On a recent Sunday morning I was blown away by a radio interview of Jean Vanier and his L'Arche Movement. Shamefully I must admit that although a special educator for many years, I had never before heard about this humanist and his epic movement where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and share their lives together as peers. Upon the conclusion of the show I started frantically researching his mission; I was on an Adrenalin high of sorts because, finally, I had chanced upon my God for this was the kind of religion and the type of God I had been searching for all my life. I was ecstatic to find out that one of the 147 communities in 35 countries was practically in my backyard. What were the chances-- I happily meditated?
I wasted no time and sent two emails right away; one a link to Krista Tippett's interview to my boss, Dr. William Conard, who I most respectfully consider my wise, spiritual friend, and the other to the New England L'Arche office with the hope that someone would be nice enough to respond. Within hours a warm email greeted me saying how much the House would love to have us over; no question was ever raised as to the purpose of this visit, which baffled us somewhat. Soon, another email followed asking if we would like to stay for dinner and prayer afterwards. I don't know who was more excited-- Vanessa Henry, Bill or I! The communication that followed was welcoming, pleasant and always kindly worded. I had a good feeling but had no idea what to expect.
Two weeks after the email exchanges, Bill and I made the hour-long trip to the Boston suburb of Haverhill. We arrived at a small nonchalant office in the heart of the city and were soon greeted by a lovely, lively lady who introduced herself as Vanessa. We nervously made our way into her office where she took time patiently explaining the L'Arche movement. I was fascinated that someone would actually take up so much time to spend with two total strangers visiting out of sheer curiosity-- something that has become a rarity in our fast-paced, time-centric society. Our introduction to the L'Arche mission was everything that Jean Vanier had outlined in his interview- in practice. I was thrilled!
During our conversation, we realized that all three of us had a most uncommon thing in common- besides being educators, we had all been to Calcutta, India; I had grown up there, Bill had volunteered with Mother Theresa after college and Vanessa had gone to L'Arche, Kolkata, on a recent retreat. We all had joyous stories to share about the City of Joy and felt somewhat connected because of our shared experiences in a far away, now alien land.
During the course of our conversation, Vanessa mentioned something that made us pause and think. When asked what had drawn her to L'Arche, she answered that she had started out as a Teacher in the Baltimore School District but was frustrated with the constant futile task of balancing work with family; here at L'Arche the two blended seamlessly together and she never had to choose one over the other. (In fact soon thereafter we ran into the House Nurse, a sweet, compassionate care-giver, lovingly known as "mama" by the residents who just happened to be Vanessa's mom). Afterwards Bill and I spoke about how, in contrast, we constantly compartmentalize our lives and try, in vain, to keep our personal and professional lives separate. How fortunate are Vanessa and the L'Arche folks who never have to choose one over the other!
After an hour of discussion and explanation of the L'Arche philosophy, it was now time to visit one of the four houses in the area--the Gandhi House-- to meet with the core members, some of whom had been with the community since its inception some 30 years ago.
Gandhi House lived up to its name--it turned out to be of the most peaceful places I have ever been to. What stood out above everything was its sheer simplicity. Four core members and three assistants, all adults, varying in ages from 21 to 58 live in the house. Each core member has a diagnosed intellectual disability and the "Assistants" are there to help them lead their lives. Fran, Tom, Dan and Jimmy, each more fascinating than the other, once again made me acutely aware of the thin line that lies between what is accepted by society as "normal" and that which is abnormalized as "unacceptable". It is nothing more than sheer chance or the luck of the draw that determines a tiny anomaly, which in turn makes a colossal difference in how we turn out. Yet those of us who are lucky enough to have all our faculties intact (at least for now) are so judgmental and unaccepting of those who don't. This irrational intolerance is undoubtedly the bigger disability and the greater tragedy in all of this.
After leisurely introductions, an unhurried tour of the house and trying to get to know each other casually, we helped prepare dinner- a simple meal of sautéed onions, peppers and shrimp served over noodles with an accompanying salad of finely chopped fruits and vegetables. It was Fran's meal choice as well as her turn to assist in the kitchen that night; gradually she began to open up and let us help her, giving explicit instructions. It was a pleasure to work with her given how much pride she took in a job well done.
Earlier we watched Tom, an elderly man lost in his own world, who is non-verbal but with serious facial & verbal tics, set the table-- one spoon at a time. It was almost as if time had stopped at Gandhi House; there was no rush, no need to hurry; the only thing that was all-important was that very moment and the joy that was part of that moment.
I watched Bill deeply engaged in conversation with one of the Assistants who also happened to be the night's cook- Jane, a soft-spoken woman from Kenya who has been with the mission for 10 years although she had "only signed up for six months" many moons ago. At one point as I saw Bill and Jane profoundly immersed in sharing life stories, I smiled. How relaxed he seemed from the ordinarily deeply stressed Dr. Conard- the Principal who ran the all-important middle school with its myriad of unending problems. At the same time, everything that ordinarily has the enormous capacity to cause stress unforgivingly, seemed powerless as we watched Fran, Tom, Jimmy and Dan do their simple, daily chores with utmost importance and paramount sincerity.
As Vanessa tried to take leave to get back to her office, Fran put her head on her bosom, wrapped her arms gently around her shoulders and begged her to stay for dinner. She would not take "no" for an answer. In my head I tried (unsuccessfully) to think back to a time when someone had begged me that sincerely to share a meal without any expectation. Of course Vanessa conceded and Fran, a woman in her fifties but with the innocence of a mere child, started beaming from ear to ear; such a simple, selfless pleasure but the smile that broke out was priceless.
While getting plates out of the cabinet, I grabbed one with a birthday cake, candles, cracks and the words "Happy Birthday" etched on it. As I pushed it away, reasoning out loud that a birthday plate would most certainly be out of place, Vanessa smiled and said: "Nothing matches here; in fact this plate always makes someone very happy!" I thought about the lack of vanity embedded in that simple statement; would we in our perfect worlds, ever be caught with mismatched plates especially when we have guests over? On the contrary, in our impeccably construed worlds everything superficial needs to match even if the heart does not. Never before that day had I seen a more imperfectly set table but more perfectly matched human connection. It was sublime.
The shared dinner experience was incredibly powerful. From serving the food one at a time, taking into genuine consideration the needs of each member (and guest), patience was the operative word. Everyone waited when someone pondered over which salad dressing to pick and pour with never an unkind word to rush another because haste and harshness did not exist here. At one point Tom spilled his coffee all over the table; Annika, the young Assistant from Syracuse (who had heard about the L'Arche movement in one of her Psychology classes and decided to give it a try) responded instantly with the simple words: "Would you like some more, Tom?" Tom nodded and Annika left her dinner plate and proceeded to the kitchen to make him more, exactly the way she had before, pouring generous amounts of milk because "Tom likes his coffee a certain way." What would I have done in a moment like that when the table was filled with dinner guests and one of my children spoiled the harmony, I thought. My instant reaction would certainly not have been as patient or kind- I shamefully admitted to myself. Yet kindness is the very lifeblood of the L'Arche movement.
Fran had excitedly talked about taking left-overs for lunch ever since we started cooking and when Jane gave her the bowl of noodles after dinner was over, she made sure that she packed a lunch for herself as well as her friend Dan complete with a can of Coke and a bag of Cheeze-its. Looking out for each other is a way of life at L'Arche-- we found out. How blessed were these people with little or no family left to have such amazing relationships! How unfortunate that many of us with intact families never get to experience genuine, selfless relationships such as these!
After dinner, it was time for nightly prayers and Dan, transformed into the star DJ. What amazed me was the level of independence and the will to make free choices provided to everyone; there never was unwarranted advice because it was a true partnership and no one was above another. Everyone joined hands to pray and afterwards there was the opportunity to say a prayer--silently or out loud. Even I, who hardly ever pray collectively, felt that the whole experience was nothing short of mesmerizing because it came from the heart without any need to impress. It was full-fledged faith in action.
We learned that dinner is always simple but just as elaborate in its rituals every night and always experienced together. Meals on the weekend are also communal but breakfast during the week depends on an individual member's schedule as most of them leave for sheltered workshops at different times during the course of the morning. There were fascinating stories about mundane weekend trips for shopping as well as more lively ones to Dunkin' Donuts after Sunday Church services. The casual, light-hearted conversation continued after dinner for there was ample to share; nor was there a dearth of smiles and laughter while reminiscing about these simple joys. It was truly refreshing and there was so much to take in!
On our drive back home Bill and I, clearly overwhelmed by everything we had witnessed that day, talked incessantly about how lucky we were to have witnessed extreme tenderness-- firsthand. We were still reeling from experiencing love in its purest form in the most unlikeliest of sources and from those that we ordinarily choose to keep invisible. L'Arche was a lesson in compassion and the power of humanity that elevates ordinary, broken humans into extraordinary beings. It was a message of how transformative life and the joy it emanates all around can be visible if only we look past what meets the jaded eyes. Jean Vanier's vision of L'Arche is a living lesson in compassion that transcends human constructs of what is normal as well as human constraints of that which is abnormal. In the end, L'Arche is Divine Love personified; we were infinitely fortunate to have experienced it in person that day and eternally grateful that it would leave an imprint on us forever.
"Love doesn't mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness."-- Jean Vanier