Monday, December 10, 2012

Count Your Pennies: L'Arche USA


By Kate Flannery

CVN staff in the living room of the L'Arche community
When Eileen stops to collect another penny, L’Arche Development Associate Mari Andrew knows it’s a good day. 

“What are you going to do when you become rich?” Andrew remembers asking on one of their walks. 

“Move to Africa,” Eileen responds. 

“What are you going to do when you get there?” Andrew prods.

“Collect pennies,” Eileen says matter-of-factly. 

Andrew smiles recounting the story, calling it a “teaching moment.” The L’Arche community on Ontario Street is full of them. 

I walked by it the first time. I was with my co-workers in Adams Morgan on a Tuesday afternoon, and the building just seemed like a regular house in D.C. No sign. No banner. Nothing to say it was home for members of a faith community, both with and without intellectual disabilities, living side by side in solidarity. L’Arche USA would probably read this and smile. The fact that the house doesn’t particularly stand out means they’re doing things right. The non-profit works to create a world of co-existence that doesn’t stick out in society. And it seems to be succeeding. 

Walking into the house with other Catholic Volunteer Network staff only confirmed what the outside brick suggested: we were entering into a home. I saw colorful art on the walls, comfy chairs, a piano, pictures of residents, a kitchen bustling with activity. 

Mari Andrew discussing L'Arche USA's mission and history
“We pray together; we celebrate together; we grow together. We have dinner every night,” explained Mari Andrew, welcoming our team for an afternoon. 

Founded by Jean Vanier in France in 1964, L’Arche International is committed to forming lasting relationships between those with and without intellectual disabilities, providing professional services to those with intellectual disabilities and advocating for their acceptance and equality in our society. Those with varying degrees of intellectual disabilities, called core members, live in mutuality with assistants in homes around the world. Assistants, twenty years or older, live with core members, build relationships honoring their dignity and offer core members physical, emotional and spiritual support. But the relationship is mutual. 

When he formed the first L’Arche community almost five decades ago, Jean Vanier saw mutuality first-hand. At the beginning, Vanier thought he would be the one making a difference in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. While this was true, he had overlooked a very important detail: that they would also make a difference in his. This was the birth of Vanier's deep understanding of the importance of mutual relationships. Mutuality is central to L’Arche’s success. There is no patient-caregiver relationship, only a community whose relationships are rooted in love—a home where everyone gives and everyone receives. And all are invited to the table. 

“There’s a huge difference in showing up to give someone medicine as part of your job and giving medicine to your friend and roommate,” Andrew explained.

Founded on this understanding, L'Arche is present in about 40 countries around the world.  The Ontario house in Washington, D.C. is one of four in the area and one of 140 globally.  For the core members, this will be their lifelong home. For assistants, it may last as little as a year. But regardless of the time spent with L’Arche, no one seems to leave without being transformed in some way.

The needs of some are physical: help brushing their teeth or using the bathroom. The needs of others are spiritual: a prayer life, time for reflection, a supportive community. For some, it is emotional: a friend that cares, help opening up, practicing patience, learning how to be present.

CVN staff outside the house on Ontario
Andrew has learned this first-hand.

“[Eileen] does what she loves to do every single day...and she would do that anywhere that she was,” Andrew explains, referencing the penny story. 

“I’m always thinking [about] where else I could be, what else I could be doing. Eileen has really taught me to be grounded and to do what I love every day, no matter where I am.”

This is what Andrew means by “teaching moments.” 

This is L’Arche: men and women, young and old, with disabilities and without—all seeking the healing, hope and love of Jesus under the same roof, one penny at a time.