Creating strong communities is the most effective way to address the urgent needs of our time. Communities are the bedrock of the experience of belonging and their members are likely to be personally committed to the mission and well-being of the community. To belong and be accepted, just as we are, is a rare and precious occurrence in a society that is highly individualistic and fractured.
In researching a book on communities that provide unique models of fostering connection, I visited a L’Arche home in Arlington, Virginia. L’Arche International is a community where people with disabilities (called core members) live with volunteer caretakers (assistants). The central mission of L’Arche is to make known the gifts of people with disabilities. It was founded in 1964 in Trosly-Breuil, France, by Jean Vanier when he invited two men who lived in a nearby institution to live with him. From those beginnings L’Arche has grown to 154 communities in 38 countries on five continents.
My first night in the Arlington home I had dinner with three core members, Charles, Laurie and Bruce. Over the course of a single meal, I had a glimpse of the gifts that people with cognitive disabilities can bring to the world within such a community of care such as this. Charles asked me questions about those dearest to me, my spirituality, and the details of my day. He listened intently and I felt the warmth of his gaze. Laurie asked few questions but she shared about herself, especially what made her happy. She loved to cook, had a sensuous appreciation of food, and found joy in dancing. As she spoke her face lit up and I felt drawn to her palpable enjoyment of life. Bruce, though not as articulate as the other two, was fully present, looking at me with curiosity and kindness out of the corner of his eye.
For volunteers, the daily demands of caring for people with special needs can be monotonous and difficult. It is a challenge to both participate in community and meet government requirements as caretakers. Still, the assistants I met were deeply committed to community. Ben Nolan, former community leader in Pierrefrond, France, notes “What draws us together is the gift of the core members, and it is those gifts that help us get over the difficulties” of living in day to day community.
L’Arche as an organization takes seriously its goal of enriching the lives of all community members, including encouraging discussions of life beyond L’Arche for volunteers. Some volunteers stay on in different capacities when they move out of the homes as assistants. Most higher-level staff have lived as assistants before continuing their commitment in another capacity.
Tina Broverman, the executive director of L’Arche USA, says “people come to L’Arche because they are seeking an authentic experience that they have not found, or have found elsewhere and want to replicate. Whether the drive is spiritual, or they know someone with a disability, or a personal sense of mission in this world, the longing for community is very personal and deep.”
Curt Armstrong, developmental director for L’Arche International in France, told me that what continues to draw him to L’Arche is the gifts of the people with developmental disabilities. They relate directly, without the filters that most of us have. He told me that an initial experience in a L’Arche home is that you unexpectedly, and often very quickly, see their beauty. They help us “grow in joy”. Another common experience that the core members evoke, in staff and visitors alike, is a desire to live a more harmonious and authentic life.
The L’Arche community extends beyond the houses and touch all who visit by showing the gifts of its members. They wear their vulnerability in a way that would frighten most of us. Most need help to dress, bathe, and eat. While they are aware of their need for help, what they want, and they make this clear, is friendship and connection. Their friendship teaches us how to live with greater authenticity. For me personally, I reflected on how, while I consider myself to be authentic, I am often hesitant to be vulnerable in situations that I don’t know to be safe. L’Arche residents don’t have this same luxury.
L’Arche is a wonderful example of the power of community to promote openness and to broaden and transform our perceptions and understanding of connection. Charles, Laurie, and Bruce are teachers in how to value others exactly as they are.
After two days at L’Arche in Arlington, Virginia, I said goodbye to my new friends. Driving home to Brooklyn — I quickly felt the pang of missing them. Their voices, smiles and mannerisms made an indelible print. L’Arche is the magic and transformational power of community at its best.