This exchange is part of a longer conversation that I often have had since starting my job at L’Arche.
“I heard you were in seminary. Are you still in school?”
“No. Not really. I am taking online courses and taking a bit of a break to develop myself as a person and as a professional.”
“Oh, that’s good. What are you doing nowadays?”
“I’m working at L’Arche. It’s an intentional community for adults who have developmental disabilities.”
“Hmm…. That has nothing to do with your field of studies.”
Along with facing much discouragement from pursuing L’Arche from the beginning, I still find many people who have attitudes about L’Arche that it is not full time ministry. Often these individuals have never visited L’Arche, had supper in one of our homes, or spent even a few hours with a core member (resident). I’m sure if they had they would have much different views about what L’Arche is.
Since starting L’Arche I often describe it this way to others, “’L’Arche is not a job. It’s a lifestyle.” Yes, I receive a salary, I have to file for taxes, and I have benefits. In many ways it is a job just like every other vocation – it requires tremendous amounts of paperwork and protocol. At the same time, if L’Arche was a job I would have left it probably within my first 2 or 3 months. I don’t think I’d even be contemplating sticking around for the next year or two.
L’Arche is about relationships. L’Arche is about friendships – not just with other assistants on your day off, but also with the core members. L’Arche is also a lifestyle. When you work at L’Arche you live and breathe L’Arche 24/7. Even on my days off I find myself thinking about my house. When I get my weekend off every month I find myself missing the core members and by Saturday night my heart aches and I just can’t wait to get back to see them! They have become so much a part of who I am. They have truly become my family.
Often I find it very difficult to put into words – whether verbal or written – what I live at L’Arche. The truth is that if you are curious, you really have to come and see for yourself! That’s why when I meet up with friends in the Toronto area and they are filled with questions about the nature of my work, I simply invite them over for a dinner. If they’re feeling very adventurous I invite them to one of our chapel services. Almost every friend I’ve invited has taken me up on the offer and afterwards has come out of the experience with a much deeper awareness of what L’Arche truly is and what our mission and vision entails.
In many, many ways (more than you can imagine) the act of my friends visiting L’Arche has deeply cemented our relationship often rooting and growing us as even closer friends than we were before. I really love the fact that because Daybreak is about a 30 minute car ride from Tyndale (where I went to University) that I am able to share this integral part of my life with several of my best friends. I’m also thankful that as I continue to grow, learn, and process L’Arche that I have people outside of L’Arche with whom to process and pray about these things with.
So is L’Arche actually related to my field of studies? I studied peace studies, theology, and religious education. In some ways, the answer would be no. What I’m doing now is more closely related to personal care and in many ways resembles social work. If I really stretch it I could say that with the amount of hours I spend with medical professionals that perhaps I am doing a bit of lay-nursing. In those ways, what I’m doing is not at all related to the preaching, teaching, and leadership that I was training for the last four years in.
Yet, in other ways, L’Arche is a profound ministry – one in which no amount of education could prepare me for. Some people say that whatever you do – whether that be engineering, medicine, or car-washing can be a ministry if you are a Christian. I do not negate that. However, L’Arche is truly a Christian ministry – similar to being a full time pastor or teacher.
In fact, in my very first months at L’Arche I recognized that many of the challenges I face there are similar to the ones I was taught that pastors would face when I was in university and seminary. These struggles include: self-care in ministry, having good boundaries, empathetic listening and so much more. It also includes constantly being alert, being available at any time, and not having the same work schedule all the time.
L’Arche has really taught me how to be flexible and how to take care of myself even amidst a job which can sometimes be very intense and overwhelming. The nice thing about L’Arche is that you are never truly alone. We work in teams and we have a leadership structure – this means that when I do start feeling a little burnt out I have people who help take on the stress with me and we help each other out.
So, now after six months of living in a L’Arche community when people challenge me by suggesting that L’Arche is not ministry, I challenge them back. I challenge them to spend an overnight in our community, to begin volunteering with people who have disabilities, or to even just begin reading Henri Nouwen or Jean Vanier. Just like L’Arche’s mandate, I know that I cannot be a cure for the way our ableistic society functions, however, I do seek to be a symbol or a sign. I want to be one more light on the journey that challenges the way our culture has thought for years.
I invite all of you to come and see. I invite all of you to journey with me in the new year and to become involved with your local congregations and schools to find ways that we can bring more inclusion to our culture and inform others of the various gifts and strengths people with developmental disabilities bring to us all.
Deborah Ferber is a Field Associate and blogger for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. She wrote this post in December 2013, while living at L'Arche Daybreak in Toronto.