L'Arche communities: differing abilities, one life together

August 18, 2010

Twenty years ago, Curt Armstrong went to France, intending to learn French and pick grapes before heading for graduate school. He ended up becoming an assistant in a L'Arche community, where people with and without cognitive disabilities live together, and found a calling. Today, he and his wife – who met through L'Arche – are helping to launch a new community of the worldwide, interfaith organization in Atlanta.

L'Arche – whose name comes from the French word for "ark" – began in 1964 when Canadian Jean Vanier, acting on the advice of a Dominican priest, invited two men with disabilities to share a home with him in the French village of Trosly-Breuil. A community developed and inspired the founding of similar communities in France, Canada and India. Today, 137 communities operate in 40 countries, with more planned.

Within each community, which may encompass one home or several, "core members" with intellectual disabilities, and sometimes other handicaps, share their lives with assistants and other staff under a philosophy stressing mutuality and friendship.

At their heart, L'Arche communities are spiritual communities, with members gathering regularly for prayer and celebration.

"All of our communities are inspired by ... the Beatitudes, and that forms a spiritual underpinning for L'Arche," said Joan Mahler, L'Arche USA national coordinator.

Many communities are Roman Catholic, reflecting the organization's roots, but others maintain strong connections with Anglican or other denominations. In the United States, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori affirmed the Episcopal Church connection, confirming the Very Rev. Richard Bower as Episcopal Church liaison with L'Arche USA.

L'Arche members may be Christian, belong to another religion or be religiously unaffiliated. Often the impetus to start a community comes from a church group, said Bower, former dean of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Syracuse, New York. He served as chaplain for the local L'Arche community, while his wife was a L'Arche assistant. Now Vermont residents, they periodically lead retreats and formation programs for L'Arche communities in Latin America.

Not just caregivers
"We're not just a not-for-profit organization trying to provide group homes," he said. "We have a spirituality that says God is most deeply encountered in service of the poorest of the poor, the weakest among us, and in that encounter we discover our own weaknesses, our own vulnerabilities, our own disabilities, if you want to call them that. We're not people with everything together trying to take care of people who are not normal."

At the heart of the spirituality, Bower said, "is the invitation and the expectation that deep, profound mutual friendships will happen, friendships that transform each other. And the challenge of that and the marvel of it is we're talking about having a relationship with someone who maybe doesn't speak, might not hear, might be blind, might [have] Down syndrome."

The Rev. David Perry, who became involved with L'Arche in Portland, Oregon, after retiring as the presiding bishop's deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations, agreed.

"It's a very strong emphasis on hospitality and on mutuality, so that it isn't a question of somebody who has giving to somebody who doesn't, or for people who are 'abled' helping those who are 'disabled,' said Perry, who worked with L'Arche Nehelem to help the religiously diverse community discern its spiritual path. "L'Arche is very much a mutual community in which everybody benefits."

Varied backgrounds
Chosen by their individual communities, core members come to L'Arche in various ways: sometimes from institutions, sometimes from family homes, Mahler said. "There would need to be that desire to live in community with people and to participate on a regular basis in the life of the community: the celebrations, the prayer times, just the general communal life."

Likewise, assistants arrive at many ages and from many walks of life.

Some end up spending many years with the organization. Doug Mouncey left a job working with emotionally disturbed children in a residential setting in Canada in 1971 to spend a year hitchhiking in Europe and ended up spending six months at the Trosly-Breuil community in France. There, he met Perry, another Canadian Anglican, and the two married and spent a year at a L'Arche community in Canada.

In 1974, they moved to Syracuse to help start a community, of which Mouncey became executive director. He also has served on the local board of directors and as a regional coordinator and was a charter member of the U.S. board. Today, he continues his friendships with members of the Syracuse community while working for United Way. His wife is an Episcopal priest doing supply and interim work as well as working in at a dental practice.

Mouncey noted the difference between working in an institution, which can be very isolated from the surrounding community, and a L'Arche household with its emphasis on family and involvement with the wider community, including the routine activities of banking, visiting malls, getting haircuts. At St. Lucy's Roman Catholic Church, L'Arche members serve as greeters and acolytes.

L'Arche communities are officially recognized Americorp sites, Mahler said, noting, "L'Arche attracts many young people to serve as assistants."

Maggie Heenan, 21, recently completed a year as an assistant at the L'Arche Irenicon community outside Boston. She learned about L'Arche in college through books by Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest who wrote about his experiences with the L'Arche Daybreak community in Southern Ontario, Canada. She chose the New England community "after prayer and discernment," said Heenan. "I definitely felt like I was being called to L'Arche."

Heenan lived in one of four community homes housing 15 core members (her house had four). "I was kind of nervous about moving straight into a house with people with special needs, because I never worked with people with developmental disabilities before," she said. But, "the relationships I was able to build with our core people were strong and mutual."

Core members worked outside the home during the day, she said. Everyone took turns making dinner, and evenings were filled with activities such as watching television, reading, going for a walk. Sometimes assistants accompanied core members to classes such as piano or guitar lessons. Often, house members went out together for ice cream or to the movies.

L'Arche attracts people later in life as well.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, author and former academic Helen Reid Thomas helped found The Skein, a L'Arche community named after a flock of geese often seen flying by, which opened in 1991.

In her previous role as a lecturer in literary linguistics at the University of Strathclyde, Thomas said, she began to feel that she was "lacking integrity of my whole being." She wanted "to bring together the spiritual, emotional and intellectual, and the job I was doing was primarily intellectual," she said. "I felt I was missing important bits of me.

"It's demanding, but you get drawn in," said Thomas, who is a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church and serves on L'Arche's international board.

Initially, the community's core members were transferred from a local hospital in Gogarburn that was closing down. Today, The Skein has four core members and six assistants. One member moved to a nursing home because he needed more care than the community could offer.

They are beginning to look at different ways to extend the L'Arche community, Thomas said. One person is getting support at home through day-to-day assistance. "So the models are changing in response to social change and funding changes, but the essential is that we're all members of this community."

Two core members – Jonathan and Kirsty – attend St. James' Episcopal Church in Leith.

On Thursdays, Kirsty cooks lunch at St. James with the help of community volunteers. She has a passion for cooking, looking through recipe books and planning meals.

All L'Arche communities take mealtimes together very seriously, said Jane Salmonson, coordinator of the L'Arche Overseas Development Fund. "L'Arche is the least likely place where you'll find a TV supper. L'Arche makes something of sharing a meal together [and] the preparation of food."

Core member Jonathan Barraclough, 39, has lived in the Edinburgh community for seven years. Asked what he thought about the community, he responded by simply saying: "good." But his real response was communicated through his wide beaming smile and both thumbs raised in the air. During an ENS reporter's visit, Barraclough clearly enjoyed walking about, pointing at pictures on the wall, shaking people's hands, stopping occasionally for a little dance. He also very happily cleared up the tea, washed the mugs and placed them back in the cupboard.

John Redwood, a Roman Catholic who has been the community leader of L'Arche Edinburgh for six years, said that the experience "helps you loosen up a bit."

He described L'Arche as being on the cutting edge of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. "We live together with quite significant differences," he said. "There is something authentic in this experience."

As in all communities, conflicts sometimes arise. Heenen said she encountered frustrations as well as joys in interactions both with core members and other staff. In conflict, it helped to remember "that everything that you're saying to this person you might as well be saying to Christ," she said.

"I was expecting that my faith would be strengthened, and I definitely think it has been," she said, adding, "There's a healthy and spiritual way to go about conflict, and there's the way most people go about it. … I think living in a faith-based community, every time you came into conflict or every time you had a really joyful moment, it was kind of in the forefront of your mind that it is because God has brought you all together."

New ways to serve
In Atlanta, an ecumenical group including members of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church and with support from the Episcopal diocese's Bishop Neil Alexander has met since 2003 to launch a L'Arche community. The group has located its first house but expects it to take a year to complete renovations and gain state approvals before opening, Armstrong said.

In the meantime, St. Bartholomew's has partnered with the organizing group to host monthly events for adults with disabilities and others, which helps build community and support for L'Arche, he said.

"One of my favorite ones was a family-style contra dance," Armstrong said. "It was really a magical, kingdom-like evening, where everybody participated fully. … The joy of the people with disabilities who were there really was powerful, and it really carried the evening. That's one of the things we find with our core members or with adults with disabilities, is that their relational gifts of their spontaneity or their joy in being with others is often a real strength for our L'Arche communities."

For Armstrong, the lure of those communities proved irresistible. After his initial L'Arche experience in France, he attended graduate school, then returned to L'Arche, where he met his wife. They moved to his hometown of Atlanta, where he taught high school, but then returned to L'Arche in France. They moved back to Atlanta a year ago so he could become executive director of the developing community there.

When he first served as a L'Arche assistant at age 23, he said, "I think I wanted to do great things. But there's something really powerful about these simple relationships and learning to live together and go for walks and to pray together and to cook and eat and forgive. … And of course, in another level, it connects with a lot of questions about faith and a lot of those sort of more serious or hard-to-get-around concepts of the gospel like the Beatitudes."

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