Sarah Lineberry is currently pursuing a PhD at Virginia Commonwealth University where she is studying access to healthcare for adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities. After college, she spent one year as an assistant at a L’Arche community in Scotland. Then, after she finished her master’s, she joined L’Arche Chicago as their Director of Professional Services. A few months ago, we interviewed Sarah and talked to her about how she first came to L’Arche and how she returned. Check out our conversation below. (The interview has been lightly edited for clarity)
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Wake Forest, North Carolina, just outside of Raleigh. My mom was a high school English teacher. My dad worked in state government, so I was really involved in state politics from a really young age. I often got in trouble for stealing coins from the fountains at the state building.
How did you first hear about L’Arche?
Looking back, things just fell into place. But at that time, things felt like they were completely falling apart. I had applied for a job at a summer camp but didn’t get it, which meant that I was able to travel with my college’s campus ministry. We went to the north of England. One part of the trip was a pilgrimage, where we walked along Adrian’s wall. And the other part was just a week spent at Edinburgh. The local pastor who lead the pilgrimage portion of the trip had done his doctoral thesis on integrated faith communities and knew about L’Arche. He knew I was interested in supporting people with developmental disabilities, so we connected a little bit beforehand, and one of the things he arranged was during our week in Edinburgh was to meet with the L’Arche community there for lunch.
Do you recall your first impressions of L’Arche?
I was definitely nervous. I knew that it was something I potentially wanted to do. I was considering applying to go back for a year as an assistant. But, at that point, the pastor was the only person who knew that. I had got into a couple of graduate schools I couldn’t afford and didn’t get into the school I wanted to go to. So, my year was wide open. I was looking for things to do. And I can be shy, I have a harder time meeting people sometimes. I felt like I wanted to make this good impression and meet people so they would want me to come back. What set me at ease more than anything else was the excitement of everyone to be meeting new people and to be welcoming us into that space. I remember core members and assistants both shared a little of what it was like living there. And even in that brief introduction, you could see the care and friendship that they had for each other. It felt like a place I wanted to go back to.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known when you first went to Scotland?
Many things. Calm down is probably one of them. But I think coming from an academic setting, being a perfectionist – the desire to do everything right can be overwhelming and is not necessarily something that happens in L’Arche. Often there’s not a right answer for how to do something, and that it’s about being with people and figuring it out. I remember I would be pretty hard on myself if something didn’t go right – if dinner wasn’t on time or I didn’t handle an interaction with someone exactly right. But I think the biggest change that I remember was around my interactions with core members and the way I approached disability. During my previous experience volunteering and working as a direct support professional, I had to be incredibly goal- and task- oriented; everything I did in that job had to have a purpose. So, the realization that living together is purpose enough is really meaningful. I definitely credit L’Arche and that first year as kind of the start of that journey towards offering myself grace and being able to take a step back from the interaction that’s happening and see the bigger picture.
During that first year in L’Arche, what did you find most difficult?
Community is hard. A lot of shared space. I think building relationships with people who are very different for a variety of reasons is hard. There was one other assistant who I lived with from Uganda who told us the first day he moved in that he wouldn’t clean the kitchen. There were a couple of other interactions with him that put me on edge. Then I remember, over the months getting to know him better, him getting to know L’Arche better, us building that relationship. I remember one difficult morning where the buses were late and routines were late. No one was where they needed to be and a few hours in, he said “Sit down Sarah, I made you breakfast. You have to eat it.” So, building those relationships with new people requires vulnerability, asking for help, acknowledging differences, and talking about differences in a way that also acknowledges that you’re all living together. You’re all here for a common reason.
Who were you closest with in that community?
I had a really close relationship with one of the core members: Gordon. I think also that was one of the biggest changes I saw in myself and the way I interacted with people. Gordon had severe disabilities. He had Down syndrome; he had developed dementia. So, he had a lot of physical care needs. He didn’t speak that much. He cried a lot. And it was hard to know why. We had the dementia specialist come in and they said “We don’t know why. There might not be a reason why.” He would forget things and get confused about the day and then get angry. And I remember being overwhelmed when I first met Gordon because that was so far beyond anything I had ever done before. And by the end of that year, I remember I had a moment where we were getting ready to go to the community celebration later in the evening. We were having a cèilidh – a traditional Scottish dance – and Gordon loved that he was Scottish and listened to Scottish music on his tape recorder all the time. He loved dancing and he loved community events, but he couldn’t always go because evenings were a lot harder for him. He was in a really good mood, so we were hoping that Gordon would be able to go to this event. So, to help keep him happy, I sat on the edge of his chair and acted out this ridiculous story of the bad dog chasing the cat, with sound effects of all sorts, for probably an hour. And at some point, I just paused and thought “What am I doing? I went to school. I have a degree. And this is where I am? And this is what’s making me happy? And it’s great. I love it.” I really grew to have a good relationship with Gordon. I enjoyed spending time with him. We would read together, draw together, and listen to music. And then about a year after I moved back to the US and went to school, I got news that Gordon had died. That was right at the beginning of my second year of my master’s program – it was when I was really starting to need to figure out what I was going to do when I graduated. I was consciously thinking about what the next steps were and realized I couldn’t stop talking about Gordon and couldn’t stop talking about the connections I had made in L’Arche for that year. I realized it was something I wanted to be part of my life.
What was it about Gordon that drew you to him?
I think in some ways Gordon was the easiest one to be vulnerable with. I think when you see someone else’s vulnerability- and with core members, their vulnerability and support needs are a lot more visible, a lot more obvious than ours. So, supporting someone wo needed help with everything, from getting dressed to going to the bathroom, to eating, to walking, I think it allowed me to ask for help in different ways and Gordon gave really great hugs and really liked someone to watch tv with or listen to music and put his head on your shoulder, his arm around you. I think – we had our hard moments – the hard moments helped us grow in that relationship. I remember one night – Gordon had fallen on the ground and couldn’t get up and I couldn’t get him up. And then at some point it’s three in the morning and we’re both sitting on the floor crying. And Gordon looked at me and you could see his face “Why are you crying? It’s my turn to cry.” But being in it together and Gordon’s willingness to ask for help, to accept help, to be vulnerable, to have those feelings and express those feelings allowed me to do the same.
When you went back to graduate school, what did you miss most about L’Arche?
Transitioning back to school was very fast, I did not give myself very much time. I think I had five days before I started back at school. So, definitely getting back to the intellectual work was a challenge, which is a little ironic because it took me a really long time to get out of my head and to get out of that purely intellectual space. I think my experience with L’Arche helped me with not getting stuck on assignments and thinking about the bigger picture: What am I trying to communicate with this? Who are the people who are affected? But, I missed the day-to-day relationships for sure. I was really lucky in that I found a cohort within my master’s program pretty quickly and had a group of good friends. But, you know, we didn’t live together. Which again is ironic because that was one of the hardest things – getting used to living in a big house with people. I also missed having people who just got it – not having to explain what L’Arche was. I would be telling a funny story about my time in L’Arche and people would get stuck on really small details: “What, you would live together?” “That’s not the point; that’s not the point of the story I’m trying to tell.” I think that was especially hard, not having people who got it; having to explain how I could love someone or care about someone so deeply after only having spent a year with them.
Talk to me about how you ended up at L’Arche Chicago after graduate school.
I wasn’t sure it was an option at first. Because I was one of those people who just kind of stumbled on to L’Arche and ended up there for a year, I didn’t know anything about the L’Arche communities in the USA. So, I didn’t necessarily know that I wanted to be in L’Arche; I did know I wanted to keep working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. So then, in my second year, one of the places I looked was the L’Arche USA website job board and saw the Director of Professional Services role at L’Arche Chicago. So, I interviewed for the role and didn’t get it because L’Arche Chicago really couldn’t wait to fill the role until I graduated. So, they hired someone else. But, in August, I randomly got an email from Mic [Mic Altena, the community leader at L’Arche Chicago] asking if I was still interested. It ended up that the day I got the email was the anniversary of Gordon’s death. So, L’Arche was very much on my mind and in my heart.
Talking about L’Arche Chicago, what were you surprised by when you returned to L’Arche?
The assistant system is set up differently. L’Arche Edinburgh had a lot of international volunteers. So, the Charity worker visas and scheduling thing didn’t have to be nearly as complex as here, because of the way that we’re licensed as a group home in Illinois. In order to convince the state that we’re real and authorized and competent, our schedules have to look a lot more like a traditional group home with a live-out shift staff model. So there’s a lot more scheduling involved and that was different. I also think relationships with core members didn’t develop as quickly because I was not living in the house. You don’t have a lot of choice when you’re living with someone but to get to know them really well. I found it a little bit more difficult to figure out what my role in community was, as someone who works in the office, who has one foot in bureaucracy for state benefits reimbursement and applications and the other foot in pretty loosey-goosey relationships in L’Arche. So, it took me a little longer to figure out who I was in the community and where I fit.
Talk me through how you decided to go back to school for a PHD.
It was something that I kind of had in the back of my mind for a while, even when I was getting my master’s and started realizing that my interests were largely in policy. I started thinking that, in order to work in policy, a PHD would probably be the next step. I realized that the work that I’ve been doing here at L’Arche Chicago with the 11 core members that I work with and support is amazing and I love it, and I want to do that on a bigger scale.
What do you love most about L’Arche?
I love the celebration, and I love the celebration of everything, from eating dinner together and having a prayer after dinner to – we went to a core member’s special Olympics softball game yesterday and cheered. I love that we celebrate each other, that we celebrate the little things that happen every day.