by Chris Milner
Lessons from L’Arche: “A community where people with and without disabilities share life together”
I’m thinking,” Barbara muses. “I’m thinking.”
“What are you thinking about, Barbara?”
“I’m thinking that I want to live with Stacy forever!”
Oh, that we could all find this kind of acceptance and love in our lives! This scene played out at the all-important dinner conversation at L’Arche, Portland. L’Arche is a worldwide community of homes that exists to meet the needs of people with disabilities. I became acquainted with L’Arche through the writings of Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. All of the core members in this home have intellectual disabilities, the population most often served by L’Arche. I had the incredible privilege of spending some time this Fall with four core members and their assistants as part of my sabbatical project as a professor at Westmont College. The conversation described above took place between two women who live in this community together. I left L’Arche with lessons humbly learned and a desire to share this experience with members of my own church family.
While there, I experienced powerful lessons about becoming a “welcoming presence” in the lives of others, particularly those with disabilities. Most churches, ours included, have sought to remove physical barriers that prevent full participation and acceptance for all. We have ramps leading into our sanctuaries, access to the stage for wheelchairs, help during Communion and devices available for those with hearing impairments. What we sometimes fail to consider, though, are the attitudinal barriers that can cause more pain and exclusion than physical barriers. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, describes this best: What I am discovering is that the greatest suffering is not that man with the handicap, not that boy who is blind, who is deaf and severely brain damaged, but the greatest pain is in those who reject them.
How do we do create these barriers? First of all, we do this with our language. Scholars in the area of disability studies have encouraged us for over a decade to use “person-first” language. When we refer to “that blind person” or “that intellectually disabled” person, we focus on their disability and not who they are as people. Just as you or I would not want to be labeled by the many things we cannot do, people with disabilities deserve to have their identity rooted in their individuality, not in generalizations. Some might hesitate at this attempt at being “politically correct,” but it is more accurately described as being “respectively correct.” If we can do this, “people with disabilities,” not “disabled people” will feel more welcomed in our church.
My first week at L’Arche was restless and awkward. What should I say or do? How do I interact with people with intellectual disabilities? The assistants serving at L’Arche became my mentors. To watch them in action is to watch the hand of God care for the most vulnerable of His creation. They modeled for me how to be present with the core members.
Sitting beside a core member, I learned that sharing a quiet moment has great value. In doing so, I am communicating, “I like being with you.” People with disabilities can offer us the gift of patience/steadfastness in this fast-paced world. Simply “being” and not “doing” can benefit all of us.
Reinders writes, Despite the success they have found in strengthening their status in the public sphere, people with disabilities – particularly intellectual disabilities – experience loneliness and isolation in the sphere of their personal lives. In our church community, each of us, young or old, can provide the gift of friendship, especially to those we perceive to be different from us. Invite someone with a disability out to the park, a meal or for a walk.
It is important to teach our children to respect and embrace difference. We struggle with this because we have grown up in a world that has not modeled seamless integration of people with disabilities in our lives. Invite a person from Young Life Capernaum to your home for a visit. Model to your children how to be comfortable around disability by encouraging interaction, whether in the neighborhood or in a restaurant, when the opportunity presents itself to engage in natural conversation.
In Luke 14:13, Jesus tells us whom we should invite to our banquet table. Vanier reflects on this passage and reminds us: If you become a friend of somebody who is excluded, you are doing a work of unity. You are bringing people together. You are doing God’s work.
Reinders, H. S. (2008). Receiving the gift of friendship: Profound disability, theological anthropology, and ethics. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub.
Vanier, J. (1995). Seeing God in others. Catholic Education Resource Center. Retrieved from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/social_justice/sj00196.html
Vanier, J. (2008). The fragility of L’Arche and the friendship of God. In S. Hauerwas & J. Vanier (Authors), Living gently in a violent world: The prophetic witness of weakness (pp.21-42). Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books.