Monday, October 26, 2015

a simple dinner party

Last week, our community had five volunteers from a college stay with us and volunteer their time in our homes and day programs as part of a service learning trip. Two of them stayed and helped out at the house where I live, while the other three shared time at our other houses. During the day, they were involved in other things, such as helping at our day programs, or participating in formation and small group discussions. In the evenings they would come back to the house to spend time with our core members and to help out in other ways.

Another group of seven volunteers from the same college stayed at another site in Kansas City. One of the evenings that the volunteers were here, our house hosted all five that were staying in our community, as well as the seven at the other site. We set up an extra table end-to-end with our regular dining room table, and sixteen people sat around it enjoying a nice dinner and some fun conversation about all of the things they had been experiencing that week.

At one point, David, one of the core members, excused himself from the table and took his plate into the kitchen. After putting it in the dishwasher, he went upstairs to his room where I assumed he was going to stay and listen to his music or watch TV.

A few minutes later he came back downstairs bringing with him his karaoke machine. The conversation began to diminish as we all turned to see what he was doing. David sat the karaoke machine down in the corner of the room and plugged it into the wall. Taking the microphone in his hand, and turning it on, he turned and began to address the rest of us in the room.

He started by welcoming everyone, and then said that he was going to be handing out some awards. As he said this, he gestured to the top of the nearby china cabinet where his sand art collection was displayed. One of David's favorite hobbies is making sand art using colored sand and small, clear, plastic bottles. He buys kits from the store and will spend entire afternoons at the dining room table layering different colors of sand into bottles of different shapes and sizes.

One by one, he called each of the volunteers forward, starting with those who had been staying in our community, and presented them with a carefully selected sand art bottle. After the five of them had graciously received their awards, he began calling forward the volunteers we had just met that evening. Each person present in the room received one of his sand art creations, as well as some kind and affirming words. By some coincidence, or perhaps there was some other force at work, he had just enough bottles for everyone present.

The awards were simply small plastic bottles, filled with colored sand. It's hard to say how long they had been sitting on top of the china cabinet. But, in that moment, they became items of special worth. The reactions of the volunteers, as they were called forth and received one of the bottles, was as if they had won something of significance. The mood in the room changed from one of casual conversation to one of celebration and excitement. All of this was because David, a man with Down's Syndrome, decided it was time for an awards ceremony.

That evening was a tangible example of what L'Arche does. The simple became significant. People were recognized as special and loved and deserving of praise. Not because of anything that they had achieved, but simply because they were there. A simple dinner party turned into a time of celebration and joy, because of the love of a core member. And this all happened because David, a man with Down's Syndrome, who might be considered by many people in the world as not having much to offer, was able to recognize and share it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

You're In Here

Every week here at L'Arche Heartland, the entire community gathers in one of our homes for our Prayer Night. At these gatherings, we share a meal, then have some sort of discussion or activity, and then we share any prayer concerns that we have. A few weeks ago, it was my turn to lead the activity and since the focus was on helping each other honor the relationships that are important to us, I thought it would be fun to have each person make a "family tree" where we could write or draw all of the people who are important in our lives. I told the group that they could include whoever they wanted on their family trees, whether they were relatives or friends. They could include anybody who they felt was important in their lives. So we spent some time creating our family trees and then we went around and whoever wanted to share theirs with the group was able.

Afterwards, as we were cleaning up and milling about, Alex, one of our core members, came over to me and held up his family tree to show me. Now, Alex and I lived together for two years and since I have moved to one of our other houses we will still often spend time together. As I glanced over  his tree I saw his mom and brothers were listed, and then there were other people who I knew weren't biological family. "Wait a minute," I said, giving him a hard time. "I don't see my name on here!"

Without missing a beat, Alex looked at me, pointed at his heart and said, "But you're in here."

That is a gift of living in community in L'Arche. People who might not have gotten the opportunity to meet, who come from many different places, choose to live together and relationships are formed. Bonds are built between people of different ages and abilities. Though we might not be biologically related, and we might not have a place on one another's actual family trees, through our lives together we make room for each other in our hearts. We come with the intention of helping other people, and we end up in relationship with them and loving them.

So, I'm ok with being left off of Alex's family tree on that piece of paper, because here in L'Arche I've become family with him where it matters, in our hearts.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Taking a Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lessons in relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 29, 2015

Jubilee celebrations reflections day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jubilee Celebration day one reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Someone loves you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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