Saturday, December 28, 2013

life together school

Before I moved to L'Arche, I worked at a church in Minnesota. Before I worked at a church in Minnesota, I attended a Lutheran seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. This school, Wartburg Theological Seminary, has a strong sense of community. The majority of students live in on-campus housing, which is very family friendly, and so people of all different ages call Wartburg Seminary their home. Wartburg sends out a magazine a couple times a year with various updates and news about the community and the people connected to it. The name of this magazine is "Life Together," which speaks to this sense of community, but also to the book of the same name by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I received my most recent copy of "Life Together" just the other day. After I had flipped through it and read some of the articles, I left it sitting on our dining room table. Alex, one of the gentlemen I live with, happened to be passing by the table and he saw the magazine, so he stopped to look at it. "Where did this magazine come from.... Life Together?" he asked me.

"Oh, it's from the school I used to go to," I replied.

"You went to Life Together School?" he asked.

At first, I wanted to correct him and say, "Well, no, Alex. I went to Wartburg Theological Seminary," but what would that mean to him? Not a whole lot, truthfully. So I said, "Yeah, pretty much." Because my time at seminary taught me a lot about life together and choosing to be a part of a community.

I've been thinking a lot about this interaction, and the idea of "Life Together School," and it occurred to me that I am still in Life Together School. I think that really is what L'Arche is - a place that teaches us how to live together. It is a place where we are called into community with all sorts of people, who are very different, and we are invited into relationships with them.

This isn't always easy. In fact, it can quite often be very difficult. We can make mistakes, or lose our temper or patience. We can handle a situation in a nonproductive way, we can say things we regret. We might disregard someone's feelings, or lash out when we feel that our own are being disregarded. We might overlook the gifts that someone offers and instead see only those things that irritate or anger us.

But these are all learning opportunities, if we choose to look at them that way. Maybe the next time I am in a similar situation, I can remember how I dealt with it before and choose another, better way. Perhaps I can choose to take some deep breaths instead of responding to someone in anger. Or maybe I could put myself in someone else's shoes and see how a decision might impact them before I make it. I might be able to realize that my needs are not the only or even the most important needs in the community, and acknowledge t hat sometimes I need to be more graceful in how I handle those times when my wants or desires are not met in the way I would choose.

And here, in our Life Together School at L'Arche, we have some wonderful companions to journey alongside us. I don't want to paint the core members out to be perfect or extra holy, because they can be just as quick to lose their temper or be impatient or say hurtful things. They are, after all, only human, too. But they are also quick to forgive, to let past indiscretions slide, and to extend a hand of friendship and love. They help us to create an environment of compassion and acceptance and love that allows me to continue living and learning in this Life Together School we call L'Arche.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

wisdom in a cup

This past week, I attended a retreat for intentional members of L'Arche communities. What this means is people who have been in L'Arche longer than the exploratory, or introductory, term of two or so years.

As part of this retreat, we were asked to bring an item that symbolizes where we are right now in our L'Arche journey. As I began to wonder what to bring, I immediately thought of my favorite mug. Allow me to tell you the story of this mug.

To begin, let me give you a brief history. I first heard about L'Arche in the books of Henri Nouwen. For about ten years prior to his death, Henri was the pastor at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Through my reading of Henri's experience, I felt a deep connection to L'Arche. And because he shared about his experiences in L'Arche Daybreak, I have always felt a kind of connection to that community. So it was important to me that I visit them.

In July of 2012 I took some vacation from my L'Arche community here in Kansas and drove up to Canada. I stayed at Daybreak for just about a week. While I was there, I had a room in one of their homes named New House which happens to be the house where their core member Adam lived during his time at Daybreak. Henri wrote a book about his relationship with Adam shortly after Adam's death. It was this book that introduced me to L'Arche, so it was kind of special to me to be able to stay in that home.

While I was at Daybreak, I visited their Craft Studio to buy gifts for some people. In their studio they make all kinds of things including cards, candles, mugs and other pottery items. As I was looking over the shelves of items, my eye was drawn to a particular mug. This mug was two shades of blue and a core member had decorated it with drawings of several people, a few of whom were in wheelchairs. At the top of the mug was written, "All Are Welcome." I looked at this mug and immediately thought, "This one is mine."

So, I bought it and brought it home. And almost every day since then, I have drank my morning coffee out of that mug.

Well, one day last month (Oct 2013) I was sitting in the living room of our home, drinking my morning coffee out of my mug, and enjoying the light breeze provided by the ceiling fan. That's when one of the core members I share life with came out of his room complaining that he was cold. He seemed convinced it was because of the ceiling fan (which was on the lowest setting), and he was determined to turn it off.

Now this man is Deaf and communicates using sign language. I am learning ASL, but could definitely be better. .I tried nicely to explain to him that I wasn't cold and that I would like the ceiling fan to remain on. He disagreed and made a move to pull the cord to turn it off anyway. I asked him to stop, and that is when our exchange became a little more heated and, as a result, a little more animated.

I was telling him that I wanted the fan to stay on and I brought my arms back to make the sign for the word "want." That's when my elbow bumped into my mug which sent it toppling to the floor with a crash and a splash.

And there my mug lay, broken to pieces on the floor, in a pool of its own coffee.

Of course I was upset, but I tried to remind myself that it's just a mug. I gathered up all the pieces and placed them on the counter next to the coffee maker and cleaned up the mess. (While I was doing this the core member turned off the ceiling fan and went back to his room... but that's another story.)

It's just a mug, I told myself. We have many other mugs to choose from. There is even one that a former assistant bought for me when she visited the original L'Arche community in Trosly, France. Surely that mug or another would do.

So, the next morning I drank my coffee out of a different mug. But it just wasn't the same. It's hard to describe but there was just something not as good about it.

I know what I'll do, I thought. I'll glue my favorite mug back together! Luckily, I had kept all the pieces of the mug and hadn't thrown it away. That afternoon, I went to the store and purchased some glue that is known for being strong and holding things together well. I sat down at the kitchen table and carefully glued and pieced my mug back together. When I had finished, it didn't look exactly the same as it had before it broke, but I thought it looked good.

There is one thing this particular brand of glue could be better at sharing about itself and that is it expands as it dries. Quite significantly, in fact. So as the glue dried between the pieces of my mug it puffed up and pushed them apart, opening cracks and holes and revealing some jagged edges. But the glue had dried solid, holding the pieces firmly in their new places. This makes my mug basically unable to drink out of.

So, this is the item that I brought to the retreat to symbolize where I find myself at in L'Arche these days. And here is basically what I said to explain it (with a few things expanded upon):

This mug shows people being together. Some have disabilities and some don't. But at the top it proclaims, "All Are Welcome." This has been my experience of L'Arche. I have been warmly welcomed, just as I am. The core members don't place any stipulations or requirements on that welcome. I just am welcome. And this has opened my heart so I am more willing and able to welcome others in a more unconditional way.

This mug is still my favorite, even though it is broken. It might not be perfect, or work exactly how I want it to or think it should, but I still see value in it and I still believe it is beautiful.

L'Arche is not perfect, just like each person who lives in L'Arche. There are days it doesn't work like it should, when things fall through the cracks, or when someone is hurt by another's rough edge. But when I step back and look at L'Arche I realize that in the midst of the brokenness it is still beautiful. It is still worth loving. And so is each person in it, whether we have a disability or not.

All of this didn't occur to me the day I broke my mug. It took some time and distance from the event for me to have these realizations. And maybe it seems silly to take such wisdom from a broken cup, but that is something else that L'Arche has taught me - wisdom can come from unlikely places, if only we are willing to stop and listen.

Here is a picture of my mug post gluing and drying.

Friday, August 16, 2013

a farewell

One of the hardest parts of living in community, I think, is saying good bye.

I might not always agree with you. I might not like everything you do. But you have become a part of this place that I call my home. And when you leave, the community changes - my home changes. You take with you all of the gifts that you shared with the community, all of the things you brought and offered to the rest of us here. The community is inevitably a different place once you've left it.

Sure, we can console ourselves and we can say that we are different now because of your time with us. You have changed us all in ways which we might not yet know or understand. We can say that we are better people because of our time together. We can also say that you are taking us with you. You have been changed because of your time with us and you will take what you have learned and what you have become during your time here with us out into the world. And all of that is true. And all of that is good.

But the truth still remains - you will no longer be here with us. We will not get to hear your stories or listen to your music. We will not get to enjoy each others' company in the same way that we have while you've lived here. There will be empty spots that were once filled by you. We will all adapt, us and you. Other people will come and that space will be occupied, although never really filled.

Life will go on. That's what it does. This community will go on after you are gone, just like it did before you were here. But please know that there will always be a place here for you. There will always be a hole that only you will be able to perfectly fill. No matter where you go, or how long you are gone, I hope you know and feel and believe that you will always have a place here that you can call your home.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

the joy of gardening

My house has undertaken a project this summer. With the help of another local community called Jerusalem Farm and some other volunteers, we have tilled the earth and planted a garden. Right now it's teeming with life and we are looking forward to a hopefully abundant harvest. We've been picking lots of green beans, and  there are some nice green tomatoes on the tomato plants. The zucchini is looking big and it's starting to sprout some little zucchinis, and the onions and potatoes are showing promising signs of working their magic underground. The sunflowers are growing quite high, and one has almost reached the roof!

One of the other houses has been coming over about once a week to help us take care of the garden. They have helped pull weeds and water the plants. They've also been helping us pick green beans and lettuce. It's been a fun set up, because we get to enjoy their company, they help lighten the load of the work the garden requires, and then we share the vegetables that we harvest with them.

Tonight they were at our house helping pull weeds and pick beans. Then we started talking about music and one of the other assistants mentioned a core member's new favorite song. So as we were working, an assistant pulled up the song on their phone and started to play it. The core member whose favorite song it was immediately got excited. He clapped his hands and let out a little squeal of excitement. Then, he started to dance, right there in the side yard of our house.

It didn't take long for me to join in the dancing. And then another core member joined in, followed quickly by a couple other assistants. Pretty soon almost everyone in our yard was dancing along to this new favorite song. When that song ended we quickly chose another one to dance to, and before you knew it there was a conga line weaving through the yard.

Neighbors walked by with their dogs and saw our little dance party. I'm sure others saw it happening from their windows or front yards. We were having a great time right there, enjoying the music and each others' company. It started from the joy one core member experienced because of a song and it spread from there.

That is one of my favorite things about living in a L'Arche community: the joy we are blessed to experience. Sure, there are struggles and conflicts. We don't always get along. People aren't always happy or friendly or nice. But right then, in the yard beside our house, while we were standing by the garden, all that mattered was that we were together, there was a really good song playing, and a core member had enough joy to share with the rest of us.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

incredible gifts

"It is my belief that in our mad world where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality, and oppression, it is people who are weak, rejected, marginalized, counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals as well as for our world. And it is my hope that each one of you may experience the incredible gift of the friendship of people who are poor and weak, that you too, may receive life from them. For they call us to love, to communion, to compassion and to community." - Jean Vanier

I receive daily Jean Vanier quotes in my e-mail. They are always insightful, but sometimes they just seem to speak to me on a very personal level. This quote happens to be one that I received during our annual Faith and Sharing retreat and it seemed very timely.

For those of you unfamiliar with Faith and Sharing, let me take a quick second to catch you up to speed. Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche (click here to learn more about L'Arche). Faith and Sharing retreats are sort of an offshoot of L'Arche itself, and were started when Jean was invited to speak at a retreat and agreed to do so on the condition that people with developmental disabilities were invited to attend and participate, as well. This model of retreat then branched out all over the world and the first Faith and Sharing retreat in Leavenworth, Kansas was held about 24 years ago and was started by the founding Community Leader of L'Arche Heartland, where I live and work today.

I happened to read the e-mail containing the quote while I was sitting on a bench enjoying the warm weather with J, one of our core members. We had some free time in the afternoon and J loves to sit outside, so we were sharing a bench and just relaxing. As I was sitting there I read the e-mail and I was reminded of how blessed I am to be a part of L'Arche and Faith and Sharing.

At the Faith and Sharing retreat I was surrounded by a group of men and women who accepted me unconditionally. They expressed their love for me openly (and often). They cheered for me when I got up to speak. They asked me to sit by them on couches and at dinner tables. They weren't afraid to be themselves, and they invited me into relationship with them. Just by being themselves, they gave me permission to be more open and honest, as well.

I think often in our society people with any sort of disability are regarded as lacking something. It's as if since something about them doesn't work in the "normal" way, and because they themselves do not fit our narrow definition of "normal," then they must not have any value or anything to offer society. This can cause them to be ignored, sent away or institutionalized, pitied or even ridiculed.

But when we do that, I think we overlook something of great value. We fail to see the gift that a person with a disability is. When we focus on what is "wrong" with someone, we fail to notice and appreciate all of the things that are right. We fail to recognize the gift that that person is, not in spite of what they are missing or lacking, but because of all of the things they are and all of the things they have to offer.

The sense of community that was formed those few days we were all together was really quite amazing. It was a community of camaraderie, of fellowship, of encouragement, and of compassion. There was no competition, but each person's contribution was lifted up and celebrated. People were included and warmly received into the group. Even those who couldn't participate in the same way, who spent most of the time lost in their own thoughts or activities, were lifted up and celebrated for their presence.

You could say that this is because of the work of the retreat planners. You could say they came up with activities or created a safe space for everyone. You could say that it was because of those of us without disabilities who were there to accompany and participate with the core members. And that is part of it. But I believe the main reason is because of the gifts of love and compassion and openness that were present in, and that emanated from, each of the core members and other people with disabilities that were present. And because we were open to recognizing and receiving these gifts, all of us were immeasurably blessed.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Go Together

One of the organizations whose page I "like" on facebook shared a picture a while ago that was accompanied by a quote that has been sticking in my head. The picture was of three African women walking hand in hand and the quote was an African proverb that said, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

I feel like this could be a slogan for life in a L'Arche community. Life in L'Arche is not usually face paced. It is filled with moments where we take some time to pause. Perhaps it's to spend some time together in prayer. It could be helping a core member to prepare supper, or taking a moment to administer medications, or helping someone in the shower, or sitting down at the table as a group to plan the menu for the next week, or maybe it's saying a prayer with a core member at bedtime.

Life moves at a different speed in L'Arche. In the outside world, people speed in their cars to get to the places they need to be. People get upset if they have to wait too long in the line at the grocery store or the post office. We want to be where we need to be without any waiting.

But in L'Arche, it's a slower pace. Sometimes it's because it takes someone longer to physically move from one place to another. Or it's because they need assistance with everyday tasks. Or it could be because they want to stop and talk to everyone they see.

I attended the L'Arche International General Assembly in Atlanta almost a year ago now. It was comforting and reassuring, and even a bit humorous, to see that despite all of the differences that we might have had as people coming together from 40 different countries around the world, one of the things we had in common was that we never seemed hurried. We moved at our own pace. Some of the people from other countries moved at an even slower pace, because they always needed to stop for tea time... But that's another story.

While it was reassuring to see that this slower pace was something we had in common, sometimes it can be frustrating. When you want to get somewhere at a certain time, or you want the group to get somewhere quickly, it can be irritating to have to wait. It can be maddening when you are on a schedule and you want to make sure to get there on time and no matter how much you poke and prod and encourage people to move at a quicker pace, they keep going at their own pace. And sometimes, the poking and prodding just makes them slow down, either out of frustration or because you've become another distraction!

Before I came to L'Arche, it was easy for me to do whatever I wanted when I wanted. I could suddenly decide to go to the store and then just get up and go. I could walk into the store, find what I wanted, pay for it and leave. It was a quick and easy adventure.

Now, if we decide to go to the store, I have to get everyone motivated. Then I have to make sure that everyone can find their shoes, and maybe put on a jacket. After we walk out to the van, we have to decide whose turn it is to ride in the front seat. Once we've made that decision and actually got in the van, then we have to make sure everyone has their seat belts on. When everyone is secured we can start the van and leave. When we get to the store, we have to find the things that are on our list. This is often interspersed with people finding other things they would like, which we then have to have a discussion about whether we can get them or not. Once we've managed to get everything on our list (plus a few other things, as well as returning a bunch of items we don't need to the shelves), we go to the cash register. We all help put the items on the conveyor belt, and once everything is paid for, we distribute the bags so that everyone is helping carry. Then we try to leave, which can often involve telling someone that they need to stop talking to the cashier and let her get back to work, and that we need to walk out to the van. Once we get to the van, we put all of the groceries in the back, and then we have to have another discussion about whose turn it is to ride in the front seat. Then we get in, make sure everyone is buckled in, and we drive home.

One might think that the first example of a trip to the store is the easier one. And perhaps it is. But that doesn't mean that it's the better one. It's only better if you place a high value on being efficient. Many people do, but in L'Arche being efficient is valued less then some other things, like relationship and community and inclusion. Making sure that everyone is included as much as they can be, that each person feels as if they are a part of the group, and that no one gets left behind because they move at a different pace are all values of living in L'Arche and are all things that can cause you to move much more slowly.

Life in a L'Arche community might not be the fastest way to live. It might not always be the most efficient, either. But there is something about life in community that makes the journey seem more bearable, because we know we are not alone. We have friends and loved ones and family to help us bear the burdens and to carry our load. We know that if we stumble or fall there is always someone there to give us a hand and help us to our feet. We know if we lose our way there is always someone there to call us back to the group. We know that no matter where we are headed, or might end up, that we will never be there on our own.

We might not be able to get where we are going quickly, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that we get where we are going together.

Friday, February 22, 2013

the strong and the weak

"Sometimes today people have difficulty with the phrases “the poor” and “the weak”. The words “poor” and “weak” go against certain cultural norms that want everyone to be strong and powerful. Weakness is frequently considered a defect. However, little children are weak; they cannot fend for themselves. People with severe intellectual disability are weak; they cannot cope all alone. This does not mean that they have no value. We all have our limits and handicaps. We all need each other. But some people recognize their poverty; others do not." Jean Vanier, Ark for the Poor, p. 14

Since coming to work at L'Arche, I've begun to look at the words "strong" and "weak" differently.

 In our society, people are considered strong if we are independent. If we can do things on our own with no assistance from anyone else, that is considered a sign of strength. If we can support ourselves financially, emotionally and psychologically without needing help or intervention from someone else, then we are recognized as strong people. This is a good thing. It's the ideal. It's the way we want to be. It is good to be seen as strong.

But if, for some reason, we do not have that ability to be independent, if we need help to perform everyday tasks, it is seen as a sign of weakness. If we have to reach out and ask for help when we are struggling to pay our bills or buy our food, if we need to seek support for a particular situation or problem that is burdening us, it is seen as a lack of strength. If we were a strong person we'd be able to push through, to shoulder the burden on our own with no help from anyone. Being weak is seen as a negative. It's something we do not want to be. It is a thing to be avoided at all costs.

So, by society's standards, I would be considered a strong person. I am able to be independent. I can live on my own, work to earn the money to pay my own bills, purchase and prepare my own food. I make decisions for myself. I am educated and have a Bachelor's Degree and a Master's Degree. I don't have any health concerns, I don't need any medications to help me function appropriately.

My housemates, however, would fall into the category of what society would consider weak. Most of them would be unable to do all of the things they'd need to do to live on their own. They need help with daily tasks that they are unable to do themselves and sometimes need reminders to complete the tasks of which they are capable. They don't have the skill set or the capacity to get and keep a job that would provide them with a salary that would allow them to be able to live on their own and provide for themselves. Some of them are on medications that help them function appropriately both psychologically and physically. Some of them are unable to communicate their wants and needs in a way that society considers effective.

So, I am strong and the core members I work with everyday are weak. At least if we define "strong" and "weak" the way that society tends to define them. But it's not that simple. Life in a L'Arche community, much like the Beatitudes of Jesus upon which these communities are based, turns these things upside down.

There are many places in my life where I am weak. For instance, I can have a short temper. I can be quick to get upset and sometimes slow to forgive. I can be quick to judge people. I can let other peoples' opinions of me have too much power. I can be slow to ask for help, wanting to prove that I can do something on my own. I can sometimes hold back my emotions, not wanting to let people know how I really feel. My ego often gets in the way of even the simplest things.

The core members, however, are often very strong. They can see joy in the small things. They can forgive easily and let go of grudges quickly. They can be accepting and loving of just about anyone. With just a smile, they can bring joy to an entire room. They can be quick to laugh. They can stop what they're doing and dance to a song they enjoy no matter where they might be. They can have no problem relying on someone else for help with their everyday tasks. They often have no trouble being honest about what they are thinking and feeling.

These are just some of the ways that core members have shown me that they are strong. Of course, not every core member does all of those things and not any core member does these things all the time. Like all people, we are strong sometimes and at other times we are weak. Sometimes we can do things on our own, sometimes we need help and support. There are times when I'm the one who is strong, and I am helping the core members. Then there are times when they are the ones sharing their strength with me. We take turns.

And that is one of the beautiful things about life in L'Arche. It isn't about what I can do for the core members. It isn't about how I, the strong, capable, able-bodied non-disabled person can help them. It's about how we can share life together and what we can do for each other. It's recognizing that each of us is strong and each of us is weak in our own ways, with our own gifts and talents to share with the world.