Places of Radical Acceptance
In 150 homes, within 45 countries, across five continents, there is a quietly countercultural community creating loving relationships which make room for differences, one of the most pressing undertakings of our time. In L’Arche homes across the world, people with and without cognitive disabilities live together in community and exemplify what acceptance looks like. The central mission of L’Arche is to make known the gifts of people with cognitive disabilities and advocate on their behalf.
L’Arche’s core values of acceptance, inclusion, and mutual care create conditions of belonging for those who struggle to find a place in mainstream ableist culture. The communities embody hospitality, and one of their favorite places to offer it is around the table and over conversation. L’Arche is serious about having fun, and few communities can hold a candle to their creative ways of celebrating. More than anything, L’Arche is a model for how to build close relationships that change the way we see the world and relate to each other.
People with intellectual disabilities are core members, forming the heart of L’Arche homes and the organization itself. While the experience of everyone with an intellectual disability is different, what core members have in common is their ability to connect and actively communicate, including those who do so in nonverbal ways.
Before coming to live in L’Arche, most of the core members have had personal experiences of marginalization. After arriving, they are highly valued participants, both in their homes and within the larger organization.
The assistants who live with core members – often, but not always, young adults – commit to live at least one year in a home. All members share responsibilities such as cooking meals and doing dishes, while assistants also provide direct care for core members. The assistants take part in socializing, celebrating, and everything else that makes sharing life together meaningful. When talking about L’Arche, assistants often use the word family and view the community as a place of safety and acceptance.
While staying a couple of nights at one of the four L’Arche homes in greater Washington, DC, I had the chance to experience the community’s hospitality firsthand. Our time was spent getting to know each other in a small group, with some one-on-one moments together. In this setting, I sometimes had difficulty understanding people’s patterns of speech, like when trying to track a group conversation with people whose accents are unfamiliar to my ears.
My first night, I had dinner with the core members in the home: Charles, Laurie, and Bruce. Charles Clark, a resident in the home and a remarkably sprightly man in his eighties, is an advocate for people with disabilities. He is curious and asks questions. Charles has made presentations to local governmental agencies, calling on them to provide more services.
Laurie Pippinger has a wonderful sense of humor and likes to good-naturedly tease the other community members. She loves to dance, and even while making herself a cup of tea or cooking for others, she sashays in the kitchen and moves her hands gracefully. She uses a loom to create beautiful woven objects. Laurie also enjoys knitting, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, she led an online knitting class.
Bruce Weaver has an infectious smile and the capacity to make you feel appreciated simply by the way his eyes rest on you.
After two days, I had spent enough time to get a sense of what living in a L'Arche home was like and felt ready to leave, saying goodbye to my new friends. Driving home to Brooklyn — I quickly felt the pang of missing them. Their voices, smiles, and mannerisms made an indelible print.
L’Arche as an organization takes seriously its goal of enriching the lives of all community members. Some volunteers stay on in different capacities after they move on from their position as assistants in the homes. Most higher-level staff have lived as assistants before continuing their commitment in another capacity.
Tina Broverman, the executive director of L’Arche USA, says: “People come to L’Arche because they are seeking an authentic experience that they have not found, or have found elsewhere and want to replicate. Whether the drive is spiritual, or they know someone with a disability, or [they have] a personal sense of mission in this world, the longing for community is very personal and deep.”
The core members wear their vulnerability in a way that would frighten most of us. While core members are aware of their need for help, what they want, and they make this clear, is friendship and connection. L’Arche extends beyond the houses and there are many friends of L'Arche, me included, whose lives are touched by participation in this vibrant community.
Spending just a short time in a L'Arche home, I can imagine a world where disability is perceived as diversity, and everyone's presence and contributions are needed and celebrated. Ben Nolan spoke beautifully of the power of acceptance: "We take off our masks in L'Arche, but they get pushed back in place when we step outside of community. Letting go of this image we want to portray to the world can take a lifetime."
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