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Listening to the Language of L’Arche

Below is a reflection originally featured in our Hope Signs: July 2020 newsletter. Tina Bovermann is the National Leader of L’Arche in the United States. Her words offer an inside perspective on how both global and personal events are impacting the many members of L’Arche today.

Nothing seemed impossible…

“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” –  Genesis 11:7, NRSV

There was a time when we commuted to work in the mornings and gathered in our homes in the afternoons. There was a time when the status quo allowed some of us to talk comfortably about racial justice, while others were forced to live the painful lack thereof, day in and day out.  There was a time when some were ready to declare Jean Vanier a living saint.

We, L’Arche people and friends, had our disagreements and quirks. But we all had one language. Nothing seemed impossible.

The Year 2020: Our language becomes confused…

 “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” –  Genesis 11:7, NRSV

Then, 2020 happens. The world is again living a unique season, different than a war or a recession, but just as disruptive and full of uncertainty.  Building community and nurturing relationships, while maintaining distance: the L’Arche world has been turned upside down.

When the pandemic hit, L’Arche was already living through its own earthquake, its founder revealed to be a different man than we thought he was.  Our members have been courageously asking how power and abuse, sexuality and spirituality, the theology of desire and vulnerability might show up in L’Arche’s DNA and in their own lived experience.

Then, in the midst of a pandemic, we witnessed police brutality again.  And yet we debated and argued about what seems so clear: racial injustice cannot be denied. Not anymore, please.  Not in this society and not in L’Arche.

Suddenly, our language became confused.  And we wondered: do we still understand one another’s speech?

Scattered over the face of all the earth…

“So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” – Genesis 11:8-9, NRSV

To me, 2020 feels like a test of the tensions that L’Arche seeks to embrace, tensions between the global and the local, the universal and the specific, between unity and diversity, between our mission and our identity, plurality and uniformity.  Don’t get me wrong: we are astonishingly solid. L’Arche’s people are anchored in their understanding of what relationships across differences can mean for this world and why it matters that people with intellectual disabilities contribute to this society.

But when, if not now, will we lean into this country’s reality, ensuring that L’Arche plays a part in making it a better place?  When, if not now, will we close the gaps between humans, between L’Arche members and friends?

Scattered over the face of all the earth, we are.  United in a common vision and mission, we are.

Not so haughty…

Might God have seen his people as haughty?  “Oh, we got this,” they might have thought while building their tower.  “Oh, we got this,” L’Arche folks might have thought while building community.  “Oh, I got this,” I might have thought, while working on strategies and workstreams.

Yes, of course we feel that we’ve got this.  I want to shout loudly on behalf of all of L’Arche that the death of George Floyd and all it represents is outrageous, numbing, and sickening. Not only that: I want to proclaim how L’Arche’s values and principles support the quest for justice and equity.  Don’t we have something to teach?  Shouldn’t we be out there?

No, not so quick, not so haughty.  L’Arche calls us to shout with integrity, if we are to shout at all.  L’Arche’s work in the U.S. is to learn, listen and catch up, not to teach.  Our movement of predominantly white, Christian, middle-class people, beautiful people, has work to do.  The good news is that we are on it, earnestly.

Yes, of course I want to shout loudly on behalf of all of us that Jean did wrong-wrong-wrong.  “He still haunts me,” someone said to me the other day. How could he …?  Isn’t it different today, we might believe? Don’t we know how to include and hold everybody safe?  Aren’t we first in class?  Don’t we have something to teach?

No, not so quick, not so haughty.  We want to shout with fairness.  Jean was also a man who did a lot of right-right-right.  More so, we ought to shout with humility, with confidence in our strengths and a solid footing in reality.  As a leader in L’Arche today, I know all too well that no one person and no organization is immune from abuses of power, manipulation, and personal and institutional failures.  Hasn’t been and won’t be.  The good news is that we are on it, earnestly.

Nothing will be impossible…

Language becoming confused.  People scattered over the face of all the earth.  Often, the story of Babel is interpreted as a divine punishment, but I believe it is a story about one of humanity’s greatest gifts: our diversity.  There is divine intent in the diversity of our cultures and languages, our abilities, and the color of our skins.  And yes, as we know, diversity is hard.  Fortunately, L’Arche’s path has never been to shout loudly in pursuit of justice and inclusion. Our path is to listen in pursuit of justice and inclusion, of love and care, of belonging and unity. Active listening is a rare skill.  Too often, I get lost in the languages of the earth and all its scattered people. I know that I’ll be an apprentice listener for the rest of my life.  And I am grateful to be surrounded by fellow apprentices and teachers, L’Arche’s members and friends, who hold firm in the cacophony of this year 2020, leaning in to listen, to learn and to remind one another:

Nothing will be impossible.

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