Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The ADA, Japan, and L'Arche

Twenty six years ago yesterday, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and signed into law. This piece of legislation prohibits the discrimination on the basis of disability in the workplace, State and local government, public buildings, transportation, and others. It was a big step forward in the recognition that people with disabilities are people, deserving of the same things as the rest of the world. Yesterday, in Japan, a man wielding a knife killed 19 people with disabilities and injured at least 26 others. It was claimed that he said, "It is better that disabled people disappear." It was a senseless tragedy, and one that we can all agree should not have happened. But if you talk to many people with disabilities, they'll say that they often feel invisible in our society. We live in a world built for and by people of "normal" abilities. Many places we go and things that we enjoy are not accessible to people with mobility impairments. People with developmental disabilities are often put places where they are out of the way, so that we don't have to acknowledge that they exist. Although we wouldn't go so far as that man wielding a knife, people with disabilities often receive the message that it would be better if they just disappeared. This is why I choose to be in L'Arche. Because it recognizes the gifts of people with disabilities. It says that not only are their lives important, but they are worth celebrating. It says that our lives are made better and richer by their presence. It says that we all, regardless of abilities, have gifts to share and are capable of contributing to the world around us. We are all important, we should all be recognized as valuable, none of us should just disappear. What happened in Japan was senseless. It was a horrible act of violence against people of unlimited value and worth. While there isn't anything I can do to change what happened, and not much I can do to ease the suffering of those who were directly impacted, what I can do is embrace those around me who are considered disabled, and let them know that they are not invisible to me. I see them, and know them, and love them.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Body parts and community

It's funny how you can take something for granted until something happens to it, and then you realize how important it actually is.

Take, for example, my index finger. Not the one on my right hand, which is my dominant hand, but the one on my left hand. It's not normally a part of my body for which I show much appreciation. I don't even usually think about it all that much.

Until yesterday, that is.

I was preparing supper in my apartment, and needed to open a vacuum sealed package of fish. Rather than walking five steps, opening the drawer, and taking out the pair of scissors, I decided to use the large kitchen knife I had been using to chop vegetables instead. So, holding the package with my left hand, I took the knife and cut through the plastic. It was about that time I felt a sharp pain in the index finger of my left hand. Not only had I managed to slice the plastic holding the fish, but I sliced my finger. And it was a pretty good slice.

I remembered all of the things that I had learned about how to stop bleeding. Things like applying pressure to the wound and keeping it elevated. So I was sitting on the floor of my bathroom doing these things but they just weren't working. I figured I would need some outside help. I grabbed my cellphone and called my friend and co-worker Nicole.

"I cut my finger and I don't know if I'll need stitches," I told her. "Also, I don't have any band-aids."

She came to my apartment bearing gauze and medical tape. She took one look at my finger and said, "Yeah, you're gonna need stitches." She helped me bandage my finger and then offered to drive me to urgent care.

After receiving six stitches, and a really cool neon green bandage, I returned home to finish preparing my dinner. It was then that I started to realize how important my index finger on my non-dominant hand really is. It was difficult to hold things, or to wash dishes in the sink, since I can't get the bandage wet. I kept bumping my finger into things, which would give me a fairly painful reminder. Buttoning up my shirt, or buckling my belt, became interesting endeavors. Taking a shower with a plastic bag over my hand, to keep it dry, effectively rendered my left hand useless. Many of my friends have mentioned that I won't be able to play my ukulele for a while. Even typing this blog entry without the use of my index finger is difficult, and results in quite a few typos.

This injury is showing me how this seemingly unimportant body part actually plays a vital part in my life. I am reminded how something that I had taken for granted, and not given much thought to, is actually an important part of my day to day life.

I think we can tend to do this with people. We can overlook them, or take them for granted. We can think that they don't play an important part in our lives and therefore that makes them unimportant. It can be an easy thing to do. But when we do that, when we disregard people, I think we do ourselves a disservice. Because, when we do that, we fail to see the person and all of the gifts that they have to offer. We fail to recognize that they are worthy and deserving of love, just as much as ourselves or anyone else.

In L'Arche, we strive to recognize and lift up the gifts of each person. No matter their abilities or struggles, we choose to recognize that they have something unique and special to offer the world, something that only they can give. It might be easier to disregard or to ignore them, but we choose to lift them up and to build community around them. It is then that we are blessed to see their gifts and how their presence impacts and enriches our lives.

No one is more or less important than anyone else. We each have a part to play and gifts to share. Even if those gifts are harder to see, or not ones that we might readily lift up as important. But when we choose to realize that without each other that our community, our body, is incomplete we open ourselves to being transformed.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
- 1 Corinthians 12:21-27

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!!