Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Beauty of L'Arche

A local church has started gatherings once a month on Sunday nights, and have been focusing on community and the various ways that can take shape. The pastor who is in charge of planning these gatherings has some connections to our community here at L'Arche, and so he asked if we'd be willing to bring a group and to share with them about our community and how it is shaped. The person on our end who kind of took the lead in setting it up asked if I'd be willing to share for about ten minutes on what I see as the beauty of L'Arche. So, what follows is what I shared.

First, I do have to say that I borrowed a bit from my last blog post. There are some ideas that I first expressed in that post that I thought fit well with what I was trying to say, so I used them. So if you think some things about this blog post sound familiar, and you happen to have read my previous one, then that would be why.

Second, I don't think you get the full effect of the presentation without Alex, a member of our community, constantly interjecting with things like, "That's the truth." and "I remember that." and "I love you Markeeeeeeee!!!!!!" So just throw some of those in there, followed by the amused chuckling of everyone else, and you'll get a better idea of how it went.

The Beauty of L'Arche
When someone looks at L'Arche from the outside, they might think that the beauty of it is that L'Arche provides a home for people who might not be able to do it for themselves. In a L'Arche home, the core members (what we call the people who live in our homes who have disabilities) are provided with food and shelter, we transport them to work and to various activities and social gatherings. When people come to live in a L'Arche home, they are taken care of and all of their needs are met. So someone might think  that this is what makes L'Arche beautiful.

Or they might look and see the assistants, which is what we call the people who choose to come and live in a home, or to share time with people who have a developmental disabilities. They might think that the beauty comes from people who are willing to give their time and energy to help someone else live a better life. It can seem like a compassionate, selfless, difficult thing to do. But, for some reason, people choose to do it. And so that seems like what makes L'Arche beautiful.

These things are beautiful parts of L'Arche, and although the beauty of L'Arche would not be possible without both of these things, I wouldn't say that are what makes L'Arche beautiful. On their own, they are definitely good, but people with developmental disabilities can have their needs provided for and other people can come and do that work, and it can all be done in a way that is sterile and clinical. The work of maintaining a house and looking after the people who live there can often be just that: work. But what makes L'Arche beautiful is the thing that separates us from being just work.

The mission of L'Arche, which is a statement that every L'Arche community in the world follows and believes, states: We are people, with and without developmental disabilities, sharing life in communities belonging to an international federation. Mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our journey together. We celebrate the unique value of every person and recognize our need of one another.

What really makes L'Arche beautiful might not be as easily seen from the outside. It's something that needs to be experienced, I think. What I believe makes L'Arche beautiful is the life-changing relationships that are formed in our communities between people of all ages and all abilities. These are not one sided relationships, but like our mission statement says they are mutual. And I have found them to be transformative.

I think it is a common perception of many people who come to be assistants at L'Arche that it will be much like I described at the beginning. They believe that they are coming to do something good with their lives, to help people who might not be able to help themselves, and to do good work. But, once they get to L'Arche, and they engage with the core members, their original perceptions are changed. They begin to see that while they might be cooking meals, doing laundry, helping with basic hygiene, and administering medications, they are receiving something immeasurable.

I want to share with you a couple of the relationships I have formed and how I feel like they have been mutually transforming for me.

A couple weeks ago, I moved into the same house as Brian. Brian is nonverbal, and needs a lot of assistance in his daily life. Caring for Brian is pretty hands-on. People might look at my relationship with Brian and assume that it is pretty one-sided that it all comes from what I can or need to do for him. But, Brian is already teaching me to be patient. He's showing me the value of being gentle and careful. I can sit with Brian, or go for a walk with him, and just be with him. He's a good listener and doesn't seem to mind me telling him about whatever it is on a certain day that I might find frustrating. It can also be frustrating, when he isn't able to communicate with me as clearly or as quickly as I might like, but we are learning how to live together and he is helping me to become a better assistant and person.

Or there's Matt. I lived with Matt for about a year when I first came to L'Arche, and then again for about six months before I moved into my current house. Matt is gentle and friendly, and absolutely loves chainsaws and fire engines. In fact, seeing one of them in action can pretty much make his entire day. He could see a fire truck on his way to work in the morning, and then at supper time, he can turn to you and, with as much excitement as he had earlier, he can tell you that he saw a firetruck and wonder if it was going to help people. When I lived with Matt he was always asking me how my day or weekend was, and if he knew I was going to be going somewhere for an extended period of time, he would tell me that he was going to miss me. One time, we were walking through the Oak Park Mall, and he heard a song coming from a store that he liked, so he went in and started dancing. Matt has been a good friend to me, and shown me how to find joy in the simple things, to be kind and gentle, to care about those around you, and to dance when you feel like it.

Then we have Alex. I lived with Alex for about two years. He can be full of energy, and always has something funny to say. When he loves something or someone, everyone knows it. If he loves the CD of hard rock music that he checked out from the library, you'll know it because it's blaring from his room. If he loves a certain person, you will know it because he will scream their name and run to hug them when he sees them. I tell people that maybe besides my parents I don't know if I've ever had someone love me as much as Alex does. In fact, one day a couple of years ago, he was so excited to see me and loved me so much that he gave me a hug so hard that it bruised one of my ribs. Living with Alex wasn't always easy, in fact a lot of days it could be pretty frustrating. He has pretty strong opinions and isn't afraid to share them. His emotions, while they are strong when he is excited or when he loves someone, can be just as strong when he is angry or sad. But living with Alex I knew there would always be someone excited to see me when I came in the door, I knew that there was always someone who had my back or supported me, and I also had a good example of what it looks like to love someone and to not be afraid to express it.

These are just a few of the relationships I have formed in my time at L'Arche, although I could probably go person to person and tell you something that each one has taught or given to me or blessed me with during my time here but that would definitely make me run over the time limit that I was given. But that is what I have found to be the beauty of L'Arche, how each of us, core member and assistant, is changed if we are open to mutual relationships with one another.

The beauty of L'Arche is that we are choosing to live together, and while I am helping the core members to live a better life by cooking and cleaning, driving and administering medications, and helping them with the daily tasks that are not easy for them, they are helping me to live a better life by showing me how to love, how to be patient, how to accept myself, how to be a good friend, and all of the other things that might not be easy for me. The beauty of L'Arche is when we recognize that not only do people with developmental disabilities need us to live a good life, but we need them to live a good life, as well.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

a deeper look

To the outside observer, a L'Arche house consists of two types of people. There are those who have disabilities (who we call core members) who come to live in the house because they are unable or don't want to live on their own. Then there are those who choose to come live in the house and help out (who we call assistants) who do not have the label of being disabled. It is the assistants' job to assist (hence the name) the core member to live as fruitful and meaningful of a life as possible. To someone on the outside this is what it looks like, and I would say that this is a pretty big part of life in L'Arche. But, when you take a deeper look, it's really not that simple.

Many of the assistants will tell you that when they came to L'Arche they brought with them some lofty ideals of how they were going to do such good works, and how they were going to help the core members live better lives, and how they were excited about all of the things they had to offer to the core members. But, once they spent some time in L'Arche, and once they developed relationships with the core members, they began to realize and recognize all of the things that the core members were offering to them. It is not a one-way relationship where one only gives and the other only receives. Life in L'Arche is reciprocal.

Along those lines, the assistants often come into L'Arche thinking that the core members are the disabled ones, and that the core members are the ones who need help to live a better life. But that notion is quickly disproved, too. Yes, it is correct that the core members have disabilities. Some require help eating or bathing. Some use wheelchairs or crutches to get around. Some of them are deaf or blind. So, it is true all of the core members do have some kind of disability and that is what has brought them to L'Arche, but it is also true that the assistants bring their own disabilities, it's just that we are often better at hiding them.

Assistants can struggle with being open with others, or with trusting people. They can have trouble sharing their emotions or developing close relationships with others. Maybe they find it hard to love themselves or someone else. These are all things that many of us struggle with, but they are things at which many of our core members excel. And these are only a few of the disabilities that assistants can bring with them when they move into a L'Arche house.

I recently moved to a different house here in our community. I have been a live-in assistant in this house now for only a little over two weeks. Often times, when assistants are brand new in a community, there can be a honeymoon period where everything is lovely and wonderful and the quirks and behaviors of your housemates are funny and cute. But then, after a while, you begin to bump into each others' rough edges. The things that were cute or endearing are now irritating or obnoxious. Instead of being funny, your roommate asking you the same question multiple times a day is now annoying. And the constant compliments from another roommate, which you once found charming, are now kind of aggravating and an obstacle to actual conversation. You find it hard to overlook how someone in your house consistently leaves their dirty cereal bowl in the sink, or maybe they constantly scrape their fork on their plate at dinner. This is when the honeymoon is over and the reality of life together sinks in.

Having had the privilege of being a part of this community for around four years, there really wasn't much of a honeymoon period with this house. I have known and interacted and been in relationship with the core members and the other assistants here for several years now. In this new house, I now live with a couple of our core members who have more obvious disabilities and who require more assistance and, whether I like it or not, they have been helping me to see and recognize and confront my own disabilities.

Lately, I have found myself getting frustrated and angry pretty easily. I get upset when one of the core members is constantly trying to move things that aren't where he thinks they belong. Or when another core member won't comply when we need him to eat or to get ready for the day. Or when another core member gets distracted and focuses on 2,000 other things instead of the one thing that we would really like. In the moment, these things frustrate me and make me aware of my short temper and my impatience. As a result, I can end up losing my cool or snapping at someone, which doesn't ever solve the issue, but in the heat of the moment I am not thinking about it that way.

Stepping back, I am able to recognize that these are examples of how life in L'Arche is like a rock tumbler, and we are the rocks bumping into one another. Our rough edges can be sharp, and they can hurt. Knowing what I know of rock tumblers, I know that when the rocks are done in the tumbler they are smooth and shiny and beautiful. I know that through the process of life in L'Arche I am becoming smooth and shiny and beautiful, much like those rocks. I just know that I am in the middle of that process now, and it isn't always smooth or shiny or beautiful in the midst of it. When the rocks are tumbling it is noisy and a bit chaotic and sometimes it can be painful.

But also, in the midst of this, I have my other experiences to look back on. I have been blessed to have lived for a time in two of our other houses here, and so I have some idea of how these things go, at least for me. There were times when I would get frustrated, and want to strangle a housemate in one of those other houses because they breathed funny or something silly like that. But I also know that after my time living in both of those houses, I came to love and appreciate each of my housemates. It wasn't always easy, and I struggled more with some than others, but I can look back now and see how my relationships with each of them grew and blossomed, sometimes in spite of but often because of the the times when we bumped into one another and rubbed each other the wrong way.

That is part of what I have found to be the beauty of L'Arche. Living with core members and other assistants, while it is not easy and it is not always fun or exciting or glamorous, it is always rewarding. Sometimes, in the midst of the day-to-day issues, when everything is happening up close and personal, it is hard to see it that way. But when you look at things from a panoramic view, and you are able to see where you have been, and how it has led you to where you are, it can give you a new perspective. You can see and appreciate how, even though when you came you had intentions of helping the core members live a better life, that they are, in their own unique and amazing and valuable ways, helping you to grow and change and to live a better life, too.

So, I will continue to bump along in this rock tumbler. I won't always handle myself well, and I am sure to be impatient and lose my temper when someone knocks into my rough edges. But I know through the process of living together, of forgiving them for their rough edges, and forgiving myself for my own, I am coming ever closer to being that smooth, shiny, beautiful rock.