A Visit to L’Arche

Last Friday I took my Aunty Sheila to L’Arche for Spiritual Soup. Spiritual Soup is a gathering that takes place once a month at one of three L’Arche Houses in Sydney. Core members, assistants, coordinators, family and friends come together to share a simple dinner of soup and bread before adjoining to a quiet place in the house to celebrate the community’s solidarity through prayer, song and educational activities that core members are able to participate in.

Last Friday’s Spiritual Soup was hosted by Campsie House and it was the first one I attended since my daughter, Heidi, was born, well over a year ago. Although I had made a couple of trips to Burwood House to visit Kathleen, Geoffrey, Bruce and Jo I had been largely absent for that year.

As often happens before a visit to L’Arche I began to feel nervous, and regretted having accepted the invitation. It had been so long. Would my presence even matter? Surely I would feel self-conscious. I would have trouble sustaining conversation. I wouldn’t know what to say. I’d find the silences that sometimes follow my attempts to talk to the less verbal core members awkward. And besides, weren’t there more important things I could be doing with my time.

I had recently become more engaged with community politics (Westconnex, the State Government’s plans for the Urban Renewal of Sydney, the redevelopment of Redfern). These seemed like important issues that urgently required my attention. Shouldn’t I be focussing on this larger sphere of political activism? What place did this small community of disabled adults have in the pressing political questions of our time? What claim could L’Arche make on my time?

The fear that was driving my self-doubt evaporated the instant Sheila and I opened the door at Campsie House. From the kitchen Katie spotted us and screamed. She thundered down the hall and took me by the hand, leading me back into the dining room where people were congregating, some still eating, others talking or patiently waiting for the activities upstairs to begin.

Walking down the hallway we met Kumar, Elina, Aileen and Kathleen. We stopped, exchanged hugs and I introduced Sheila. Everyone was interested to meet Sheila and soon we were separated, swallowed up in conversations and greetings. Entering the dining room, I saw Bonfire smiling up at me from the table. I went over to say Hi. I noticed that he wasn’t wearing his one of his trademark baseball hats and said so. He offered me his name along with his hand and gave me a wide smile that simply said, ‘welcome’. Next to him Janine called up to me. ‘What’s your name’, she demanded? I told her my name and knelt down so she could tell me, once again, about her boyfriend from Melbourne.

After some moments I looked up to see where Sheila was. I wondered if she was okay. L’Arche is unlike other facilities for the intellectually disabled. Community gatherings are a boisterous, bustling affair. Core members, assistants and friends mingle, talk, burst into laughter, are often entangled in one another’s bodies, and occasionally erupt in unpredictable ways. No-one comes to remind you of protocols that must be observed, how you should behave. No-one informs you about the kinds of disabilities the core members have, or how you should relate to them. When you enter L’Arche you are left to feel your own way into relationship, to discover for yourself how to respond. This can be daunting.

I spotted Sheila accepting a bowl of polenta from Angela and I could see right away that she was okay. In her expression I could see delight in the incredible warmth of the people gathered there. Without asking, I knew she was grateful to be there, that already, she was being changed by it.

The Spiritual Soup that night was particularly gay. The theme was unity. I shared a reading by Jean Vanier about learning to embrace the very different. Kathy Bourke led us through a story about strength in togetherness (self-consciously acted out by Aileen, Luke and myself – to the amusement of the group). It had been Geoffrey’s birthday that month and, at his request, we sang ‘Amazing Grace’. Between prayer and song there were jokes and laughter. There was a lightness in the room and I wondered if it had been created by Sheila’s presence, by her ease with the group. I looked around the room, trying to see it as she might have been seeing it. I saw lots of things, difficult to put into words, but most of all I saw love. Inexplicable, but there it was.

Spiritual Soup came to an end and Sheila and I said our goodbyes, promising to visit again soon. On the way home in the car we talked about the evening and what it had meant for each of us. Sheila had been struck by many things. She liked that she couldn’t always tell the difference between core members and assistants. She commented on the tender way the assistants interacted with the core members. We both spoke about the incredible warmth. It is so welcoming, so warm, we said. You feel embraced by it.

I shared with her my reservations about calling what I do at L’Arche ‘volunteer work’. I told her that when I think of a volunteer I conjure the image of someone who gives selflessly; someone who undertakes some kind of work. Yet, when I leave L’Arche I often feel that it is me who has received something. All I did was turn up. Intellectually I knew that the gift of this particular community comes through the simple act of being there, being present. And I had been told that although being there might not necessarily easy, it is enough. But coming home that night I felt the truth of those words. I was so glad I’d come.

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