During the offering at the L’Arche USA 50th anniversary interfaith prayer service, a woman with disabilities stood before the packed National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and sang “Amazing Grace” with talent and passion. The performance was meant to be a solo, but that’s not how things work at L’Arche. By “How sweet the sound,” the whole community was singing along.
L’Arche is a community network of people with and without intellectual disabilities sharing life together — meals, worship, chores, and yes, songs. But even with a 50-year history and 146 communities in 45 different countries, many people have never heard of L’Arche, an organization that engages in “advocacy on behalf of those often on the margins of society” and “raises awareness of the gifts of persons with intellectual disabilities.”
According to Tina Bovermann, the new national leader of L’Arche USA, many people describe L’Arche as a best kept secret.
“But we don’t want to be the best kept secret,” Bovermann quickly added, “because we have a message. And that message is this: get in touch with people who are different, people who are other than you, and you will be transformed.”
Krista Tippett, host of the successful podcast On Being, is one of those transformed people. She described to Sojourners how her radio pilgrimage to an Iowa L’Arche community and an interview with L’Arche founder and Templeton Prize winner Jean Vanier influenced her way of thinking about Christianity:
“What I love about L’Arche is that it is a living manifestation of some of the most paradoxical and lofty ideals of Christianity — strength and weakness, light and darkness — that our culture and some of our churches can barely grasp. It’s very countercultural, very paradoxical. But it’s embodied at L’Arche—lived and breathed in an everyday way.”
After a flower procession and a dramatization of the origin story of L’Arche, Tippett joined in on the 50th-anniversary celebrations by publicly interviewing four L’Arche community members.
When Tippett asked Eileen, a D.C. L’Arche community member living with intellectual disabilities, what she loves most about living in community, Eileen answered, “Sweeping, cooking, dancing, and looking for pennies.”
In other words, the day-to-day relationship stuff.
In his interview with Krista Tippett, Jean Vanier said, “When you admire people, you put them on pedestals. When you love people, you want to be together.”
The first time Vanier ever encountered people living with disabilities, he was on a tour of asylums with a priest. He was horrified to learn that the 80 men in an asylum south of Paris did nothing but walk around in circles for hours and take compulsory naps every day. He could tell they wanted more.
“So really, the first meeting I had with people with disabilities, what touched me was their cry for relationship,” Vanier explained.
National leader Bovermann explained that “people in L’Arche tend to celebrate a lot.” They call the pennies on the ground a blessing. They hug readily and fervently during the passing of the peace. During the interfaith prayer service, one L’Arche community member gave every speaker, prayer, song, and general announcement a standing ovation. And why not? Celebration and mundanity is just one more essential paradox to the life of L’Arche, and if we let it, Christianity as a whole.
But undoubtedly, there is a controlled chaos to community life, and L’Arche communities are no exception. Bovermann explained, “There is this positive, open energy that we have in L’Arche. But we’re also messy, and we’re human beings, and we fight and we crawl.”
And sometimes we don’t know what to say to one another. And sometimes we forget to sweep, don’t want to cook, see dancing as frivolous, and never think the pennies will add up to enough.
At times like that, it’s important to remember the words of Jean Vanier, “L’Arche is not a solution; it is a sign.”
And just what is L’Arche a sign of? Maybe community, or maybe the truth that every living person has gifts to offer the world. And maybe it is a sign of what Jean Vanier recently identified as God’s dream for humanity: “The gradual realization that [together] we can become one. But it’s a long road.”
To walk the road with L’Arche, check out their website to learn how you can support or join in on their beautiful, messy, weak, strong, mundane, joyous community experiment.
Jenna Barnett is an Editorial Assistant for Sojourners. Follow her on Twitter @jennacbarnett.