In 1964 a young man named Jean Vanier visited an asylum for the disabled at the invitation of a priest friend, who was a chaplain at the asylum. There, Vanier witnessed the inhabitants’ neglect, loneliness and sub-human living conditions. Feeling a call and a stirring in his heart, Vanier pooled resources from friends and family and bought a small house.
Once the house was purchased, Vanier, “in response to a call from God, invited Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, two men with intellectual disabilities, to come and share their life in the spirit of the Gospel and the Beatitudes that Jesus preached.”
So begins the story of L’Arche International.
International In Scope and Mission
From this very simple beginning, L’Arche (the French word for “Ark”), which is what Vanier named his little community, has grown to become an organization of over 145 communities in more than 35 countries – homes where individuals with and without disabilities share their lives together.
Although I am active as a Board member and volunteer of L’Arche of Greater Washington, and have visited the homes that make up the L’Arche community in the Washington area, I had never visited any of the houses in the other communities. But earlier this year, a work trip took me to Cleveland, OH. Knowing I’d get in a day before business started, I reached out to the staff of L’Arche of Cleveland (pronounced “larsh”). I very much wanted to have dinner at one of their homes, meet those who lived there, and find out how L’Arche life in Cleveland might be similar and different from that in Washington.
So there I was in a town and neighborhood I had never before visited, going to have dinner with people I had never met nor spoken to, in a home I had never stepped foot in. And I couldn’t wait to get there. The uniqueness of the situation was not lost on me. Then again, the uniqueness of the L’Arche movement is part of what makes it so remarkable. It is an organization that has led many people through the decades to find themselves transformed by L’Arche.
L’Arche’s statement of identity and mission says, “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.”
It’s important to recognize that in these communities, it is not one group (the able-bodied) taking care of the other group (the disabled). Many of the “core family members,” as these special people are called, have jobs and hobbies, friendships and family outside the home. They share a sense of life that is much wider than their immediate community inside the home.
That night in Cleveland, a Lyft driver picked me up at my downtown hotel and drove me to the eastern suburbs. It was snowing as we drove, crystalline flakes gathering as we passed the industrial architecture that is so different from what I see every day in Washington. Eventually we emerged in a residential area, full of cozy houses and tree-lined sidewalks. The passing glow of streetlights slowed as we arrived at my destination. Aside from the presence of a very large van in the driveway outfitted to accommodate wheelchairs, the house looked no different than its neighbor houses.
An Enjoyable Evening
Inside, I was welcomed by both “core family members” – those members of the house who are developmentally disabled – and the House Leader and the Pastoral Leader. (These are just fancy names for other members of the household who take care of everything from buying groceries to making sure everyone takes any prescribed medications.) Of course, everyone has a role to play in listening, spending time together, having fun, getting to work on time, resolving conflicts, and any other real-life matters that arise when living in community. The warmth with which all of these people – seven strangers in total – welcomed me into the home made me think, “This is how life should be – how everyone should be treating each other!”
I could list for you all the small and special ways that night was memorable, but what stands out the most was how much I laughed with my new friends. Something I have noticed in every L’Arche home I have visited is the prevalence of inside jokes. Just like siblings tease each other, those living in community get to know each other’s quirks and use them to their own full comic advantage. And yet, I never once felt like an outsider or a spectator. Rather, I was drawn into the lives of those I was getting to know.
Mutually Transforming Relationships
The meal began with a prayer, and ended with a prayer. Every L’Arche home has its own tradition when it comes to ending a meal, whether that means allowing one family member to read a meditation, passing a candle around and sharing prayer intentions, or singing (or some combination of all these things!). I was delighted to find this particular home was a believer in the power of song and we ended the night with a chorus of the great gospel song “Amen.”
Truly, what I find so compelling about L’Arche is its dedication to both individuals and the community family, for who they are. At its core, the organization exists to provide a place for mutually transforming relationships, where others’ gifts and abilities, as varied as they can all be, are treasured and learned from. I am happy that I can bring my own professional experience in fundraising and communications in order to help grow the Washington, DC community; but I also know if I did none of those things, I would still be loved. In other words: the way people love in L’Arche is the way God loves us for who we are, as we are made.
It is a very singular thing, to call out another’s gifts: to tell and show them why they matter to you. This is what L’Arche is helping me learn how to do, with others, and with myself.
Joy and Love
The community I spend the most time with, here in Washington, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Next month we’ll celebrate with our Heart of L’Arche breakfast (if you are in the DC area and are interested in learning more, Message me!). Celebration is a big part of the L’Arche way, and this beautiful, four-minute video about a birthday celebration for a core family member, Fritz, captures that joy and love perfectly.
It is no wonder that people who experience even just a piece of the phenomenon that is L’Arche are drawn in, often for life. The communities have many friends and neighbors, and it can start from something as simple as a joining a home for dinner.
L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier, now 90 years old, is a prolific writer. His works include titles like “Becoming Human,” “Befriending the Stranger,” and “From Brokenness to Community,” which all touch on different facets of the human condition and the innate desire to love and be loved. “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things,” he says. “It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (See a great compilation of his quotes here.)
Jean Vanier wrote in “Becoming Human” that, “My belief and my experience have shown me that there is a way out [of loneliness] . . . But this way out requires that we all discover our fundamental beauty as human beings – our capacity to give life and receive it from others.” To achieve this, we must see we are not alone; that we are a part of the community that is the human family. What a gift to be able to recognize this in not only others, but ourselves: the sacredness of who God made us to be.
Valuing and Loving Others
You may also be interested in reading the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, who was greatly influenced by his years spent at the community in Ontario. This famous psychologist and professor developed a deep friendship with Vanier, as well as a man named Adam with development disabilities. He chronicled their friendship and the impact it had on him in “Adam: God’s Beloved.”
When my evening in Cleveland drew to a close, I was going to call a Lyft to take me back to my hotel, but the Home Life Leader generously offered to drive me back. On our way, we discussed fundraising and communications challenges the homes face. I was excited both to offer ideas and to hear her own enthusiasm for making the L’Arche way of life more visible. That is one of the interesting things about supporting L’Arche: it is about more than just physically supporting those living in community together. When people give their time, talent and resources to L’Arche, they are giving to a broader mission. They are saying we must value and love those who are differently-abled than us. What a message for our world!
If you want to know more about the overall movement, and where you can find a community in the US near you, visit the L’Arche USA website.