After finishing winter finals, I had to figure out what I was doing for Spring Break before heading out to Santiago, and if you knew anything about me, you would know that indecision is normally my kryptonite. While I’ve never regretted a decision in my life, I consistently find myself agonizing over decisions, weighing each option until they all seem equal, whether it is deciding where to go abroad or picking classes for the quarter. However, for the first time in a while, a decision seemed clear, but almost counterintuitive. The options were as follows: Go to Patagonia with some friends, go to Cabo with the friends, spend time with family or travel to Seattle to spend a week with the Catholic community visiting L’Arche, an International Federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs and support networks with people who have intellectual disabilities. So, while I had always dreamt of trekking Patagonia and was filled with a mindset of seeking out adventures, my heart was set on visiting L’Arche. After talking to two friends, Clare Moffatt ’18 and Matt Gonzalez ’14, who had gone in past years and were transformed by the experience, and with a head filled with many questions and very few answers, I decided that Patagonia could wait.
From the evening I walked in the doors of that house, I could tell the place was a spiritual gift. L’Arche, which translates to Ark in French, was founded by Jean Vanier in 1964, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, when he invited two men to live with him after becoming aware of the squalor and the human rights violations of thousands placed in institutions for the rest of their life. Founded on the idea that everyone deserves dignity, respect and community, around 150 L’Arche communities are active in 35 countries around the world. Assistants generally stay for a short-term period (one to five years), living in and supporting the community, while many core members (those with disabilities) choose to spend the rest of their lives at L’Arche.
One of the easiest things to see about L’Arche is an unmatchable sense of community. Walking through L’Arche houses, you can sense the spirit of all the past love and kindness in these core members, some of whom have been in the community for 30 or 40 years. Thus, while assistants and visitors come and go, the core members open up their community with open arms, allowing any friend or visitor to make themselves at home. The second night, when we were all gathered together at the dinner table, Sally, a woman who has lived in L’Arche for 40 years, poured me and herself a glass of water and promptly challenged me to a water chugging contest – her favorite tradition. Before I knew it, her glass was empty, a look of pure joy was on her face, and I had lost, although the table was overwhelmed with laughter and joy at the sight of Sally kicking my butt in water drinking. In so many of these core members, I saw the history and memory of the past, and could visibly see the impact that the community had had on their lives.
Another incredible aspect of L’Arche is the remarkable honesty and unique way of living. Often because of their disability, many of the core members at L’Arche were incredibly outwardly loving and frank, having no filter, whether it was a core member telling everyone about her love of fire trucks or going around to each person on the dinner table and telling us individually that we looked beautiful. This openness and honesty was even more palpable because of the way of life it encourages. The pace of life at L’Arche is remarkably slow and simple. The day-to-day life is very easy going, and the home is often fast asleep by 10 p.m. This slow pace of life allowed deep connections to truly thrive, as the extra time truly allowed me to pull off the layers of many assistants, core members and other Stanford students. I found this especially poignant when talking to Robin, one of the deaf core members. While I at first thought it was going to be difficult to communicate with him, it was only after spending time with his funny, easygoing self that I realized that I was the one who couldn’t communicate with him, rather than the other way around.
With every act of love that I experienced that week, I was filled with more and more hope that another mentality is possible and that communities have great or terrible potential. Whether it was Dave, a core member, interlocking hands with me without warning to support him one afternoon, or participating in a foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday – participating in one of the most humbling acts I have ever participated in – I witnessed acts of love on a daily basis. I came to L’Arche in search of understanding many of the big questions (i.e. what do we live for, do we matter, what is my significance); however, many of the answers to the most profound questions were right next to me that whole week. By seeing the past legacy of those who had impacted these core members and had passed away, I was shown firsthand the impact that a community can have on someone. Thus, just as a community and a culture predicated on fear, mistrust and ignorance has often brought out some of the worst of humanity, I found in L’Arche that a community and culture based on unity and love can bring out so much greatness in all.
L’Arche is not a complicated place. It is predicated on the idea that living in community is important to one’s life and offers the idea that each person has their own gift to give, whether that is something as small as merely setting the table or something more intricate like donating thousands of dollars to keeping the house open. Thus, living in L’Arche for more than one week may require a great amount of patience, as living in any communities does, and may not work for all. But it proved to me that some of the greatest possible gifts in the world (and perhaps even God) could be seen in the image of these core members, the laughs shared and the connections made between all members of a truly diverse community.
Contact Kyle D’Souza at [email protected].