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.

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