In an older, gentrifying, suburban Virginia neighborhood — the kind with porch flags and pumpkins on the front steps — I am welcomed at an indistinguishable door to an exceptional little community called L’Arche. Here, intellectually disabled “core members” are paired with often young and intensely idealistic “assistants” who share their lives, normally for a year or two. (L’Arche has more than 140 such group homes in 35 countries.)
Hazel, who uses a wheelchair and communicates mainly with a shy smile, has helped prepare dinner. Before the meal, she shows me photographs she has taken during a recent riverside vacation. (Her more typical photographic subjects, I’m told, are babies at church.) Fritz, a middle-aged man with Down syndrome, watches videos of the rock group Queen on a computer in the living room. Before we eat, he offers an extended, emotionally intense prayer, only occasionally intelligible to listeners in the room but certainly (if there is any justice) intelligible to God.
There is a method in L’Arche’s work. Routine and consistency are important. Core members have chores and, when possible, jobs. (Fritz takes out the trash and washes cars at a city facility.) L’Arche is big on rituals of personal affirmation. When any member of the community has a birthday, the others take turns recounting his or her talents and gifts. While L’Arche is not sectarian, the atmosphere is strongly religious. After dessert, a candle is handed around, with each person expressing a prayer request as they hold it.
The assistants are given months of training before they start. But L’Arche’s goal is not primarily the provision of services. The prevailing professional model of social services involves the setting of emotional boundaries. L’Arche exists to cross those boundaries — to strive for a friendship of equals. The saintly founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, argues that generosity is offered from a position of power. True communion, in contrast, involves the loss of power and a willingness to be “transformed by weakness.” Assistants approach core members as teachers.
The result is a deeper, riskier relationship. The challenges of dealing with the intellectually disabled should not be sentimentalized. A core member at a L’Arche home recently became threatening and needed to be hospitalized. (“God holds that person,” says John Cook, the executive director of L’Arche in the Washington area, “but we can’t.”) Some volunteers burn out. More typically, however, assistants report being stripped down to emotional essentials and opened to something larger. “My job, what I make, meant nothing to her,” says one assistant of her core member. “She loved me, without any accomplishments, without anything I thought made me lovable. It is how God loves me.
There is a human tendency to recoil from fragility. But we are humanized by closer acquaintance with the intellectually disabled. Cook speaks of his friend Fritz with admiration: “He has the gift of companionship. He is very attuned to distress and overtly comforting. He gives people a blessing by putting his forehead against their forehead. And people come away feeling moved, like something powerful has happened to them.” At church, Hazel sits at the front by the aisle. During Communion, she greets each congregant as they come forward, receiving a kiss on the cheek, as much a part of the service as the bread and wine.
Those interested in the most efficient provision of social services would probably not design L’Arche — a program that lavishly invests a single life in a single life. Whether this is viewed as wasteful depends upon your ultimate goal. “It is a matter of ends,” says Cook. “If your end is the greatest good at the least financial cost, then some get favored and some discarded. If your end is a place where everyone has a place of honor, and where everyone lives in love, then L’Arche is experiencing it. People who get pushed to the margins are intentionally placed at the center.”
This small community accomplishes many outsize things. It vindicates the ideal of human dignity, which does not depend on normal measures of human accomplishment. It lays bare the illusion that ability means superiority. It displays the lavishness of grace, which, in Christian theology, is needed by and granted to us all. And it shows — amazingly, inspiringly, accusingly — that the beloved community might be created on any suburban street.
Published in The Washington Post October 27, 2014.