Friday, September 21, 2012

true hospitality

I've been thinking an awful lot about hospitality lately.

It's something I have thought that I'm pretty good at. I enjoy having people over to the house and to cook food for them. I like to make donuts or muffins or other baked goods to welcome new people to our community. If we have a guest or a friend of the community who is visiting, I'm always quick to offer to host them at my house. I enjoy having people over for conversation. I've even started inviting my coworkers out for coffee (which I pay for), to foster relationships and to get to know them better.

So, I like to pat myself on the back. Hospitality? Yeah, I got that.

But, recently, through some things I've been reading and through situations that are present in my life, I've come to realize that hospitality is more than that. And often, I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be.

Oh, sure, I'm good at welcoming people into my house. I can make a good spinach and mushroom lasagna or whip up a batch of chocolate donuts for people to eat at my table. I can let someone use the spare bedroom in my house for a couple nights, or offer them a cup of coffee and a spot to sit on the couch.

But real hospitality is broader than that. It's more than making a space in your house for someone. It's clearing away the clutter and other things that can get in the way, and making a space of peace and welcome for the other not just on your couch or at your table, but in your heart, as well.

Sometimes that can be easy. The person you want to welcome can make you feel at ease or comfortable. They can make the act of welcoming them seem easy and natural. It can be no problem to offer hospitality to someone who looks like us, thinks like us, acts like us or smells like us.

But hospitality isn't just about offering a space to people we like, or with whom we are comfortable. It's also about offering a space for the other, for the stranger, for people we might prefer to ignore. It is making a space of welcome for all people.

Hospitality is also about welcoming people as they are, not only if they will become as I want them to be. I can't say to someone, "You are welcome here, but only if you change this part about you." Those are not words of welcome and that is not hospitality.

L'Arche is about hospitality. It's about making a space of welcome and inclusion for people who are often on the margins of society. It's about creating a space for adults with developmental disabilities to be able to call their home. When people hear that this is what I'm doing with my life, they often respond with comments about how I must be some sort of saint, or how they could never do anything like that.

In response to being called a saint because of her work, Dorothy Day responded: "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

For me, I don't want to be called a saint because most days I don't feel like one. Ok, pretty much every day is a day I don't feel like one. In my interactions with the people I live with I see all sorts of ways I could have been more hospitable, more inclusive, more welcoming and accepting of who they are and where they are on their journey.

But the thing about L'Arche is that they don't let me off the hook that easily. These people with whom I could be more hospitable are with me everyday. So, when I lose my temper and snap at someone for asking me a question for the 507th time, I can't really just get up and go away and never see them again. Instead, I have to sit next to them at supper that same day.

In L'Arche we strive to welcome all people as they are, realizing that it is these things about us that seem broken or imperfect that make us who we are. Living in this community I have been gifted to see that these people who are often seen by the greater society as somehow lacking or incomplete are really quite remarkable people. They have such amazing gifts to share, if we are willing to take the time to slow down and receive them.

Life in L'Arche is not easy. There are things I have had to give up to choose to live here. Sometimes I have to miss out on things that I would really love to do because I have made a commitment to life in this community. And it can be easy to focus on what I do not have, but if I do that too much than I can easily overlook all that I am gaining.

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, sums it up quite remarkably in one of his letters: "L'Arche is a school of love where we learn to love others who are different. This requires each person to grow in humility and to work on themselves. It means learning to see each person as somebody in whom God dwells, a person from whom we can receive gifts and who can help us to grow in love."

I have a mug that I use to drink my coffee every morning. It was made by a core member from the L'Arche Daybreak community in Canada. On it there are drawings of four people, two of whom are in wheelchairs, and above them are the words "All Are Welcome." That is true hospitality. That is the vision of L'Arche. And I pray that I might make a space where all can be welcome in my house and also in my heart.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

the muffin incident

or "The Great Muffin Caper"

In my previous post, I make reference to a time when I "practically threw a plate of muffins" at my community coordinator. Having read through that post multiple times, and thinking about that phrase, I can envision all sorts of different scenarios that someone might think of after reading it and not having witnessed it firsthand. So I decided I would write a post to share that story with you, so that you'd know exactly what happened and not have some image of me as a horrible and violent angry person.

It was a Wednesday morning. It happened to be the day of the week we have our assistants' meeting, where we all get together and go over the schedule for the next seven days, and we also would have a time of prayer or formation. This particular Wednesday also happened to be a special day for Thomas, our community coordinator. I'm pretty sure it was his birthday, but it could have been his anniversary in our community. I don't remember which, right offhand.

I enjoy baking goodies to bring to our meetings. I've made muffins and donuts on a couple of occasions, often times for special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries or if it was a new assistant's first meeting with us or someone's last meeting. But often I would just bring treats for fun. But, since today was a special day for Thomas I decided I wanted to bake some muffins to bring to the meeting.

I woke up earlier than normal that day, and had arranged it with the other assistant in my house that she would drive the guys to work on our normal route that day instead of me, so that I'd have time to make the muffins. Now, when I bake stuff in the house, even if I'm planning on using them for some other occasion or place, I usually make enough so that the guys in my house can have one of whatever I'm making because I'd feel guilty if I baked something, and filled the house with a wonderful smell and then they didn't even get to have one. So in the first batch of muffins I ended up with nine muffins, and I gave four away, one to each core member. That left me with five muffins. I figured if I made a second batch, with another eight or nine muffins in that batch, I'd end up with 13 or 14 muffins and that would be plenty to take to our meeting.

Well, as that second batch was baking, I noticed that, for some reason, the oven didn't seem to be getting as hot as it should. The muffins were taking longer to bake than the last batch. After this batch was done, I still needed to take a shower, and then go pick up another assistant from the auto mechanic because he had dropped of his house van and needed a ride to our meeting. So I needed this batch of muffins to bake on schedule. I waited and finally they were done so I took them out. I left them in the pan to cool, next to the five muffins that had already cooled and were sitting on the counter, and I went up to my room to take a shower.

When I had gone upstairs to shower, all but one of the core members in my house were either already at or on their way to their day services. When I came downstairs I was in the house alone. I walked over to the muffins to take them out of the pan and put them in a container with the others to take to the meeting when I noticed that they, in fact, were not done and every single one of them had sunk. They were inedible. I couldn't serve them like that and I couldn't put them back in the oven. Even if that would have worked, for some reason the oven was not working well enough, and I certainly didn't have enough time to wait for them to finish baking or to make a new batch. So I grabbed a plate to put the five edible muffins on, when I noticed that there were only four. Someone (and by someone I mean the only core member who had been home when I had gone upstairs) had decided he needed a second muffin and so he had snatched one when I was out of the room.

I was upset. I had wanted to make muffins for Thomas, to celebrate this occasion. I had wanted to make enough muffins for everyone to have one. I pride myself in my baking skills, because I often get a lot of compliments for the things I bake. But now, because of that stupid oven and that certain core member I had four muffins for more than four people. This was not how I envisioned things happening. For some reason, that was enough to practically ruin my whole morning.

The entire drive to the auto mechanic I was fuming. I just sat there and went over everything that went wrong that morning over and over again in my head. That oven didn't get hot enough. Those muffins didn't bake all the way and then were ruined. That core member stole one of my muffins.

When I picked up my fellow assistant he saw the muffins and made a couple jokes about them. He saw that there were only four and that we had more than four people at our meeting. He thought he should eat one now, just to make sure he got one. He was trying to make a joke. That's how he is. But I was definitely not feeling it that morning. I tried to tell myself not to get too upset about it, but I just couldn't talk myself out of that bad mood. It was planning on hanging around whether I wanted it to or not.

I tried to tell myself that I was just going to walk in and put the muffins on the table and explain to everyone what had happened. And then we'd go on with our meeting. I envisioned it happening that way in my head as I pulled the van into the parking lot and turned it off. But that is not how it happened.

I grabbed the plate of muffins and walked into the office. Thomas and a few of the other assistants were already sitting at the table waiting for the rest of us to arrive for the meeting. He was in conversation with another assistant when I walked over to the table. All of those good intentions went out the window. I was suddenly overwhelmed by my disappointment and anger and I tossed the plate on to the table in front of Thomas and said something along the lines of, "Here's your stupid muffins." Then I said something like, "I am in the worst mood ever." Then I walked into Thomas' office and shut the door and proceeded to have a little bit of a meltdown.

After I had composed myself I walked back out into the main area of the office and started to try and calmly tell them what had happened, but as I relayed the story and got to the point about the core member taking an extra muffin, I got angry again and kicked a chair out of frustration. But then we went on with our meeting, and as we talked and discussed the week ahead I began to calm down and my anger subsided.

When the meeting was over (and after people had split the muffins so everyone who wanted one got to enjoy at least part of one) and most of the other assistants had left, I apologized to Thomas and Kathy, our community leader, saying that I realized that it was just a bunch of muffins and it was really no reason to get upset. Kathy said that she figured I'd come to that realization sooner or later. Then we all laughed at the situation and Kathy called the electrician to go to the house and check out why the oven wasn't working right.

It turned out that something was wrong with our main breaker, and it was getting overheated and so the entire thing was not working right. He said we were lucky it didn't start on fire. I figured then that the entire morning went far better than it could have. At least I didn't have to come to the office that morning and say, "Here are your stupid muffins. And the house burnt down."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

life in community

When I expressed interest in coming to live at L'Arche Heartland, in the e-mail that I sent I wrote this lengthy paragraph or two about how I had become interested in Henri Nouwen's writing, and my good friend suggested I read Nouwen's book "Adam: God's Beloved." So I did, and I immediately fell in love with the idea of L'Arche. After that I looked for just about every book I could find that was written about L'Arche. I read more of Nouwen's work, and I read books by Jean Vanier, the man who founded L'Arche. I read a book by Sue Mosteller, who was the community leader at L'Arche Daybreak when Henri Nouwen was there and she was also the International Coordinator of L'Arche after Jean Vanier.

When the community coordinator of L'Arche Heartland got back to me, he said that often times people who learn about L'Arche through the writings of Nouwen and Vanier can sometimes be disappointed in the reality of community life once they arrive. Both of these authors have had a lot of experience living in community, and their writing is often full of wonder and deep spirituality. But when someone moves into a L'Arche community and is faced with the day to day life with the people in their homes, they quickly learn that it can often differ from what they've read in the books.

I've noticed that many of my blog entries share some of the more uplifting or holy moments, or as a friend would say the "kumbayah moments." And sure, they are there. I wouldn't be able to write about them if they weren't. But the reality is, those moments are only a portion of what happens in my house. There are meals to make, dishes to clean, floors to sweep, toilets to plunge, messes to clean up, people to drive to work, people to pick up from work, medication to be administered, documentation to be filled out, groceries to be bought, cars to be filled with gas, laundry to be washed, garbage to be emptied, ledgers to be balanced... And then sometimes, in the midst of that, I manage to catch a glimpse of something, or to hear someone say a word or phrase that strikes me in a different way. Sometimes I'm lucky to be aware enough to catch those fleeting moments. But I think, all too often, I'm much too focused on the mundane tasks at hand, and I often miss the opportunity.

Or there are the times that I lose my patience, where I handle a situation in a less than helpful way. Where I get frustrated with someone, or they get frustrated with me, or we get frustrated with each other. Times like these all of that wonder and holiness seem to leave the room, or at least go hide behind the couch. Then I'm left feeling all flustered or upset, most of the time with myself because I didn't handle the situation with the patience or compassion or gentleness or humor that I would have hoped.

Then I look at my life in L'Arche as it is right at that moment and I can't help but think that it would never make it into one of those books by Nouwen or Vanier.  I can't recall ever reading anything they wrote about a snippy, short-tempered assistant. I don't remember seeing anything about an assistant who practically had a wrestling match to retrieve an object from a core member that they shouldn't have had. There's nothing about the assistant who slammed their car door and shouted at a core member in the front yard of their house, or the assistant who had a spectacular meltdown and practically threw a plate of muffins at their community coordinator.

But that's life in community. Or atleast my life in community. And I'm guessing that it's not really all that abnormal or different. I'm sure the specifics might vary, but I'd be willing to bet that anyone who has spent much time living in intentional community in general, and L'Arche in particular, can share plenty of their own less than stellar moments. It's all a part of the deal when you sign up for a life in community.

Another part of life in community, though, is the need to forgive as well as to ask for forgiveness. So, when those moments happen, I have to stuff my pride away and muster up the humility to admit that I was wrong, or that I could have handled the situation differently, and ask for forgiveness. I also have to be willing to extend that same forgiveness to others, even in the midst of hurt feelings or a bruised ego.

And I suppose that's where the wonder and holiness comes into the situation. In the fact that, no matter how many times I've screwed up, or said something wrong, or made a fool of myself, every time when I have asked for forgiveness, I've received it. I've been given a hug, or a smile, or a kind word to let me know that it was forgiven and forgotten. We were able to mend our relationship and move on, to wipe the slate clean... at least until the next time I can find a way to mess up!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

this house

(Note: I wrote this about a week ago but didn't post it at the time because I didn't have internet access in the house. Today, our internet was hooked up and two of the core members who I will be living with moved their stuff into the house. Already our life together is starting to take shape.)

As I write this I am sitting in a house that is virtually empty. The only furniture is a twin sized bed, an end table and a dresser. There is nothing in the dining room or the living room. The three other bedrooms sit wide open and empty. Right now, I’m the only person living in this house. I’ve been here for a little more than a week. I’ve spent my time cleaning, sweeping up mounds of dog hair that was left behind by the previous owners. I’ve been mopping and dusting and putting up shower curtains and installing smoke detectors. I’ve been assembling vacuums and putting together shelves for storage. We’ve been shopping and buying furniture which is set to be delivered in the middle of this week. We are getting ready to open another house here at L’Arche, a house that will become a home for me, and at least three other people, all of whom are living with some kind of developmental disabilities. So, yes, this house is currently pretty empty. But while it might be empty of furniture, it is full of possibility.

I can’t help but stand in the dining room, and envision where the table will be. When I see the table, I see it surrounded by the core members and assistants who will share meals there. I know there will be much laughter and conversation shared over good food. I know there will be times spent together in prayer, with a candle lit to signify the holiness of the occasion. I know there will be house meetings where each one is encouraged to share what is important to them in their life together in this house.

When I turn to the living room, I think of the couch and chairs that will go there, encouraging people to sit and relax and spend time together. It will also be the area where we will host our weekly community prayer nights when it’s our turn. We’ll move the chairs and couch out of the way and put up a few extra tables and more chairs. The other houses will come and join us and we’ll share a meal all together and then some singing and an activity afterward, followed by prayer. I imagine the joy and laughter and communion that will fill the house then, when we are all gathered in this room. 

Then I move to the kitchen, and think of all the meals that will be prepared there. I think of all the bowls of cereal that will be poured, all the pancakes that will be made, the lunches that will be packed, the spaghetti that will be boiled, the cakes that will be baked to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. I think of the coffee that will be brewed in the mornings, the dishes that will need to be washed after every meal, the pots and pans and dishes and cups that will fill the cupboards. I look at the fridge and can’t wait to cover it with pictures of people who are important to us, our friends and family, both in and out of L’Arche.

Down the hall are the bedrooms, and as I walk by each one I think of the members of our community who will be in these rooms. I think of the two core members who will be moving here from one of our other houses. I think of our relationships as they are now, and wonder how they will change as we share a home together. I imagine how their energy and wisdom and spirit will shape this house. And then I look at the bedroom that will belong to a new core member that we will be welcoming. I think of the times he’s visited us, and the little bit I’ve gotten to know him, and wonder what it will be like to live with him, to learn how best to help him lead a full and happy life, and to learn American Sign Language so that I can more fully communicate with him. Then I look at the last bedroom on the right-hand side of the hallway, which is mine, the only furnished room in the house at the moment, and I think about what my life will look like in this house. I wonder how I will change and grow, what I will learn, what the core members will teach me, while I call this place my home.

So right now this house might be empty in the material sense. It might not have all of the things that people think of when they envision what a house looks like. But it is brimming with possibility and hope and ideas and promise. And very soon the people will be here to fill that promise with flesh and bones and laughter and noise and joy and love, and that will be what makes it our home.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Candle Light

From June 3rd-9th, I was blessed with the opportunity to be a delegate at the L'Arche International General Assembly in Atlanta, Georgia. Members and friends of L'Arche from all over the world came to be together for a week, to celebrate and to make some important decisions together. I was also asked to be a daily reporter, and to share my thoughts and experiences during the week which were shared in the daily newsletter. If you are interested in what happened during the assembly, you are more than welcome to head on over to the L'Arche International website and read my updates, look at the pictures, watch the videos and get a taste of the Assembly.

I encourage you to go and check out those daily updates. It was quite an amazing experience, and I feel deeply honored to have been able to participate in the ways that I did. But, since I wrote daily updates, and there are so many wonderful pictures and videos, I'm not going to write my thoughts and perceptions of the event here on my blog. But what I want to write about is something that happened the last evening of the Assembly, after I had already turned in my final thoughts.

We gathered together outside (despite the wind and threat of rain) for a Prayer of Thanksgiving service. It was a silent service, accompanied only by some instrumental music provided by our wonderful musicians. Representatives from each of the zones, or regions, of L'Arche International were candle bearers, and they stood in front of the assembly holding their candles. The idea for the service was then for each member of the assembly to have a candle, which would be lit from the candle bearers at the front, and then the light would travel all the way through to the back of the people seated as the flames were passed on.

Because of the wind, however, this plan did not work out quite like it should have. Many times, shortly after a candle was lit, it would get blown out by a gust of wind. If you held your candle up, to show off the light, the chances were good that it wouldn't stay lit. If you kept it down and closely guarded by your hand, it had a better chance of staying lit, but then only a very few others were able to see it.

While this might not have been what the liturgy planners had intended, it seemed to me to be a more fitting way to end out time together. It seemed to me to be a more fitting image of life in L'Arche.

We believe that each person has a gift, something special and uniquely their own to offer the world. But, like the flame of a candle, this gift can be fragile. The words people say, or the way they treat us, can cause us to doubt our gifts. The society we live in can value other things, such as competition or beauty or productiveness, or something else that might make us to feel that our gifts are inferior. This can cause us to doubt our gifts, to wonder if there might be something wrong with the gifts that we have.

The wind can easily snuff out the flame of our candles, much like the world around us can cause us to doubt or hide our gifts. Our reaction to this is to hide and shelter our gifts. During the Prayer of Thanksgiving service, I noticed that I was keeping my candle low, and close to myself. I had my hand next to the flame, sheltering it from the wind. It stayed lit for a long time, but the only people who knew that it was still lit were those right beside me. The other people at the service had no idea that my candle was still burning. But sometimes, even with my best efforts to keep it safe, the wind would find its way in and blow out the flame.

But there was something else that was going on at that service. Whenever someone's candle would go out, someone nearby whose candle was still lit would reach over and relight their candle. The light from someone else's candle would reignite the light of another's.

I believe that that is the gift of life in community and L'Arche in particular. When the flame of our candle is extinguished, when we feel as if the gifts we contribute are of little or no value, we have those around us who are ready to relight our candle, to remind us of our giftedness and uniqueness, to tell us, again and again and again, how important and valuable we are to the community.

At least that is what I've found to be true. On days when I am frustrated or upset, when I'm feeling insignificant or wondering if I have anything worth sharing, I have received blessings from my L'Arche family that lift me up and remind me of my value. Sometimes those are verbal comments, sometimes they are as simple as a hug or a hand on my arm. But each time I have found that my flame has been reignited and my spirits have been lifted. I have also been blessed to be able to do the same for others, on days when they needed a gentle word or a kind gesture, I have been able to share that with them, helping them to continue to shine their light.

That's the joy of living in community, and it is a great joy I have found living in L'Arche. It is the gift of people with different abilities choosing to live life together. It is strong and weak, working together, looking out for one another (and believe me, in community we all take turns being the strong and the weak). It is sharing our light, to relight the candle of our brother or sister who is in need, and trusting that same light will be given to us when we need it. It's knowing that the community is not complete without each one sharing their light and lifting it up so that everyone can see.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My blog word cloud

So, I wanted to see what kind of "word cloud" my blog would make, so I went to Wordle and gave it a try. I guess we see what I blog about the most, don't we?

Friday, April 13, 2012

This is my life.

The other day I spent most of the day at one of our other houses, filling in for an assistant who was on some time away. Over the past few months I've spent some time in this other house, covering for other assistants when they are on vacation or away for some other reason, and so I've started to figure out the routines and to form some relationships with some of the guys.

So, I was sitting at a small kitchen table, that fits about four people, with two of the guys. Now, these two guys are probably the two with the highest support needs in our community. I was sitting there, and Brian was on one side munching on some trail mix. Ray was on the other side of me, and I was helping him eat some pudding. There was some soft music playing on the cd player on the table, and Ray was rattling off the list of activities that he wanted to do after he was done eating.

As I sat there, and looked back and forth at these two gentlemen, a thought crossed my mind. "This is my life."

It wasn't a frustrated or downhearted thought, like I couldn't believe that out of all of the more exciting or thrilling possibilities that this was what my life has become. I know that, in the scheme of things, I have not chosen the most fashionable or cool way to live. But it wasn't about that.

At that moment, the thought "this is my life," was a statement of contentment. I was content to be there, in that moment, with those two gentlemen. To have the opportunity to learn such simple, yet meaningful, things from them. Like how it's good to show your appreciation for something you enjoy, even if that means watching all of the credits of a movie and clapping through the entire thing. Or getting so excited about a song on the radio that your excitement and joy is expressed by your entire body.

For most of my life, I feel like I've felt a lot of pressure to compete and to achieve. You know, in school and college and seminary it always seemed the goal was to get the best grade, to make it onto the honor roll, to graduate with honors, to win the competition, to score the most points. Even when I graduated seminary and worked in a church, it seemed like I was expected to achieve a lot, to write a great sermon, to teach an amazing lesson in Confirmation, to come up with the best plan to get young people involved in church. Everything was based on how much I could do or what I was capable of achieving and how well I could do it.

But right then, at that moment, sitting at that kitchen table with Ray and Brian... none of that mattered. They didn't care what score I got on the SAT or what my GPA was in high school. They didn't care what kind of athlete I was or how great of a sermon I could write. They just cared that I was there, sitting with them while they ate their pudding and trail mix. They didn't really care what I was capable of doing, they just cared that I was capable of being.

I think sometimes we can get too caught up with doing. We think that our self-worth is tied up with what we can do, what we are capable of achieving. But really, that isn't the case at all. And that day, while I was sitting at that table, I was reminded that our self-worth is more about being. It's about being who we are and who God created us to be. And at that moment, I was extremely grateful that this is my life, to be able to spend time, and to be, with people who remind me of it everyday.

Friday, March 30, 2012

An Amazing Invitation

I'm still pretty new to this whole L'Arche thing. I mean ten months in community is small potatoes compared to what some of the other assistants I know have already lived. And it's really not much compared to some of the core members. Like Pat, who lives with me. He's lived here for 22 years. So, really, ten months is just a small ripple in the pond of community life here in L'Arche.

That being said, I've already got to be involved in some amazing things.

For instance, around a week after I moved here, maybe a couple days longer than that, we went on a community trip to Memphis for our Central Regional Gathering. So, the 14 core members, 7 assistants, our community leader, and community coordinator went on a road trip for around a week. There we spent time with the the members of other L'Arche communities in our region, such as Harbor House in Jacksonville, Florida, L'Arche Mobile in Mobile, Alabama and The Arch in Clinton, Iowa (to name a few).

This past week I got to attend our Regional Assembly in St Louis, Missouri. This was a smaller (and shorter) affair than the gathering in Memphis. Our community leader, a board member, a core member and myself were the ones to represent our community. We drove down on a Friday and came back that following Sunday. It was a smaller crowd, with only core members and assistants from the communities within driving distance. Every community sent their community leader and a board representative, and then our regional coordinator was there, as well as the national director of L'Arche USA. It was a neat opportunity to get to know a few people better, and spend some one on one time with our newest core member who was the one selected to attend from our community.

This coming summer is the L'Arche International General Assembly. At this assembly, there will be 500 members of L'Arche communities all over the world coming together in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, the general rule is that to attend (as an assistant) you need to have been in L'Arche for two or more years. Our community gets to send an assistant and a core member. It just so happened that when the deadline came for registration, the only assistant in our community who would have qualified was already set to attend a long-term assistants retreat that would be happening concurrently with the General Assembly. There were two other assistants who had seniority over me, but they had already made plans to move out of our community by that point. So it fell on me to go. At that point I had only been in our community for six months, if even that. But I'm not complaining. I get to go and experience something that sounds amazing and wonderful and spectacular. I will be in a sea of L'Arche people who are some of the funniest, kindest, humblest, most open people I've met. I'm hoping some of that wears off on me.

But that isn't even the invitation that I wanted to write about. There are certain articles I've written on here that have garnered a little attention, much to my surprise. Because of that, many people know I enjoy writing and I'm pretty decent at it. Well, L'Arche is hoping to use the internet to communicate what is going on at the General Assembly with all of the L'Arche communities and the people who are unable to attend. To do that, they are asking some people to be reporters, and to write and record their observations and thoughts and to share them via their website. Well, at our Regional Assembly our National Coordinator talked to me and mentioned that someone from L'Arche Internationale would be contacting me to see if I was interested in being a reporter for the Assembly.

I received that e-mail invitation today, and I most excitedly accepted. So I will be a reporter at our International General Assembly this June. Me. Who hasn't even been at L'Arche for a full year, yet. I really feel blessed to even be attending the Assembly, but to be asked (and trusted) to be a reporter for it is amazing and humbling and awesome.

I just hope that I live up to the invitation and I'm worthy of the job!

Monday, March 26, 2012

The True Essence of Community

A few weeks ago, our community was invited to visit a Catholic college nearby, and to give a presentation on "the true essence of community." I ended up being the one to present, so what follows is the bulk of the talk that I gave. I did veer from the script some, and I did have other members of our community get up to share a little bit, as well. I don't claim to be an expert on community, and I don't think that anything I shared is particularly profound or groundbreaking, but it is a true representation of my experience of community as I live in L'Arche. 

The True Essence of Community

Hello! First, I wanted to say thanks for inviting us here today, to worship with you and to share a little bit about the story of L’Arche with all of you.

My name is Mark Lepper, I’m a live-in assistant at L’Arche Heartland in Overland Park, Kansas. I have been in this position for just about ten months now. When Kathy, our community leader, told us about this opportunity at one of our weekly assistants’ meetings and asked if any of us would be willing to talk to you all about “the true essence of community” I wouldn’t say I was quick to volunteer, but I let her know that I’d be willing. So, here I am, faced with the task of sharing the “true essence of community” with you all, and I can’t help but think there are many others in my community who, if they had the capacity, would be much better at this than I am. I mean some of them have been living in L’Arche for a long time, up to 22 years. And while they might not be able to express the true essence of community in words, they communicate it to me every day through their actions.

So today, for this time that I get to share with you what I know and have learned about community, I wanted to start out by sharing with you a little bit about the story of L’Arche, how it came to be and who brought it into being. And then I want to share a little bit about the story of L’Arche Heartland, in Overland Park, and then a little bit about my story and how I came to be a live-in assistant there. I want to start with this because I can’t talk about community, and my experience of community, without talking about L’Arche, and I’m not sure how familiar all of you are with what L’Arche is, so to give you an idea of where I am coming from I feel that’s important.

After I share with you a little bit about the story of L’Arche, I then want to share with you what I have learned about and how living in L’Arche has shaped my idea of community. I will try to share with you as much as I think I know about the true essence of community, or at least what that phrase means to me. Then I wanted to give a couple members of my community a brief moment to share with you what they know and have learned about community life in L’Arche, and then I wanted to be able to open it up for any questions you might have. 

So before I get started with all of that, let’s take a moment and bow our heads in prayer.
Gracious God, you have called us into community, both with you and with each other. I pray that you might use this time together, and the words that I will share, to move in our hearts and bring us to a fuller understanding of the community you desire us to be as unique and beloved children of God. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

L’Arche is a French word and it means the Ark. It’s meant to bring forth images of Noah and the ark and how it served as a place of refuge for the people and the animals and helped them survive the great flood. It also alludes to the ark of the covenant, which is what Moses and the Israelites used to carry the tablets of the ten commandments, which were a sign of the Israelites relationship with God.

L’Arche has a French name because it traces its origins back to France in 1964, when through the promptings of his spiritual advisor Father Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier began to look for ways to be involved with adults with developmental disabilities. Through this he became aware of the struggles and hardships that many were facing.

Jean saw that men and women with developmental disabilities were mistreated, often locked up in warehouse type settings. They were given little attention and care, and were kept in buildings and rooms that didn’t have even close to the appropriate facilities to care for them.

In conversation with Father Thomas, Jean felt called to do something new and different. He wanted to offer up a different way of living for adults with developmental disabilities, and so he bought a house and invited two gentlemen from such institutions to come and live with him. So Jean along with Raphael and Philippe, moved into a home together and started the first L’Arche community.

When he did this, Jean wasn’t looking to start a movement. He didn’t intend for it to grow beyond that one house. He was simply hoping to find a way to work toward a better life for those two particular gentlemen. However, despite this, it attracted a lot of people who were drawn to this new kind of community. They saw the value and importance of what L’Arche was trying to do, and they felt called to go and start new L’Arche communities. And so now, there are over 140 L’Arche communities in 37 different countries. There are communities in places like Haiti and England and Canada and India and all over the world.

Today in the United States there are 17 confirmed communities, and three emerging communities that are beginning their process. The first community to open in the United States was in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1972 and the newest confirmed community is L’Arche St Louis which was confirmed in June 2011.
L’Arche Heartland opened in 1987. Our founding community leader was Sister Christella Buser of the Sisters of St Joseph in Concordia, Kansas. She first started attempting to start the community in 1984, but they were met with quite a lot of opposition from neighborhood associations who didn’t want a community like L’Arche moving in. But she was persistent and her hard work paid off and we will be celebrating our 25th anniversary later this year.

L’Arche Heartland is composed of four houses. We have a total of 14 core members, which is what we call the members of our community who have developmental disabilities because we consider them to be at the heart, or the core, of our community.  We then have five live-in assistants, who are people without developmental disabilities who choose to live in the house with the core members. This is not a 9 to 5 job where we clock in at a certain time, work for a few hours and then clock out and go to our own homes. This is actually a way of life where we are choosing to live in community with the core members, to make a home and a life with them. We also have live-out assistants, who don’t live fulltime in the houses but come to work for a set amount of hours, providing respite for the live-in assistants. We also have other people who come and volunteer in our community and at this time we have a Jesuit Novice who is volunteering and living in one of our homes for six weeks.

We then have a community leader, who provides oversight and leadership for our community and then a community coordinator who directly oversees the assistants and the day-to-day life of the houses. We also have a day service, which we call the Academy, which provides support to people during the day, some of which are core members who live in our houses and some who live out in the community.

I first heard about L’Arche when I was attending a Lutheran seminary in Iowa. I was really getting into the writings of Henri Nouwen, and a friend suggested that I read his book “Adam: God’s Beloved” which tells the story of his relationship with Adam, a young man with developmental disabilities. Henri met Adam at the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto when Henri moved there to become their pastoral minister. He lived in that community for ten years, until the time of his death. The book about Adam takes place his first year in that community, and in his writing he shared a lot of what makes L’Arche so special.

As I read this book, I realized that L’Arche really is a special place. It’s a community based on the Beatitudes from Jesus’ sermon on the mount. It’s a community centered around people who are so often ignored or pushed aside. It lifts up the gifts and qualities of people who are often told by society that they are of no value. It’s not a place based on simply taking care of people with developmental disabilities, but it’s a community based on mutual relationships with them. 

I knew then that L’Arche was something special, and some place that I wanted to experience. But at that point, I was two years into my seminary education and I felt like I was really on the path toward something else and that I couldn’t take a detour like that.

So I managed to push the idea of L’Arche to the back of my mind, and I continued on in my seminary education and ended up graduating and taking a call as an associate pastor in a congregation up in Minnesota. Well, about two years into my call there, somehow the idea of L’Arche crept back up. I came across the book “Walking on a Rolling Deck” which was written by an assistant from the L’Arche community in Clinton, Iowa and it told some of the experiences of her nine years as a live-in assistant in that place. I ended up e-mailing her and was in conversation with her about coming to visit the Clinton community, but then I started to wonder if I’d spent enough time in the church where I was serving,  if leaving after two years was giving up too soon. So I pushed the idea to the back of my mind again.
Well, about three years after that, I began to discern that perhaps being a pastor was not what God was calling me to do with my life. I wasn’t quite sure where God might be calling me, but I was fairly certain that I was no longer called to be at the church that I was serving. In the midst of my discernment, the idea of L’Arche popped back up again, only this time I didn’t have any excuses as to why it wouldn’t work. So I pulled out some of the books about L’Arche I had bought, and started to read them and wonder if maybe there was something to this L’Arche idea.

In the midst of this discernment, I had an experience happen that I can only believe was an act of God. It was a Saturday, I think, and I really wanted to go sit in a coffee shop and read one of my Henri Nouwen books called “The Road to Daybreak” which is his story about his year spent at the original L’Arche community in France as he discerned his own call to L’Arche Daybreak in Canada. At that time I was living in a small town in Minnesota, and we had a coffee shop in town, but I knew that if I went there I had the chance of running into people from my church and I really just wanted some time alone with my thoughts. So I ended up getting on highway 169 (which, oddly enough goes from that small town in Minnesota all the way down to Overland Park) and drove north toward Minneapolis.

After I was a fair distance away from town, I saw a sign saying there was a coffee shop at the next exit, so I got off the highway and drove to that coffee shop. When I got there, I was one of only a few people in the whole place, so I picked a seat by the window and sat down to enjoy my coffee and book. As I sat there reading more and more people started to come until finally almost the entire place was full. There was one of those high top tables open, but every other table had at least one person sitting there.

It was then that I noticed two gentlemen walk in. As I watched them, I noticed that one of them had developmental disabilities. He walked up the counter with his friend, and I didn’t want to stare, so I turned my attention back to my book and kept reading. Well, a few minutes later, the man with the developmental disabilities ended up coming over and sitting down at my table. I looked up and saw him eating a cookie, and so I said hi. He said hi back but was obviously more interested in his cookie than me, and he kept eating. After paying his friend came over and apologized, saying that he didn’t think the guy liked sitting at high top tables. I said it was fine that I didn’t need the entire table to myself, so the second guy sat down until the first one was done eating his cookie. It only took about a minute and then they were both on their feet and out the door. I didn’t really even have much time to interact with them. But as I sat there, with my book about L’Arche in my hands, thinking about what had just happened, and how we had both ended up at that particular time in that particular coffee shop, I couldn’t help but think that God was giving me some sort of message.

So I ended up applying to L’Arche Heartland and in May of 2011 I moved into my house. And now I’m here in front of you all, faced with the task of telling you about the true essence of community. As I think about the small amount of time I have lived in L’Arche, compared to some of the other members of my community, I can’t help but think there are so many other people who know so much more about this than I do. However I was the one that was brave enough, or maybe stupid enough, to step forward. So now you are all faced with the opportunity to listen to me talk. I bet you didn’t realize you were going to be this lucky when you woke up this morning, did you?

So, as I said, I first heard about L’Arche through the writings of Henri Nouwen. In his books, he had a great ability of uplifting the spirituality of L’Arche. Almost every encounter he was able to turn into some sort of epiphany about life in community. He was good at highlighting the feel-good moments of community life in L’Arche.

I also read a lot of Jean Vanier’s writings. He is a visionary leader, filled with a gentleness and compassion. His writings are good at lifting up the lofty ideals of L’Arche, about what he envisioned and why he set off on this journey to create this community.

When I applied to live in L’Arche Heartland, I shared that it was through these writings that I came to know about L’Arche. Thomas, our community coordinator, replied to me with a word of caution. He wrote, “Often times people who are familiar with L'Arche through the writings of Nouwen or Vanier are disappointed in experiencing community life once they get here.  Their writings are beautiful and full of truth, but often the day-to-day experiences differ from expectations people read about L'Arche.  Don't get me wrong, our community is full of beauty, wonderment, and spontaneity...but the day to day of living with persons with developmental disabilities can sometimes be taxing.  Also we are a very diverse group spiritually, with some core members and assistants who do not even have any prescribed faith, it is important to realize coming in that we are not a church, but rather a "spirit led" group of people journeying together through life.”

I replied to him that I was aware of this, that I thought I had enough experience with people and community living to know that while it is good and beautiful  that it comes with a lot of hard work and that things are not always happy and easy. And I think that all of that is true. But I have to admit that I came with a lot of naiveté about life in community and life with persons with developmental disabilities, as well.
 All of the good things, the spiritual moments and the lofty ideals and the moments of beauty and wonderment that Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier talk about are there. They happen just about every day. But they come surrounded by so much other stuff, so much ordinary and everyday stuff that they are sometimes hard to see.

If you want to see these moments, you have to keep your eyes open because they can so easily be overlooked when you are focusing on all the other things you have to do each day, like fixing lunches, administering medication, spraying athlete’s foot spray on someone’s feet, unclogging a toilet, cooking supper, cleaning a shower, driving people to work, grocery shopping, washing dishes, unclogging the toilet again, doing laundry, sweeping the floor, helping someone take a shower…

It’s easy to get distracted by these things. To see all of the things that we need to do each day, all of the things on our to do list, that we don’t give ourselves a chance to notice the small moments of blessing that we receive.

For instance, there’s a gentleman who lives in my house who gets so excited about fire trucks and ambulances. It doesn’t even have to have its lights and sirens going, but if they are that’s an even bigger bonus for him. He’ll continue talking about it for hours afterward. During supper he’ll look up from his meal and ask, “Where’s the firetruck going? It helping people?” Or in the midst of his shower, while he’s shampooing his hair, he’ll look at me and say, “I saw the ambulance. You see the ambulance?” He genuinely gets very excited about these kinds of things, which are things that I often overlook and don’t even notice, unless I have to pull over to get out of the way, and then I just get upset at the inconvenience.

Or there was one time I was making supper for the guys in my house, and I had this bag of frozen breaded chicken breasts. When I looked on the back of the bag for cooking directions, I read the directions for using a “convection oven” instead of a “conventional oven.” Now, I still can’t tell you what a convection oven is, but I now know that it doesn’t cook the same as a conventional oven. When I served the chicken for dinner that night, I took my first bite and instantly knew that they were pretty much raw. I spit the chicken out and told the guys not to eat them. I grabbed them all up and put them back in the oven for a bit. Now, the guys could have gotten upset about that, they could have been mad that I cooked the chicken wrong or that I made them wait longer for supper, but I will never forget what one of the guys said to me that night. He said, “That’s alright. It happens to the best of families.” It was a comment made in passing but it really made me realize that what we have at L’Arche is a family. It might not look like most families, but that doesn’t make it any less of one.

Both of these instances, if I were to allow myself to get swept up in the routine of the day and focus more on what I needed to get done, or what I should be doing, or getting upset with myself because of how I prepared the chicken wrong, it would be easy to dismiss these things as silly or ordinary, or miss them altogether. And I’m not saying that I never do that. I’m sure there are days when I rush around too fast and don’t listen enough and so I’m not aware of all of the gifts of grace I could receive if I were just to pay more attention. But in those two instances, I managed to slow down enough and was able to receive and appreciate the gifts that my housemates were giving me.

Another thing I’ve learned about community is that it’s not all about me. Before I moved down here to Kansas, when I was serving as a pastor up in Minnesota, I lived alone. I had all the freedom I wanted. The decisions I made with how to spend my time only affected me. If I wanted to go to Taco Bell at 8:00 at night and then come home and watch TV until 2am, I could do that. It didn’t impact anyone else except for me. Now, however, I can’t leave the house at 8:00 at night because that’s when evening routines start and I’m expected to administer medication or help someone in the shower. I also probably shouldn’t eat at Taco Bell because I should be setting an example about how to live a healthy life and some of my guys have dietary restrictions and shouldn’t be eating at Taco Bell.  But then, most of us really shouldn’t be eating at Taco Bell, anyway. I could stay up until 2am if I wanted, but that wouldn’t mean that I wouldn’t be expected to be up at 7:30 the next day to help fix breakfast and pack lunches and drive people to work.

Now, since I’ve come to live in L’Arche, I’ve realized that it’s not always about what I want and what I need. It’s about putting the needs of the community ahead of my own and remembering that, most often, the community comes first and I come second. It’s not that I’m not important, or that my needs or desires don’t matter. It’s just that now I’m a part of a community. My actions don’t only affect me anymore. Now they affect the five people I live with, as well as the people in our other houses.

While all of that is true, there are so many great gifts that come along with living in community.  When I lived in Minnesota and I’d come home after a day of work, it was always to an empty house. But now, my house is almost never empty. There is almost always someone else there, to greet me when I walk in the door, to say that they missed me, to give me a hug and tell me how much they love me. We get together with the other houses at least once a week but often times more. We gather together to share meals, to sing songs and to pray. We have volunteers and friends who come over to visit and to eat with us at least a couple times a month. And while sometimes it can be a little crazy, and I can feel a deep desire to hide under my bed just for a brief moment of alone time, knowing that I have a community of people who surround me in love and are almost always genuinely excited to see me and who deeply care about me is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.

Another thing I’ve learned about life in community is that we are all gifted and we are all disabled in our own ways. It’s just that some gifts and disabilities are more obvious than others. I think when many people think about people with developmental disabilities, and the work that I and other people do with them, they see it as a one-sided relationship. They see the people with the disabilities as somehow lacking, as if they are not an entire person or as that they are broken. So they think that it’s the job of “normal” people to fix them, or to fill the need that they can’t do on their own. They see the relationship as all about what we have to do for the adults with the developmental disabilities. And while there is some of that in our relationships, there are things that they are unable to do by themselves and they do need help, if we only look at it that way it completely discounts and devalues all of the things that they have to offer.

I think it also gives people without developmental disabilities a sense of importance or superiority over those who do have some form of disability. They say things like, “Isn’t it a shame that they only get one life and they have to live it like that?” And while they might be good people and have the best intentions in saying that  but by saying a comment like that they are basically saying that a person with developmental disabilities has no worth.

But I can tell you, after even the short amount of time that I have lived in L’Arche, that each and every one of the core members has something special and unique and amazing to offer to me and to you. I have never experienced as much joy and enthusiasm and compassion and acceptance and empathy as I have living in L’Arche. I have come to learn that I am loved and accepted by the core members just as I am, not because I am capable of doing things that they aren’t, or because of my dashing good looks or my witty sense of humor or my ability to talk like Kermit the Frog. They love me just because I am me. They want to be in relationship with me, not with the things that I am capable of doing.

And while that’s great, they’ve also shown me that I have my own disabilities, it’s just that mine aren’t always as obvious as the ones they have. One of the things I’ve come to accept about myself, and it’s something that I’ve struggled with and haven’t wanted to admit is that I have a short temper. I can get frustrated or upset about things pretty easily. Even things that aren’t really that big of a deal. You know, often times when I tell people what I do they say things like “Oh wow, it takes a special person to do something like that,” or “you must be a saint to do that kind of work.” But if you asked my guys, I think they’d let you know that I’m definitely not a saint. I’ve lost my temper and yelled. I’ve said things I wish that I could take back. I get frustrated with some of the guys when they don’t do what I want them to do, or focus on 99 other things instead of the one thing I wish they would. But they’ve also taught me a lot about forgiveness because, no matter how many times I might do that, they always forgive me.

So, if I were to boil down everything I’ve shared with you into one little take home statement on what the true essence of community is to me, I’d have to say that it is mutual relationships transformed by God. I think that is what I’ve learned from my time in L’Arche, and that is what I’ve constantly been offered by the guys I work with, if I am open to receiving it.

Community is about give and take. It’s about making a choice to forgive and seek reconciliation even if it might be easier to turn away. It’s realizing the gifts that I offer are no better than the gifts anyone else has to offer, but that they are just different.  It’s about being open to relationships with others knowing that through that relationship I will be changed. And it’s about trusting that God can work through those relationships, and can use those changes as a means to share the love and grace of God with others.

Community isn’t easy. It isn’t always fun times and happy moments. It takes real work and sometimes some real struggles to make it work. It’s about choosing to focus less on me and more on we, which isn’t always the easiest or most fun decision. It isn’t always easy, but if you’re willing to put in the work it is almost always worth it.

When I was e-mailing back and forth with the assistant at the L’Arche community in Clinton, Iowa she shared with me a bit of wisdom that someone had shared with her regarding life in a L’Arche community, but I think it could be true about many communities. She said, “It’s not perfect, but it’s perfect enough.” There are many ways that we fall short in our attempts to live out community in L’Arche. But when it works, it is one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had.

One of L’Arche’s goals is to be a sign of hope to the rest of the world, to show everyone else that life doesn’t have to be about competition and individualism and achievement but that it is possible to live in community and relationships built on compassion and collaboration and love.  And when we allow ourselves to live in those kind of relationships, we can’t help but be transformed.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Best of Families

One of the core members that I get to live with has a saying that I absolutely love.

He will say it if something goes wrong, or if another assistant or I make a mistake. Like the time that I switched around "convection oven" and "conventional oven" on the directions for how to cook frozen breaded chicken breasts and ended up serving everyone almost completely raw slabs of chicken. I had to quickly grab all the chicken and put them back in the oven, making our supper much later than we all had anticipated.

In the midst of this craziness, and my embarrassment and profuse apologies, Pat let loose with his words of wisdom: "That's ok," he said. "It happens to the best of families."

It's a simple little phrase, but, for me, it holds so much significance. It happens to the best of families... Families.

What we have here in L'Arche is a family. It might not look like most families, but we strive to be what a family should be. We live together, look out for each other, care for one another, celebrate together, mourn with each other, laugh together, eat together, pray together, dance and sing together. Sometimes we have struggles, we argue or disagree or sometimes we even say hurtful things to each other. But we also forgive each other. We strive to look past shortcomings and disabilities and see each person for the unique and gifted individual that they are. It's not always easy, but it's a choice we make every single day, to choose to live together, to be a community together, to be a sign of hope for the world - to show everyone what love can truly look like. Some days we do it better than others, but it's always the goal toward which we journey.

We might not be perfect, and we might make mistakes, but that's ok. It's like Pat says, it happens to the best of families.

Monday, February 20, 2012

simple joys

Matt is a gentleman in my house who gets excited about very little things.

It will make his day if, on our drive somewhere, he sees an ambulance or a firetruck or a police car. They don't even have to have their lights and sirens on to make him happy, but if they are that's an even greater bonus for him. He will continue talking about it for hours afterward. During supper, he'll look up from his meal and ask, "Where the fire truck going? It helping people?" Or in the midst of his shower, while he's dutifully shampooing his hair, he'll look at me and say, "I saw the ambulance. You see the ambulance?" He genuinely gets very excited about this sort of thing.

It's an even bigger deal if he sees a tree trimmer or a chainsaw or a wood chipper. These are his absolute favorite things to behold. He'll make the chainsaw noise, and then ask me or the other assistant to do it, too. Then he'll run down to his room and grab his plastic chainsaw to show to us. If anyone new comes to visit, he gets really excited at the opportunity to show this new person his plastic chainsaw and to ask them who cuts the trees at their house.

These are the places where Matt finds great joy.

Matt also wears a watch. It's not that he can tell the time, or that the concept of time is really all that meaningful to him. What he really enjoys about this watch is that if he presses a button it makes a chime noise and then a voice will say what time it is. Sometimes he will push the button several times in a single minute, just to hear the noise it makes.

But just the other day, the watch started to sound a little funny. The chime sounded a little strained and the voice was getting a little fuzzy. "Uh oh," Matt said. "What's wrong with my watch? It sound sick?" Then it lost the ability to keep the time at all, and every time he'd push the button it would make the strained chime noise and say it was 8:00. Even if it was 3:30. It was evident that it needed a new battery.

So on Saturday, when the other guys in the house were busy with other things, I took Matt and we went on an adventure to Target. We needed to get a new watch battery and a screwdriver small enough to open the back of the watch to replace the battery. After some diligent searching, we managed to find the things that we needed and so we returned home to do some watch repair. As I sat at the table and did the work, Matt paced the floor. It was much like a nervous father waiting to hear news about his hospitalized child. I finally got the battery changed, and then it took some trial and error figure out how to set it to the correct time.

But then I handed Matt his watch, and he put it on. I asked him what time it was and he pushed the button and it chimed and the voice rang out as clear as day telling us what time it was. Matt got so excited. He squeezed his hands together, let out a happy squeal and even jumped a little bit. For the rest of the evening, about every five minutes, he continued to thank me for his battery, and he told everyone else in the house that his watch had been fixed. "My watch fixed!" he'd say. Then he'd add, "Who fix it?" and when the person would ask who fixed it, he'd excitedly say, "Mark!" I felt like I was his personal hero, that I had made his entire day, and potentially his whole week, because I had done something as simple as putting a new battery in his watch.

I wish that I had this kind of joy more often. I wish that I could take delight in the little things, rather than expecting more or getting upset that things aren't exactly the way that I want them. I wish that I could be more like Matt, that I could take each moment as it comes and see the things worth being joyful about in each one. I wish that I could forget about the things that went wrong, or the things I wish hadn't happened, or the things I should have done, and just focus on the little spots of joy that occur around me everyday.

Because I know they are there. Matt points them out to me all the time.

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.