Sunday, January 1, 2012

A different kind of Occupy

I've been reading and hearing a lot about the Occupy movement - a movement of protest against economic and social inequality. It's a movement meant to address the growing disparity in wealth where people who claim to be part of the 99% are in protest against the 1% who control most of the world's wealth. Those claiming to be in the 99% set up camp and occupy prominent places, such as Wall Street and places of commerce, to speak out against this inequality. They Occupy to take a stand, to show that they exist, to make a call for fairness and equality in the distribution and taxation of wealth.

I have watched and read with interest as this movement started and then spread around the world. Now there are Occupy movements in something like 600 communities in over 95 cities in 82 countries (I admit I got these statistics from Wikipedia...). I have been interested in this movement, but I have not felt called to participate. I haven't felt like I needed to go pitch a tent somewhere to speak out against this particular inequality. It's not that I don't feel like it is important, or that I don't think people should be speaking out against it, or that I don't believe in the cause... but I have been doing a different kind of Occupying.

You see, I live in a L'Arche community. L'Arche (pronounced like "marsh,") is French for "the ark" and is named after the ark in the story of Noah and the great flood. It was started in France in 1964 by a Canadian man named Jean Vanier. Jean saw the way that adults with developmental disabilities were being treated and neglected in large institutional settings and he felt called to do something new and different. So he invited two men from such institutions to come and live in a house and share a life with him.

Jean didn't intend for it to grow beyond that one small house in the village of Trosly-Breuil, France. He was simply hoping to find a way to work toward a better life with those two particular gentlemen. However, despite his intentions, it did grow and now there are over 140 L'Arche communities in  37 countries.

I found out about L'Arche through the writings of Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author who spent the last ten years of his life at the L'Arche Daybreak community near Toronto, Ontario in Canada. There was something about the way Nouwen described it in his writings that led me to feel that I was called to experience life in a L'Arche community. After a lot of reading, and a lot of discernment, I packed up my stuff and moved into a L'Arche community.

So I have been occupying Overland Park, Kansas. I have set up camp with adults with developmental disabilities. I live, 24 hours a day every day, with these adults and I strive to help them live meaningful, fulfilled and happy lives. I choose to stay here to take a stand, to speak out and say that these adults, who happen to have developmental disabilities, exist and that they are worthy of love and authentic relationships. I live with them to call for fairness and equality in the treatment of all human beings. I live with them as a sign of hope, to show that there is a different way to exist besides consumerism and competition and individualism.  I live in L'Arche because it shows that we can live together in community and collaboration and love. I choose to live in L'Arche because I feel it is a good, compassionate and grace-filled way for me to live.

But there has been a different kind of occupying that has occurred. These people, with all of their disabilities and their shortcomings and their frustrations, have come to occupy a space in my heart. And, in doing so, they have revealed to me their giftedness. They have shown me that in spite of their disabilities, and oftentimes because of them, they also possess such grace. I have seldom seen such compassion and welcome and hospitality and kindness and love as I have been blessed to see here in L'Arche. These people, whom the world often pushes aside and tries to hide and ignore, are such a gift and a blessing, if we only allow ourselves to see it.

I came here to L'Arche, to occupy this space, thinking of the great service I would be doing, how I would be helping people with disabilities to thrive and grow and to be happy. But I think this other kind of occupying has made a much more impressive impact. Because, I often lose my patience. I get frustrated with Pat when he doesn't do everything right when I want him to. I get annoyed with Sam when he stands in the room simply staring and watching my every move. I can sometimes snap back with a quick answer when Matt has asked the same question for the twentieth time that afternoon. I can swiftly lose my patience with George when he is able to focus on every other little thing going on around him instead of the thing that I want him to be focusing on. I can get upset with Joe when we have the same conversations again and again about his behaviors and his desires. I feel like those times I am not doing my best attempt to help them live happy and fulfilling lives.

But then, George offers me a hug and will tell me, "Mark, you're alright." And Pat will come down from his room and tell me how handsome I look, and that I deserve a vacation. And Matt will get joyfully excited about a tree trimmer and want to share that joy with me. And Sam will be the first one to help set the table and to compliment my cooking. And Joe can sometimes surprise me with an insight or a joke that will have us all laughing.

And they all share these things with me, not because of something I did or didn't do, not because of my talents or abilities, but simply because I am me and I am in relationship with them. There are no conditions. I don't have to measure up or pretend to be someone I'm not to earn these things. These gifts of grace are bestowed on me daily simply because of where I choose to occupy.

So that's why I haven't participated in the Occupy movement. Because I'm reminded so many times, in so many little (and big) ways, that I am occupying the exact place that I'm supposed to be.

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