Below is a reflection originally featured in our Hope Signs: July 2020 newsletter. Lauren Palmer is a member of L’Arche Greater Washington D.C., and her words offer an inside perspective on how both global and personal events are impacting the many members of L’Arche today.
February 22nd: The truth about Jean Vanier’s abuse and lying over many years comes to international light. I threw Jean’s autobiography across my bedroom when I heard the inquiry results. The book’s cover featured Jean’s face so I stamped my foot repeatedly on it, which was satisfying for about one second.
March 14th: My L’Arche community begins following strict stay-at-home orders. When the first whispers of coronavirus knocked on our door, I had panic attacks about bringing the virus to my housemates with underlying conditions and being the cause of their death.
May 25th: George Floyd’s murder sparks protests, rioting, and rightful interrogations of unjust systems and cultures across the globe. I could not figure out why so many of us wielding power and privilege, including myself, seemed to suddenly give a shit about institutionalized racism, when we have centuries of examples of the ways unchecked power and privilege create oppression, including the example of Jean.
In the midst of all these bombshells, my daily life continues. Earlier this afternoon, Fritz (a core member who invites me to live with him) and I had a zoom discussion with some of his fellow parishioners about how they could grow their relationships with him. Yesterday, I physically supported someone with brushing their teeth. The day before that, that same person pulled me in for a bear hug, helping me know that I am seen and loved. Two months ago, I saw Eileen using her gifts as an artist to create Black Lives Matter posters.
In no way do I want to minimize the bravery of the women who came forward to share the truth about Jean, the pain people experience daily as a result of racism, or the seriousness of COVID-19. However, we in L’Arche, as Fritz reminded me this afternoon, have a duty to continue our work in an informed way.
For example, we will always have the reality of one of our founders being a privileged, white man without disabilities, who abused his power and repeatedly lied to the world as a part of our origin. It is our responsibility to name that part of our story. At the same time, we have known for a while that L’Arche is not Jean. Lest we forget that there would be no small-cottage-in-Trosly turned worldwide movement without Danny, Raphael, Philippe, and the core members who founded our communities. It’s one of the reasons we decided on the need to rewrite our charter years ago.
Given our current context of a post-May 25th world, it is safe to say that naming and confronting power and white supremacy is most certainly our responsibility as well. While rediscovering what it means to be faithful to the values of our founding story and continuing to engage with our diverse cultures, we can be sure now more than ever that anti-racism work must be a part of this. As we wrestle with the truth and fullness of our founding stories and how to move forward, both within L’Arche and this nation, I am guided by our core members.
I think of Charles. While those of us who can, return to not thinking about racism on a daily basis, Charles, who has faced his own (un)fair share of structural ableism and hateful people, never ceases to inform those around him of the lives being lost to the systemic injustices thriving in this country. He informs himself on current events, at minimum reading the newspaper everyday,. He manages to never back down from the work we have left to do. The man is 84, and he will simply never entertain the idea of “Allyship Fatigue.” No stranger to examining himself and his actions, he is often the first person to ask for forgiveness in any number of difficult situations. Charles teaches me what work within and against systems designed to oppress certain people can look like, and he does it knowing it won’t go away in his lifetime. He also does it while making a lot of jokes and eating pancakes.
I think of Laurie, who after hearing the news of Jean, was instantly sad. Then, taking my shoulders in her hands and shaking me, she passionately declared: “L’Arche changed my life! So *snaps fingers and waves arm* forget him.” When I clarified if that meant Jean absolutely sucked but that L’Arche was still good and needed, she exasperatedly informed me, “yes!” before shooing me out of the way to get herself a snack.
As Laurie reminds us, L’Arche has changed so many of our lives for good. In the face of evil–and that’s exactly what racism, ableism, and abuse are–how will we continue transforming lives and thus, transform the world? I think we have a way forward if we allow ourselves to be led by those who tell us who we are: core members. Or as Charles would say, core family members.
Written by Lauren Palmer
Edited by Alice Felker