I know through the process of living together, of forgiving them for their rough edges, and forgiving myself for my own, I am coming ever closer to being that smooth, shiny, beautiful rock.

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.