Thursday, November 15, 2012

The beauty of L'Arche

This weekend, on Saturday, our L'Arche community here in Edmonton is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Just eight years after Jean Vanier started the first foyer of L'Arche in Trosly, France, a couple in Sherwood Park followed his lead. They bought a duplex in Sherwood Park, christened it Shalom House, and invited four assistants and one core member with developmental disabilities to make it their home. 40 years later, there are six homes and a Day Program for our community, which includes more than 20 core members, and assistants from across the globe.

Now that I think about it, I grew up with L'Arche. When my family arrived in Edmonton in 1974, we met some of the first community members at our church. I witnessed the assistants and the core members going shopping together, participating in parish picnics, and especially, enjoying music at mass by dancing in the pews. They always seemed to be happy!

During my university years, I worked at group homes run by Resources for Dependently Handicapped (RDH). It was while I was there that I learned about the beauty of L'Arche. One of the fellows I worked with had been an assistant at L'Arche, and he pointed out the difference between institutional group homes modelled on L'Arche, and the real thing; the difference between L'Arche assistants who share life with core members, and group home staff who work shifts with clients. That's when I decided that I wanted to work for L'Arche.

Of course, life took me in other directions -- until three years ago, when my friend who is now the L'Arche Community Leader asked if I would mind helping her out part-time with filing, typing, and whatever other odd jobs she might need done. The job bonuses are plenty -- sharing a little bit of my life with the community, working with a wonderful admin team, kibbitzing with the core members who come to the community centre for our Day Program, and feeling like I've found another home.

Yesterday, I was at the other Maria's desk making a phone call (there are two of us Marias sharing the same office) when Thomas came into the room.

"You taking Maria's job?" he asked. I nodded, in the middle of ordering anniversary cake. "Then I take your job," he said, gleefully settling into my chair.

I shook my finger at him and finished my call, then went over to shoo him away from my desk.

"Unh-uh, my job now," he teased.

"Okay," I said. "You work hard. I'm going to get a cup of tea."

I returned four minutes later, and he was still sitting there, smiling like the Cheshire cat. "My job now," he said again.

"Okay, Thomas, then I'll have to sit on your knee to get my computer work done."

He didn't budge, so I half-sat on his knee, and said, "Owww, Thomas, you're a hard chair. Too lumpy!"

He laughed, but didn't move until I told him that I had a real job for him, and got him to do a little bit of "decorating work" for the anniversary celebration.

The thing about L'Arche, its real beauty, is in the relationships between community members. In the early days of L'Arche Edmonton, the founders took the view that they had to save people with developmental disabilities from the misery of institutional life. But over time, many of us involved with L'Arche have come to see that it's the people with disabilities who save the rest of us from thinking ourselves indispensable, from being self-centred, and from taking ourselves too seriously. They help us to realize that while we all have our burdens to carry, none of us need to be perfect, but all of us need to be loved. As our founder says,
If at L'Arche we no longer live with the poor and the broken and celebrate life with them, we as a community will die; we will be cut off from the source of life. 
They nourish us and heal our wounds daily. They call forth the light and the love within us.
--Jean Vanier,  Community and Growth, p. 186.
At L'Arche, we have much to celebrate! Happy 40th Anniversary, my dear friends!

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