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.

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.