MELANIE EXCITEDLY TOOK MY HAND and led me from table to table. "And there's a bear and a monkey and a tiger and Dottie bought them all at the thrift store and washed them and here they are in the ark."
The ballooned and flowered dining room held 20 tables for the fiesta. The centerpiece of each table was a small stuffed animal, nestled in a construction-paper ark and tethered to a balloon on a long string. What a fitting symbol for this 25th anniversary of the L'Arche (meaning "the ark") communities, an international movement committed to joining the lives of persons with and without physical and mental handicaps in community.
Melanie is one of the newest members of the L'Arche home in Washington, D.C. Her exuberance made her literally dance with delight at the celebration. She is 24 years old and has both mental retardation and mental illness. Throughout the room, friends from L'Arche houses throughout the United States greeted one another -- aware that while distance separates them physically, they are all part of this special celebration of community.
Suddenly, Jean Vanier, the founder of this remarkable movement, arrived. As he came through the door -- a tall, white-haired, broad-faced man with the widest grin I've ever seen -- a dozen handicapped persons rushed to greet him, hold his hand, and touch him. The spontaneity of it took my breath away. Not even a "staged" arrival could have aroused that reception. As he threw back his head in a hearty laugh, the circle closed around him in a chorus of laughter and embrace.