Life in a L'Arche community

By Jody Gabriel

l'arche 1MY wife Jackie and I arrived in L’Arche Winnipeg in Canada on St Patrick’s Day in 1994. We were collected from the greyhound by some members of the community and taken to our new home where that night happened to be a ‘Community Night.’

The whole of L’Arche Winnipeg descended on our new home, where we received a very warm welcome if slightly overwhelming. Overwhelming because it is a community that is a home for people with learning disabilities or “developmental disabilities” as they say in Canada. Frankly, people who struggle to communicate, who are overly friendly, who don’t always understand personal space, who behave oddly and can be unsettling. People who we later learned are such a gift and free fountain of God’s love.

We were there to share life with and support people with learning disabilities to live ordinary lives. Winnipeg is on the prairies of Canada. Hot with mosquitoes in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. It was so cold that you couldn’t run too hard outside because your lungs would freeze. We had to plug the vehicles into the mains when not in use to heat the engine slightly, otherwise the temperature variance if starting the engine from cold could crack the engine block.

larche2People came to work as assistants in L’Arche from all over the world. We were alongside people from Egypt, Sierra Leone, Germany, Poland, France, USA, another English assistant, as well as people from all over Canada. There was a high proportion of young people. We were 21 years old when we arrived.

There is so much to say, but I will limit myself to talking around the L’Arche Winnipeg mission statement, which has rooted in me, though I may not be 100% accurate remembering the wording:

1. To create community where faithful relationships based on forgiveness and celebration are nurtured.

Community is hard and living with people who wear their brokenness so honestly is hard because they become a mirror for your own hurts and dark areas that you try and cover up. Learning that forgiveness is a foundation building block, meaning that my mistakes and unfaithfulness end up becoming community foundation. That’s grace!

Kevin, who was part of our home, created deep friendships, which meant it took a lot of time for him to accept you and when it was time for you to leave the community it was really hard for him.
Our parties and gatherings were so good - so much acceptance and joy to receive other people.

2. To reveal the unique value and vocation of each person.

Bob who lived with us couldn’t form words properly but could make his own sounds and understand what you said to him.
There was a panel of light switches in our house and if you asked Bob to turn a light on, he would be there forever with different lights going on and off, unable to figure it out. Having said all this, Bob was the mature grounded one in the house. When we welcomed a new person with disabilities, who was also mentally unwell and whose behaviour was very challenging, it was Bob who had the emotional maturity and who seemed like the strong one in the house. He was someone you could lean on somehow.

L’Arche meant that people with learning disabilities could find their place and be their best. However, these people with disabilities, some of whom had previously been sent away to live in big institutions away from society, have an amazing gift to welcome ‘capable’ people from all over the world, and help them to shed their pretence and realise their real value and worth.
You have to slow down and enter another person’s world only to discover the presence of God there.

3. To be a small sign of how things should be.

larche3Now more than ever we need L’Arche Communities to be themselves and show how human priorities should really be. That God should choose such people to be such good signposts to Him is inspiring. L’Arche is a living interpretation of the Gospel and the Bible. A musician interprets a piece of music by playing it. For me it is much more important to live out the Bible than a dry academic understanding of it.

We lived in L’Arche Winnipeg for two years over 20 years ago. It is a bit strange to be focusing on an experience from so long ago, but it is good to reflect on how important an experience it was, and how strongly it formed our lives for these last 20 years.
larche4Before L’Arche we had other community experiences of family, growing up in Cornwall, and of Wakefield Baptist Church as students.
After L’Arche we returned to Wakefield Baptist Church and have made our home here in Wakefield ever since. This is probably my cue to talk about all the wonderful things we have achieved since returning and how marvellous and holy we are - two lovely kids, still married, an ecumenical ministry for people with learning disabilities in Wakefield, preaching and leading at WBC, forming and running an arts charity for people with learning disabilities, a recent performance at Wakefield Cathedral, but what’s really wonderful?
When somebody asked L’Arche founder Jean Vanier how he coped with so many needy people he said that in them he finds Jesus, and Jesus gives him life. L’Arche taught me that God is present in the most unlikely places, where you might think God shouldn’t and wouldn’t be.
The successes and failures since L'Arche seem to be a measure of how well I have done in continuing to seek God in people and following in the way of love shown to me by those wonderful people.

Knowing that God is present in all, even if they don't realise it or fight against it. Knowing that through the Beatitudes Jesus teaches that God is present in a special way to the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the peacemakers, those who hunger for righteousness, the pure in heart, the merciful and those who are persecuted. 
Jesus came to us in a very special way at Christmas that was unexpected by all but a few people. I would like to declare that the song Wonderful Disguise by Mike Scott is actually a Christmas song and encourage you to look it up and soak it in.

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