L'Arche Builds Community While Shaping Faith
Answering that question from a college mentor took Candler alum Tim Moore 12T all the way to New Zealand to live in an intentional faith community called L’Arche, where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.
Moore’s mentor posed his thought-provoking question when Moore was nearing the end of his undergraduate studies in religion and mulling over what to do after graduation. In pondering the question, Moore remembered an elementary school classmate named John, who had physical and intellectual disabilities. The two gradually became friends when Moore offered to escort John to lunch every day.
After Moore shared this story, his mentor advised him to “follow his tears” and began to tell him about L’Arche. Taking its name from the French term for “Noah’s Ark,” L’Arche was founded in France in 1964. There are now more than 140 L’Arche communities around the world.
L’Arche community members share a home and the responsibilities that allow a home to function. Those with intellectual disabilities are called “core members,” while those without disabilities are “assistants” who oversee the daily routines of meals, medications, and shuttling core members to day programs, work, and other appointments.
Moore lived as an assistant in two L’Arche communities, New Zealand and Washington D.C., for two years prior to attending Candler but, years later, his mentor’s question still hangs in the air. He is currently serving in a new L’Arche community in Decatur, Georgia, where he is one of three assistants who share a large, beautifully renovated home with three core members: John, Lara, and Terry.
The year that Moore spent in the New Zealand L’Arche community made a deep and lingering impression on him. “I think about New Zealand every day,” Moore revealed. “It haunts me in a good way.”
Moore vividly remembers Victor, a core member in the New Zealand community who was profoundly disabled. Victor was entirely non-verbal, able only to moan and laugh. He had a condition that caused his throat to constrict, which made it very difficult for him to swallow and challenging for the assistant who was attempting to feed him. Because Victor was blind, assistants would scratch his cheek when they wanted him to open his mouth. Moore tried again and again to feed Victor, but Victor resisted.
“Victor just kept shutting me out,” Moore recalled. One day, in desperation, Moore was honest with Victor, saying, “Victor, I’m lonely. I feel rejected by you.”
Over the next few weeks, Victor began to laugh when Moore was around and allowed Moore to offer him food. Their friendship grew, and eventually other assistants looked to Moore to see how to interact with Victor.
The relationship with Victor was a transforming one. “In the midst of caring for Victor, he was caring for me with his laughter,” Moore said.
The concept of transformational relationships is both sacred and fundamental in L’Arche communities, and it’s one that Candler’s David Jenkins knows well. Jenkins, associate professor in the practice of practical theology and director of Contextual Education I, became an assistant at L’Arche London in the 1980s and lived in the community for several years.
The relationships he developed there “changed everything,” Jenkins declared. “Working with people with disabilities was no longer just an academic interest. These people became my friends. This was my community.”
The memory of transformative relationships stayed with Jenkins when he returned to the United States to pursue his doctorate. While working as a campus minister, he arranged for some of his undergraduates to spend spring breaks and summers in a L’Arche community. He has also served on the L’Arche USA board, including a stint as president, and spent three years on L’Arche’s international board of directors.
Jenkins’s passion for teaching others about being in relationship with those with developmental disabilities can be seen in the courses he’s developed at Candler that address the church and disabilities, including preaching to those with physical and/or intellectual disabilities.
And Jenkins isn’t alone in telling Candler students about L’Arche. Professor of Church and Community Luther Smith has spent 33 years teaching Candler students how church and community become expressions of Christian discipleship, and features L’Arche in his class on American communalism.
Smith, who has served on the L’Arche USA board for the last three years, is enthusiastic about sharing the organization’s concept of community with his classes. “I have taken the understanding of community as God’s dream for us,” Smith explained, adding that L’Arche is a communal expression of the church.
Smith notes that L’Arche’s core members are some of the most vulnerable in society, but an authentic relationship with them goes far beyond simply doing something for them: Those without intellectual disabilities can and should learn from those with intellectual disabilities. Without such relationships, he said, “I think we fall short of the dream that God has for us in terms of community.”
One of Smith’s students is Emily Culp, a second-year MDiv who is doing her Contextual Education at the Decatur L’Arche house. It’s a natural fit for Culp, who spent four years as a special education teacher in metro Atlanta. Culp said she had no specific vocational goal when she came to Candler, but her experiences in the Contextual Education program, particularly at L’Arche, have brought her a lot of clarity.
“It’s provided a whole new theological outlook and a new way of looking at the work I did before,” she noted. “It’s really fundamentally changed my concept of what a call is. I’ve found a concept of ministry that is so much closer to home than I thought it was.”
Spending time each week at the L’Arche house is changing Culp’s definition of what a community is, too. True to L’Arche’s roots, she spends much of her time building relationships with the core members.
But the relationship building doesn’t end at the house’s driveway. Residents of L’Arche gradually form relationships with neighbors and others in the community.
“At its heart, L’Arche is about community and relationships,” said Curt Armstrong, executive director of L’Arche Atlanta. “When we interact with the local community, we’re entering into relationships.”
Evidence of that was seen during a series of Saturday work days in which neighbors, volunteers from nearby churches, and local youth groups came together to prepare the Decatur house for the residents.
Moore also expects to see the home’s residents helping to build community within the neighborhood. “Over time, we will be a strong source of life, a place of connection in this neighborhood,” he explained, noting that two houses are currently being built across the street. When people move into these homes, Moore looks forward to walking across the street with the core members, carrying freshly baked cookies and welcoming the new residents to the neighborhood.
Forging such relationships helps tear down assumptions people often make about those with intellectual and physical disabilities.
“Disability has such a stigma, and at the heart of stigmatization is fear. People fear otherness,” Moore notes.
L’Arche respects and helps develop the inherent gifts of all people, acknowledging that each core member in the community has special gifts that help the community function. In the Decatur home, Terry is passionate about sports and has a gift for doing yard work and household chores. John has a gift for scheduling and a great sense of humor. Lara has a love of learning and is currently studying biology. She has the gift of memory and can be relied on to remind others of things that need to be done.
Living in the community as an assistant is wonderful and life-changing, Moore said, but he doesn’t want to romanticize an experience that also brings some challenging moments. “You come into contact with the dark shadow of your own personhood,” he explained. “It forces you to come into contact with all that is broken within you, and that’s difficult.”
L'Arche founder Jean Vanier holds that there is a generative relationship between vulnerability and fruitfulness and L'Arche cultivates that relationship, believing it is essential to human flourishing, Moore explains.
Perhaps that’s why the community can have such a profound effect in shaping the faith of those who come into contact with it.
“One of the things that life and L’Arche will do is reshape our understanding of faith,” Jenkins says. “For seminary students, it’s easy for faith to become an intellectual enterprise, for faith to get located in the mind.”
Jenkins notes that many religious traditions actually presuppose this intellectual framework of faith, requiring adherents to make confessional statements and public professions of faith. These are things that many people with intellectual disabilities can’t do, he said. L’Arche communities give people a chance to see those with physical and intellectual disabilities living faithful lives.
“How we observe their lives of faith can really change our concept of faith,” Jenkins continues. “Faith can move out of the brain and into the body of community. It changes the way that seminary students conceive of a life of faith.”
Culp is proof of that, describing L’Arche as “a reality that shows that it’s possible to live differently.”
Seeing friendships develop between those with disabilities and those without can be of particular value to clergy, Jenkins asserts. “People with disabilities are often the object of our ministry and social service. We pastors think of ourselves as experts delivering care. It’s rare that we really imagine the idea of genuine friendship.”
Communities like L’Arche call into question how churches view people with intellectual disabilities, Smith says. “I will raise the question, ‘What does it mean when our own congregations do not have hospitality to or ministries for individuals with intellectual disabilities?’ I stress hospitality so that we’re not always thinking of people with disabilities as programs.”
L’Arche offers an opportunity to explore the interconnectedness between all human beings, despite their differences.
“We discover that we have the God-given capacity to be friends with people who are different from ourselves,” Jenkins says. “That’s transforming for the world.”
ValerieLoner loves people watching and keeping her caffeine levels steady while hanging out at Panera Bread in Woodstock, Georgia.