Bernie Herberholt works as a paraeducator in special education, will ferment any food you leave on his doorstep, can be seen riding his unicycle around town, and aspires with a group of former assistants to found a new L’Arche community in Minnesota. He and his wife Lizzy, a former L’Arche assistant, live in St. Paul, Minnesota.
After two years serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps I wanted another authentic chance to live the values of social justice, spirituality, simplicity and community, yet I didn’t know how I wanted to do that. It seemed too soon to go back to grad school and still didn’t feel like I had found my place. Those two years I tried on the simple lifestyle with my community mates, serving people with HIV/AIDS and people affected by chronic homelessness, first in Raleigh, NC and then in Portland, OR respectively. I was drawn to a long term, grassroots type of service to the gospels and was inspired by a quote by Thomas Merton that, “it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” Still, I had difficulty explaining this desire that I carried with me from my years in JVC to many of my urban Seattle friends. After going away to work in the mountains for several months, a friend invited me to join L’Arche Portland. L’Arche offered a solid community experience that celebrated neuro-diversity by bringing people with and without intellectual disabilities to live together and build relationships of trust and reciprocity.
I found that there are many things about being an assistant that are inexplicable, so much so that they don’t fully make sense to me even now after having spent 8 years in L’Arche. Yet, the gifts of living so closely with people with intellectual disabilities have a unique power to open up a person’s heart. At that time, I had a common form of “mid-twenties failure anxiety” that needed to be transformed. The people of L’Arche had enormous capacity to welcome that fear; meanwhile, I was exposed to occupational therapy and gained experience in volunteer coordination, urban gardening, non-profit management, and American Sign Language.
One of my favorite pieces from the L’Arche charter adds definition and mystique to L’Arche. “People who have intellectual disabilities often possess qualities of welcome, wonderment, spontaneity, and directness. They are able to touch hearts and call others to unity through their simplicity and vulnerability. In this way they are a living reminder to the wider world of the essential values of the heart without which knowledge, power, and action lose their meaning and purpose.”
I received many of these living reminders from the core members, including works of art, both cute and masterful, fifty cent thrift store shirts I wear to this day, and specially choreographed dance routines on birthdays, to name a few. Yet, the gift I’m most thankful for was learning that human beings, myself included, possess immense capacity for growth. In matters of faith I was learning to let go of my anxiety and give it to a Creator who could transform my pain. I wanted the opportunity to relax, put my fullest heart into something, and the L’Arche assistant role challenged me at a very deep level to do that. The rewards weren’t always easy to display to my friends and family, but as people came to visit and when I shared particular stories with them, small as they seemed, many understood. After six years at L’Arche Portland I married my wife who was also a part of the community and we moved to Seattle as she continued her education. In 2014 I joined L’Arche Seattle to coordinate the Activity Center there where core members make recycled wax candles and other crafts.
When I first came to L’Arche Seattle, it was Holy Week. On Holy Thursday we had our traditional seder meal and foot washing ceremony. Foot washing is a shared ritual among L’Arche communities worldwide. I was in a group with a deaf man named Ronnie. Each person would wash a partner’s feet and then kneel to receive a blessing from the other. After washing Ronnie’s feet, I paused, kneeling in front of him. As the foot washing continued I prayed and waited for Ronnie to place his hands on my head for a blessing. Jennifer, also in the group, signed with him asking, “What shall we do with your socks?” Ronnie held onto his socks. Jennifer signed “Ronnie, put your socks on the floor.” Ronnie paused, no, not on the floor. “Put your socks in your pockets?” Ronnie waited, no, not in the pockets. “Put your socks on your lap?” Ronnie starred for a moment then grasped his socks and willfully put them on my head to offer a blessing. And he blessed me for a long time.
These are the types of moments I still cherish. Though odd, they touch my heart very deeply and I’ll never forget them, largely because, they illustrate moments of hilarity and authentic relationships that are possible at L’Arche. JVC offered me an opportunity to experiment with community living and L’Arche challenged me to put it into practice with a unique group of individuals with marvelous gifts for relationship building and I learned valuable career skills that enrich my life and work to this day.
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge