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.