“Amy would have wanted us to ask whether he had access to the healthcare he needed, whether he was treated justly, what in his story had led him to do this,” my friend says a couple of days after Amy St. Pierre was shot while waiting at the doctor’s office in downtown Atlanta.
I didn’t know Amy well. She and her kids would zip across the neighborhood on her cargo bike. We’d chat sometimes at the coffee shop. But her senseless death and the comments of our mutual friend stay with me, even now, as I write these lines, a month later and 4,500 miles away from the city that I’ve called home for more than a decade.
L’Arche and the world have changed during the past eight years that I have had the privilege to serve as the National Leader. We’ve lived some things, you have, I have, L’Arche has. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. 1,166,899 deaths from COVID-19 as of June 16, 2023. A pandemic of loneliness and social isolation. Access to services threatened for nearly 6 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the U.S., in part because of the direct care workforce crisis. Wildfires, drought, heat waves, flooding, severe storms. A whole country stuck in polarization somewhere between Hillbilly Elegy and When They Call You a Terrorist.1 And shootings like the one that killed Amy, too many to list.
We know the facts that reach headlines. But do I know anything about life in a trailer in Kentucky or in a section 8 apartment in Van Nuys? Do I know what snapped in Deion Patterson as he sought to get his anti-anxiety drugs, allegedly pulled out his gun and shot Amy and four other women? Do I know what it’s like to lose access to services to accommodate a disability, or not receive any in the first place? Do I know “the Other,” this world beyond my own?
No, I don’t. Likely, I won’t. I can’t. Often, I try. Sometimes I don’t even want to. Too much. Too overwhelming. Too incomprehensible.
Underneath the happenings in this world, we’ve lived other things, you have, I have, L’Arche has. The birth of your cousin. The graduation of his daughter. The sunrise on the peak when we went camping. Playing a board game, the other day, the whole family. That incredible 3-pointer at the Y, big smile on her face. The outing to the beach and the warm sand between our toes. The sound of the rain on the roof while I snuggle under my blanket.
We know these markers of our common humanity, regardless of whether you are from Van Nuys, Kentucky or Atlanta. I recognize something familiar in “the Other.”
L’Arche’s nature as a mosaic of singular experiences has often driven me nuts. Herding cats is nothing compared to shepherding this movement. And yet, considering my occasional “Too much. Too overwhelming. Too incomprehensible,” L’Arche’s nature as a mosaic of encounters and relationships is a saving grace. An accessible path for all. A solution even, one filled with joy and fun, food and celebrations, and, if we just manage to be still and attuned enough, of spirit and transcendence. A movement that serves people who are still too often marginalized, even within the disability community, such as William, Terry and Olivier, who have journeyed with me for several decades.
For me, L’Arche has been, is and will be a bridge between my insignificant self and the big “out there,” little joys and seemingly insurmountable problems, small baby steps and systems change, my comfortable bubble and the—yes, penetrable—universe of “the Other.”
L’Arche is all about learning, needing and belonging to one another, the creation of a mosaic of friendships. In the words of one of my favorite books, it is about “s’apprivoiser” in its French original, about “taming” each other in the English translation. It’s about what Parker Palmer paraphrased as being “willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree.”
“What does that mean — ‘tame’?” asks the little prince in the book of the same name. “’It means to establish ties’, answers the fox. ‘(…) if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…’”
I don’t pretend that L’Arche could have saved Amy’s life. But I’ve come to realize that L’Arche can be an agent of peace in our society. Not just of service to people with I/DD, although that is a lot. Not just of community against isolation and loneliness, as worthwhile as that is. Not just of education to build leaders for inclusion and justice. But an agent of amity and understanding, a barrier against the currents of division and othering. A force of compassion and gentleness, a cushion against quick judgement and reactivity. An invitation to “tame” one another. May it be so.
I’d like to end my eight years – how else would I – with gratitude. Gratitude for your trust in our stewardship of your resources, dear donors. Gratitude for your partnership as we stretched, pulled, and pushed L’Arche’s practices, dear colleagues. Gratitude for your support when we had to sail through turbulent waters, dear friends. Gratitude for your grace when I failed and did wrong and had to try a thousand times to get it right, dear everybody.
One of my most important goals during my tenure was to make L’Arche less dependent on a singular leader. I am happy to say that this mission is accomplished and am excited about the adventures that the many committed, capable, fun, and loving people of L’Arche will lead us to, turning this world of ours into a more peaceful place.
With much gratitude, yours truly,
1 – Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Paperback, 2018, by J.D. Vance and When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir Hardcover – Deckle Edge, 2018 by Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele