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Eight Lessons from Eight Years

a book laid on open with two pages folded into a heart

Eight years ago this month I moved into L’Arche Heartland. Even though I had done a lot of research, like reading the writings of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier and others who had lived in L’Arche communities, I really didn’t know what I was in for. There have been a lot of ups and downs over the years, and there have definitely been times when I wondered if I should stick around (I actually did leave for a few months but realized I needed to come back), but my relationships with the core members and the ways I have seen and felt myself grow have made me ride out the hard times and stick around.

As I’ve been thinking about my eight years in L’Arche, I thought it might be fun to write down eight lessons I’ve learned. They are definitely not all the things I’ve learned, but they are what came to mind and what I felt like sharing as I began writing. Some are more light-hearted than others, but all of them speak true to my time in community.

Eight Lessons from Eight Years in L’Arche

Faster is not necessarily better
When I lived with Brian, one of our daily tasks was to go on a morning walk. Towards the beginning of our time together I saw these walks as things that just needed to be done as quickly as possible. We had a regular route that we walked and I thought it was better to do just get it over with.

But going for a walk with Brian is not just something that you do quickly. Brian would walk with a slow and deliberate pace and this frustrated me. On these walks, my mind would be occupied with all of the other things I needed to do, and this walk through the neighborhood was keeping me from doing them. I would try to make Brian walk faster which only resulted in him dragging his feet and pulling on my arm and both of us getting upset with the other.

At some point, in the time that we lived together, I grew to accept that these walks were going to be done at Brian’s pace and not mine. That’s when they changed for me. They stopped being a task or a chore and became something I enjoyed. They were moments of peace in what could be otherwise busy and hectic days. The slower pace allowed me to appreciate things we saw along the way like flowers and trees and decorations in yards. It gave me time to think and to breathe.

Often times, in my life in L’Arche, things that I am used to being able to do quickly end up being done at a slower pace. Leaving the house to go somewhere. Cooking a meal. Brushing teeth. All of these things, and many others, usually end up taking more time when they are done with core members. It can be frustrating to do these things so slowly if your goal is to just get them over with. But L’Arche has taught me that while the end goal is important, it is often secondary to the process it takes to get there. A slower pace often opens up the possibility for building relationships, having fun, experiencing joy, and strengthening community.

Dance parties make everything better
Several years ago, Justin undertook an endeavor to have a good-sized garden in the yard of Mercy House. It required a lot of work to maintain, and sometimes one of the other houses would come over and help to weed or pick green beans and other vegetables. One time there was a group of us out in the garden and we were listening to some music. A particular song came on that Matt enjoyed and so there, in the middle of our yard, he started dancing. Slowly, we all stopped what we were doing and joined Matt and it turned into a conga line. What was an ordinary task of bean picking and weed pulling became a dance party in the side yard of Mercy House for all of our neighbors to see.

Dance parties are not uncommon in L’Arche. In fact, just the other day I was helping out at one of our other houses for an evening and Matt and I had several dance parties in the living room. I’ve had dance parties in the kitchen, in a bedroom, in the laundry room, even in the van. They are moments of spontaneous joy that can lighten a mood, bring a group of people together, spread happiness, and make people smile.

You are beautiful
When I first moved into L’Arche, one of my housemates was a gentleman named Pat. He held the honorable title of “King of L’Arche” in our community because he had been here the longest, around 27 years.

Pat loved to compliment people and shower them with praise. He constantly told people they were beautiful or handsome, that they needed a vacation or a thousand dollars, that they looked skinny or healthy, that they looked good in their outfit, that they cooked good food or did whatever it was they were doing at the time really well. I knew that there were people he didn’t like or that he didn’t care to be around, but Pat would never tell them that. He’d tell them they looked handsome and then he’d duck out when no one was paying attention and go sit on his swing in the backyard.

Pat ended up being diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2016. I remember the last thing he said to me, the day he ended up getting admitted to the hospital. I was in his bedroom to help administer some medication, he was lying in bed probably feeling pretty awful, but he looked at me and said, “You’re as skinny as a horse, Mark. You need a vacation.” Even at his worst, he was still giving people compliments.

Even though he’s been gone for almost three years now, he still comes up in our conversations quite often. We joke about how he’d respond to a situation, or we give each other “Pat compliments.” And I think that’s one of the lessons I learned from Pat: Compliment each other often. Tell people what you love and appreciate about them whenever you get the chance. No one is going to live forever, so don’t let a moment go by without telling someone why they matter to you.

We are more than our abilities
I think a view that is common to the outside observer is that people with disabilities are weak and that they need help in their daily lives. That very well may be true. The reason the core members come to live in L’Arche is that they have a disability and often need help to do things. Some of our core members need help eating. Some need help accomplishing daily tasks. Most need help getting to and from places like work or their day program or appointments.

But one of the greatest things I have learned at L’Arche is that to see them only as being weak and in need of help is a huge mistake, because each of the core members has amazing strengths and so much to offer. A few of the strengths that I have witnessed in different core members are a deep loyalty, the ability to forgive, fierce determination, warm hospitality, joyful optimism, and selfless compassion. Not to mention skills like being able to spotlessly wash a car, paint a beautiful work of art, or to almost instantly tell you the day of the week for any date that you give.

Core members in L’Arche are far more than their disabilities. They are more than someone who needs assistance with parts of their life. They are people with interesting lives, with their own strengths and abilities and gifts. Getting to know them, and becoming their friend, has blessed me immeasurably in my own life.

Everyone deserves to be honored
David is a member of our community who loves to plan parties and to celebrate. He hosts parties for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and New Years, among others. At our July Community Night, he leads the All American Parade where we march around to patriotic music waving flags and decorations that he’s made. One of my favorite celebrations that he hosts every year is the L’Arche Academy Awards. These are not like the award ceremony hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where many are nominated but only a few win. At the L’Arche Academy Awards everyone present, and even some people who aren’t there, get awards and are recognized for something that makes them special.

David gives people awards for being a good cook, for helping others, for singing, even for liking chainsaws. Each person gets their name announced, they get to come forward and receive a certificate that he’s decorated and get a little trophy from the dollar store, and everyone claps and cheers. David decorates with a red carpet and people get their pictures taken and everyone gets to be celebrated and honored.

This celebration is the epitome of what L’Arche stands for: Everyone has value, everyone has gifts worth honoring and celebrating regardless of their abilities.

You’re never too old for a new adventure
When I was serving in the role of Community Coordinator, part of my responsibilities included coordinating visits for volunteer groups, or friends from other L’Arche communities who were visiting or passing through, or people interested in being assistants in our community. One day, I received an email from someone in the L’Arche USA office connecting me with a woman named Katharine who was in Colorado and interested in being an assistant in the community that was in the beginning stages of formation in Fort Collins. They wanted her to experience life in a L’Arche community and as we are the closest one to Colorado, it made sense for her to come and visit us Through my coordination with her, we made plans for her to come and visit around Thanksgiving as she would be spending the holiday with her brother and his family in a town about 45 minutes from us.

The day she arrived, I was out running errands when I received the call that she was in the office. So I returned and walked in to see a small woman in her 70’s standing in the office. “Can I help you?” I asked. “I’m Katharine,” she replied. I was a bit taken aback. A large portion of the people who come to be assistants in L’Arche communities are right out of college. My conversations with Katharine had all been through email, so I’d never heard her voice, and we had never mentioned her age. I assumed since she was free over Thanksgiving that she was a college student on break from school at that time. She was not at all what I was expecting.

But she was amazing. She had spent her professional life as a first-grade teacher. She had then devoted the last couple of years as a caregiver to her partner as she was sick. When her partner passed away, Katharine wanted to live in community and do something meaningful. She and her partner had talked about L’Arche before, and so she was looking to be an assistant in a L’Arche community, and that’s how she ended up coming to visit us.

Her visit with us was wonderful. She loved getting to know us and we loved getting to know her. She ended up applying to L’Arche USA to be an assistant, and after some consideration, they asked us if we were interested in welcoming her into our community. We jumped at the chance to welcome her back.

We all fell in love with Katharine. She was gentle, kind, friendly, and funny. Her presence in the home was calming and nurturing. Katharine quickly became a beloved member of our community.
It was devastating, then, nine months later when she was diagnosed with cancer. She ended up leaving our community to stay with her brother and it wasn’t much later that she passed away. We held a celebration of life for her and invited her friends and family that were nearby. We sang and prayed and shared stories and thanked God for sending Katharine to be a part of our community.

We still talk about Katharine, more than a year after she left us. The impression that she left on our community belies the short amount of time that we got to have her with us. And, if she would have let her age stop her from looking into living in a L’Arche community, then we never would have been blessed to know her at all. At 74, she was eager to embark on a new adventure and I hope that I, at any age, can follow her courageous and compassionate example.

Community is like a rock tumbler
I can’t take credit for this bit of knowledge. This was relayed to me by the wonderful Sue Mosteller, who was the Community Leader of L’Arche Daybreak in Canada, and the first International Leader of L’Arche after founder Jean Vanier.

She compares community to a rock tumbler. You put rocks in it and they tumble around. They bump into each other, catching one another on their jagged edges and their bumpy spots. But, eventually, through this process, they become shiny and smooth and beautiful. They were beautiful before they went in, of course, but the process brings out more of their natural beauty.

We enter community much like those rocks. We tumble around together, bumping into one another, catching on each others’ jagged edges and bumpy spots. It can be stressful, even painful. But, eventually, we get smoother. Our natural beauty emerges. We become shinier, smoother, more beautiful versions of ourselves.

I’ve noticed this happening to me after eight years. Things that would have earlier caused me to lose my temper, or freak out, or become frustrated don’t elicit the same responses. They don’t catch my rough spots as much as they used to.

The other day I was driving in the van with a couple of the guys in my house, and I just felt this sense of comfortableness, a sense of ease. Like I was smooth. Don’t get me wrong. I know I have plenty of bumps and rough edges left. I’m sure it wasn’t too long after that moment in the van that I got upset about something or one of my housemates frustrated me. But I know that it’s happening. This rock tumbler called L’Arche is smoothing me out, making me more patient, more compassionate, wiser, and more loving. I could bump around for the rest of my life and never get completely smooth, but I know I’m making progress.

Have an open heart
Change is constant. During my time at L’Arche, there have been many assistants who have come and gone. We’ve had transitions in our leadership. We have even lost people because of death. People who I thought, or hoped, would still be here are now other places and there are people that I never could have imagined who are part of our community now. The community I am a part of today looks very different than the one I joined 8 years ago.

The core members consistently face all of these changes with open hearts. I know it would be easy, after years of seeing people come and go, to close up, to not get too attached, to realize that the chances are that this person will move away sooner or later. But that has not been what I have seen.

The hearts of the core members continue to be wide open, ready to receive and welcome those who come, to engage in love and friendship with those who are here, and to joyfully celebrate those who leave. The welcome they offer to assistants who newly arrive today is no different than the welcome I received when I arrived and I have a suspicion that the welcome I received is pretty similar to assistants before me. They still hold parties to celebrate and to send off assistants when they leave for other places. David, a core member who has been in our community for 20+ years, will still sing “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand for assistants who move out of his house.

What the core members have taught me is that life is richer and better and more well-lived when greeted with an open heart. It might be safer or easier to close your heart to protect yourself from change and the pain that accompanies it, but then you don’t experience the good parts as much. You close yourself off to relationships and experiences and opportunities that could be life-changing.
Change is inevitable. The way we respond to that change is not. The core members have taught and shown me that the best way is with an open heart, willing to receive and to send with joy and love.

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