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At Kansas L’Arche community love is the not-so-secret ingredient

Overland Park, Kan.

In many ways L’Arche Heartland could be any home. The comfortable duplex sits on a corner lot in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kan. There’s a long and narrow lawn in back and a pleasant patio. Inside, George, 30, is playing a video game on the computer. Several people are clustered in the kitchen talking. Ray, 20, is hunched over a keyboard listening to music while Matt, a gentle-looking man of 31 dressed in blue pajamas, wanders through the living room with damp hair. Rich Folker calls him over. “I just want to see if you got the soap out of your hair,” Rich tells Matt.

It’s a small moment, cozy and familial, and it highlights what l’Arche is all about: connecting people and creating home. Begun in France in 1964, L’Arche brings together those with disabilities and those without to live together in community. Ray, intent on moving his hands together so the fingers join up exactly, is blind and autistic. Matt and George, and the other three disabled members of the L’Arche Heartland community, are mentally handicapped. Rich Folker is one of several assistants who live with them and share their lives. Like other L’Arche communities -- the word l’arche means the ark in French -- the house in Kansas seeks to be a sign of hope that people of differing intellectual capacities, religion, social origin and culture can bridge the differences that divide them and live in harmony.

It’s a radical idea, certainly a challenging one, or at least it appears that way to an outsider. The assistants at L’Arche Heartland say it’s not as daunting as it may sound.

“A lot of people look at L’Arche and they see only the oddity and the difficulty. It’s much more normal than it is difficult,” says Dink Smith. Divorced after a marriage of 17 years and the father of two, Smith said being married with children was more difficult than his life at L’Arche is.

“I think this is the easiest job in the world,” said Smith, who nonetheless acknowledges that situations arise that test his patience. Smith, who joined L’Arche Heartland in 1997 shortly after converting to Roman Catholicism, said he didn’t so much find L’Arche as L’Arche found him. It’s a calling, he said, and for him a long-term calling, one that accentuates both his strengths and his weaknesses. He keeps on his desk a scrap of paper that says, “I come last” to remind himself of his priorities.

“The less we try to impose our lifestyles on the community, the better community exists,” Smith said. Like others at the house in Kansas, Smith said L’Arche is not so much about caring for disabled people as living with them.

The emphasis on community is probably what sets L’Arche most apart from other programs for the mentally and developmentally disabled. On the Web site of L’Arche USA is a quote from L’Arche founder Jean Vanier: “People are yearning to discover community. We have had enough of loneliness, independence and competition.”

Assistants at L’Arche describe a slower pace of life and a noncompetitive atmosphere. Lisa Geraghty, an assistant for the past two years at L’Arche Heartland, said working at L’Arche has given her inner peace and a gratitude for small things that she used to take for granted.

Unconditionally accepted

“You can be unconditionally accepted and you accept unconditionally the core members,” she said, referring to the disabled members of the community. Geraghty, 25, said because of L’Arche she has grown in gratitude both for her own capabilities and for the core members who she said may not have the intellect but have a heart that she sometimes doesn’t have.

Rich Folker used the word “honorable” to describe living and working at L’Arche. “A lot is demanded of you, but it’s love that is demanded of you,” Folker said.

Today a worldwide network of homes for the disabled, L’Arche began more by accident by intent when Vanier and French Dominican Fr. Thomas Philippe invited two disabled men to live with them in Trosly-Breuil, France. (See related story.) Vanier and Philippe’s impulse was to help two handicapped men, not to found a movement. An international movement has nonetheless grown out of that initial venture, with today more than 110 communities in 30 countries. In whatever country it exists, the mission of L’Arche is to create homes where relationships can be nurtured, to reveal the unique value and vocation of each person, and to change society by modeling community. Vanier, who became the administrator and chief architect of L’Arche, with Philippe primarily serving as a spiritual adviser, was convinced that disabled and non-disabled people have much to offer each other, that living in community can be nourishing for both and, in fact, transformative.

Indeed, as much as L’Arche is a product of a gospel vision that identifies mentally disabled people as the poor and dispossessed, it’s also a critique of contemporary society. “The values of efficiency, power, money and pleasure have become all important in our world today,” wrote Vanier in his book An Ark for the Poor: the Story of L’Arche. In a success- and production-oriented society, the mentally handicapped are often rejected and despised, but Vanier held they are also spiritual teachers who can communicate to others what it means to be truly human.

“If you look at our society and what our society values, it’s very different from what you do, have and live in community with disabled people,” said Kathy Newham, director of L’Arche Heartland.

There are 13 L’Arche communities in the United States. With six disabled members and six assistants, the home in Overland Park is one of the smallest communities. Newham said she doesn’t do a lot of recruiting for assistants. People usually find her, she said, either through word of mouth or by reading what Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen wrote about L’Arche. Vanier has written numerous books about the rewards and challenges of living with the disabled. Nouwen, a Dutch priest who taught first at Yale Divinity School and then at Harvard, joined a L’Arche community in Canada and wrote about it in the books The Road to Daybreak and Adam, God’s Beloved.

Revealing our own poverty

Remarkably, Nouwen described a feeling of at-homeness at the L’Arche community of Daybreak that he had never felt at Yale or Harvard or other places he had lived. The popular spiritual writer spent the last 10 years of his life as pastor at Daybreak and described his own journey toward healing in the company of the mentally handicapped. After 37 years of living in schools where cooking and many other tasks were taken care of, Nouwen wrote that family life at Daybreak forced him to realize his lack of the most ordinary skills while the wounded people at Daybreak continually confronted him with his own brokenness.

“Handicapped people are not only poor; they also reveal to us our own poverty. Their primal call is an anguished cry: ‘Do you love me?’ and ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ When we are confronted with that cry, so visible in those who have no capacity to hide behind their intellectual defenses, we are forced to look at our own terrible loneliness and our own primal cry,” Nouwen wrote.

Musing about the panic that requests for pancakes or omelets at breakfast instilled in him, Nouwen wrote wryly, “Writing books and giving lectures seemed like easy hills to climb compared to the mountainous complexities of daily living. No wonder that I soon gave up the idea that some of us are handicapped and others not.”

The assistants at L’Arche Heartland receive a modest stipend, supported, as are other L’Arche expenses, by government funds and private donations. Newham says money, or lack of it, is not the reason why people come or do not come to L’Arche. At the community in Overland Park, assistants tend to cluster into two categories, Newham said: either young people in their 20s who are trying things out, or people in their 40s who are reassessing their lives and what to do with them. In addition to the long-term assistants, volunteers sometimes show up for shorter periods of time. Sam Shaw, 22, a recent graduate of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., had come to L’Arche Heartland for three months. Debbie Ruiz, 43, had traveled to Kansas from the Philippines to offer several months of service.

“We need long-term people for stability and we need young people here for life. It makes a nice combination,” Newham says.

Initially Roman Catholic in inspiration, L’Arche is nondenominational but retains a strong emphasis on spirituality based on Vanier’s vision of a Christian community founded on the Beatitudes. At L’Arche Heartland there is prayer night once a week. Retreats that blend activities with spirituality are some of the most popular outings for the group. In almost every case, conversations with the assistants brought to light a strong religious faith that led them to join L’Arche.

“If you look at it as just a job, it’s not going to be rewarding. There has to be a bigger hook, and that bigger hook is a spiritual life,” says Folker, who decided to become an assistant after doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Earlier Folker had worked with brain-damaged people at Goodwill Industries and with AIDS patients.

He and the other assistants as well as Newham talk much less about what they contribute to the disabled core members than what they gain from them.

“The things we learn every day from people society considers to have disabilities is amazing,” Newham said. “You learn the joy in simple things; you learn not to worry about so many things; you learn that innocence is a beautiful thing, that there is a profound love and a very pure love that we don’t experience in other places in society.”

Living with the disabled day after day, assistants say the distinctions between those with and without mental handicaps dwindle.

Just another friend

“After a while you stop thinking about their disabilities. This is just George, just another friend,” says Geraghty.

On a warm fall evening, the community at L’Arche Heartland gathered outside on the patio to take advantage of the fine weather. Matt and George threw a ball back and forth on the backyard lawn. Pat and David, two of the other core members, discussed plans for Halloween. David had ideas for what everyone should dress up as. Dink Smith was going to be Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”; Rich Folker the scarecrow in that movie; Pat a punk rocker; Newham would be Kathy Lee Gifford; and David himself a hillbilly.

Folker had prepared beef stew for dinner, and a tempting aroma from the kitchen drifted out to the patio through the screened doors.

“I can’t change the world, but I can cook dinner. I can’t stop the war in Iraq, but I can be with these guys,” Folker said. “It’s a very rewarding experience. These guys are like living prayers.”

Folker calls being at L’Arche his way of vicariously living in a monastery. “But it’s more fun,” he adds.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002