The Interim’s Sue Careless recently visited L’Arche Stratford, one of the many communities worldwide inspired by Canadian Jean Vanier’s love for those most often overlooked.What is most remarkable about Maranatha House at L’Arche Stratford is that at four on a Wednesday afternoon no one is home except two staff members.

Gradually, the adults with developmental disabilities arrive, many of whom were institutionalized and locked away for half their lives. Now no longer isolated, they are an active part of the larger Stratford, Ont. community. None is consigned to a sheltered workshop, but all are out and about in town.

These 23 “core members,” as they are called, live with autism, Down syndrome, epilepsy and cerebral palsy, but they also live with laughter, hope and forgiveness. Instead of being warehoused in one large, impersonal facility, they live in intimate family settings in five homes spread across the city.

Three of the homes, Agape, Nazareth and Caritas, are in residential neighbourhoods. Upper and Lower Maranatha are located in a former convent adjacent to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Although this offers a lovely courtyard within earshot of church bells, L’Arche would prefer Maranatha to be located on a residential street.

Several years ago, a L’Arche farm near Stratford was closed because it was too isolated and lacked a sense of neighbourhood. Core members could not be independent and ride public transit.

Two core members, Gerald and Richard, live in their own apartments. Gerald builds boxes with lightning speed at a local ball bearing company. Richard works at Kentucky Fried Chicken. They are the most independent members of the community, but they still attend two dinners a week at one of the homes, and all the L’Arche events.

Saturday night you can find Corey or Clinton, Roland or Kevin chatting at East Side Mario’s with friends from work or church. And any day of the week, Ethel, Doreen or Lydia could be sipping coffee with neighbours at Tim Hortons.

Ethel has just returned from a week-long holiday in Cape Breton, while Kevin has photos to show of his trip to Ohio. Every L’Arche member vacations with an assistant and most destinations are L’Arche-related. There are 24 L’Arche communities in Canada and another 13 in the U.S.

Last year, Kathy and Gerald represented L’Arche Stratford at the International L’Arche Federation Conference in France. En route they visited a L’Arche community in Belgium. They were accompanied by an assistant and a board member.

Lower Maranatha is still festooned with streamers and balloons from Pat’s birthday party. Members celebrate not only birthdays, but also the anniversary of their entry into L’Arche. Ethel recently received cards and a special meal to celebrate her 21st anniversary at L’Arche.

Ethel is retired now, but is out every afternoon attending seniors programs. Today she is excited about a bus trip and tea in nearby Tavistock. Pat has returned from visiting a farm. He is a man of few words but many smiles. He is happy with the adventure but is even happier to cool off with a popsicle. The television remains off while the community members share about their day.

During a supper of Spanish rice and fruit there is more conversation and laughter. Whenever possible, core members prepare the meals themselves and everyone has a say in the weekly menu. Ethel has set the table and Rick Hatem, the community director, has dropped by. Besides house visits, he tries to take each core member out individually for coffee every few months.

After supper, some prayers are shared and Rick reads some Scripture from Ethel’s New Testament, a gift from the church she attends: “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).

Spiritual formation is crucial to L’Arche. Most core members are parishioners at local churches. On Sunday morning, Ethel attends Central United Church and stays for fellowship afterwards. Roland attends the morning service at St. James Anglican church and returns Sunday evening for a Bible study. Kathy and Gary are servers at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church while Pat has attended St. Joseph’s since he was a little boy. Lena and John are members of Avon Mennonite Church and John helps with its maintenance during the week.

The L’Arche community also holds bi-weekly services led by various Stratford clergy, and each year core members attend spiritual retreats. Yet much of the spiritual formation happens in the daily life of the homes.

L’Arche seems founded on forgiveness, for example. For some core members, it means forgiving families who have rejected them. Last year, Agape house enacted the story of the Prodigal Son for the community. Alan was the father, Roland the prodigal son, Anne the loose woman and Olive the older brother. Father Murray McDermott remembers the moving performance:

“Somehow the Gospel became earthed and touched those moments in our lives about hurting families, running away, coming to our senses, working at being sorry, being forgiven and celebrating coming home.”

L’Arche believes that work is an important means of social integration and can offer a sense of dignity and accomplishment. Kevin is one of the busiest core members. He works at Madeleine’s Diner and Tony’s Bistro. He also helps clean Knox Presbyterian Church and volunteers with Meals on Wheels and the United Way. Kevin, John and Clinton work at the warehouse of Ten Thousand Villages. Kevin and John also clean City Cab cars.

Terry works at Crown House Bed and Breakfast while Olive sweeps floors at the Festival School of Hair Styling. Gary washes dishes at Balzac’s Coffee Shop. Anne and Kathy cook a lunch every Wednesday for the assistants. Clinton is happiest working outdoors, weeding or shovelling snow at the West End Centre where Sonia is a receptionist.

Erica Kerkhof, the employment support worker, helps them find community placements and also works alongside those who need some initial support. Also, about a third of the core members attend literacy and numeracy classes offered through Conestoga College.

But life at L’Arche is also full of fun. Pat, Alan, Kathy and Gerald play on the town’s Special Olympics bowling team, while Pat and Brian H. play Special Olympics T-ball. Olive, Clinton and Terry enjoy horseback riding and Gerald practises Tai Chi.

Each core member has his or her own room and is encouraged to pursue personal interests. Dalton unwinds with classical music while Lena loves to dance and have her nails painted. Brian K, who grew up on a farm, enjoys watching farm machinery in operation.

In the summer, Father McDermott has L’Arche members over to his lakeside cottage for a weekly barbecue.

Not only are core members greeted on the streets and in the shops, but the Stratford Beacon-Herald reports on L’Arche news in a monthly column. In the city parade, the L’Arche float was an ark with a rainbow of balloons rising over it. It was deemed the liveliest float in the festivities.

All community members are invited to participate, as far as possible, in decisions concerning them. Once a month, there is a community forum, which offers L’Arche members a chance to discuss openly issues that need attention.

And once a month there is a Katimavic, a small group gathering. At one, the core members were asked to explore, “Where do you see God in your life?” Anne wisely responded, “I can’t see Him but I know He’s there.”

“Core members can encapsulate profound truths,” observed Karla Wilker, the assistants’ co-ordinator. “They may not be able to preach a sermon but they fully live out their spirituality.

“Assistants need to learn to move away from ‘doing’ to ‘being.’ They don’t need to be busy caring for core members, but to simply sit and be with them,” Karla said. “Core members are very intuitive. Even those who are not highly verbal, know if you are having a bad day and try to encourage you. Neil is especially intuitive and will offer you a hug to cheer you up.”

Nico Cassidy, 23, is one of 14 assistants in the L’Arche Stratford family. A psychology major at the University of Guelph, she chose L’Arche as a co-op placement.

“University is all very cerebral and we’re very protective of our emotions. You have to find a different channel to connect with here. To relate well emotionally is just as important as a good conversation. And you have to relate to everyone across a wide spectrum.”

Assistants like Nico live in the homes 24 hours a day. They don’t simply put in an eight-hour shift and leave as counsellors leave clients or nurses leave patients. Their continual presence requires maturity and commitment. Assistants are more like brothers and sisters to the core members, profoundly sharing in their lives.

Those who think they may be called to work at L’Arche are first invited to share a meal. They would then return for a weekend visit, and later, if they are still interested, come for a week long stay. Each assistant makes a minimum one-year commitment.

Assistants are radically changed by L’Arche. They come intending to help, but soon realize that they are being ministered to by the core members.

Nico has been working intermittently for over 12 months in Stratford and for eight months in L’Arche in south India at Asha Niketan Chennai (Madras). While Nico found the cultural gap trying at times, the core members were very accepting. “They have weaknesses and accept yours.”

In India, nobody had possessions so they all shared what little they had. The community grew coconuts and vegetables and spent the whole day working together in the same room making crafts such as brooms.

In 1964, Jean Vanier, the son of Pauline and Georges Vanier (a former governor-general of Canada), launched L’Arche, which is French for “ark.” Noah’s ark is a symbol of both refuge and new beginnings.

Vanier had been a professor of philosophy at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. He moved to a village in France, bought a house and welcomed Raphael and Philippe, two intellectually disabled men from an asylum, to live with him.

Today, 35 years later, there are over 100 L’Arche communities in 26 countries around the world.

The first Canadian L’Arche community is Daybreak in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto. It is more self-contained than L’Arche Stratford, rather like a little village for its 44 core members.

Another university professor, Henri Nouwen, left a prestigious career at Yale and Harvard and found in Daybreak the spiritual home he had been searching for all his life. The Road to Daybreak is the journal of his first year living in the community.

When Nouwen, a prolific writer, died in 1996, he was buried in a simple pine coffin decorated with wax crayon drawings by his Daybreak friends. Nouwen’s Adam: God’s Beloved, which was published posthumously, tells the story of Nouwen’s relationship with one of the most disabled people in the Daybreak community.

In Ontario, it costs about $35,000 a year to support a disabled person in a setting such as L’Arche. L’Arche is a non-profit organization and receives some funding from the Ministry of Community and Social Services. It relies heavily on donations and volunteers.

L’Arche Stratford celebrated a quarter-century last year. In 1973, Marjorie Pickersgill founded L’Arche Stratford and was its first director. Gary McCrae was its first resident.

Gary had been a crown ward of Perth County Children’s Aid and had lived in foster care. For Gary, L’Arche is family, friends, faith and a home for his heart. Gary cleans tables at McDonald’s. When there is a party, it is hard to separate Gary from the microphone. He has also been known in the past to sneak into funeral homes and wail loudly as kind folk comforted him. It was the beginning of his stage career.

It is always hard when assistants, who have become part of the family, leave to return to school or pursue other work. Vanier tells core members that it is one of their gifts to the world that they let these people go.

There is also grief when a core member like Doug dies. It is a death in the family. A portrait of Doug graces the living room of Lower Maranatha while a photo album entitled, “Remembering Doug” is prominently displayed on the shelves. At L’Arche, everyone is embraced – and no one is forgotten.

ELEMENTS OF THE L’ARCHE PHILOSOPHY

“L’Arche seeks to create communities that welcome people with a developmental disability. L’Arche seeks to respond to the distress of those who are too often rejected, and to give them a valid place in society. L’Arche seeks to offer a sign that a society, to be truly human, must be founded on welcome and respect for the weak and downtrodden.

“Whatever their strengths or their limitations, people are all bound together in a common humanity. Everyone is of unique and sacred value, and everyone has the same rights. Each person has a fundamental right to life, to care, to a home, to a faith life, to education and to work.

“People with a developmental disability often possess qualities of welcome, wonderment, spontaneity and directness. They are able to touch hearts and to call others to unity through their simplicity and vulnerability. In this way, they are a living reminder to the wider world of the essential values of the heart without which knowledge, power and action lose their meaning and purpose.

“L’Arche is a faith-based community that welcomes people from many faith backgrounds and cultures. Each community member is encouraged to discover and deepen his or her spiritual life and live it according to his or her particular faith and tradition.”

(Abridged from Charter of the Communities of L’Arche and from a L’Arche Stratford document.)

“Life at L’Arche,” by Corey Maschke and Doreen Maloney (Cory and Doreen wrote this in their literacy and numeracy class at Conestoge College):

People are happy. We are core members. There are also assistants. We live in houses. We help with dishes. We help to clean the house. We help to cook the meals. We clean our own rooms. We wash our own clothes. We get together and worship and pray on Monday. We like to live at L’Arche. It is nice to have our own house. We have a picnic in the spring. We go on nice holidays. We get together at Chirstmas. We like to live at l”Arche.

L’Arche communities across Canada

British Columbia

Burnaby, Victoria

Alberta

Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge

Manitoba

Winnipeg

Ontario

Arnprior, Richmond Hill, Hamilton, London, North Bay, Ottawa, Stratford, Sudbury

Quebec

Amos, Beloeil, Hull, Montreal, Quebec City, St. Malachie, Trois Rivieres

Nova Scotia

Antigonish, Orangedale, Wolfville