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"For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." Matthew 18:20


3 Questions at Christmas

Laura DeMaria

This Advent, and through Christmas eve, last night, three questions have been posed to me that I want to share, because they made me think and feel differently about Christmas (which is itself remarkable, because so much of Christmas, for me, is about returning to the same traditions and reflections year after year).

The first is, “Who loves you most in the world?” followed by, “How will you let love lead this Advent?”

The last is: “Whose story are you called to be a part of in this coming year?”

The first two I came upon during L’Arche’s Advent retreat in early December. As a group, the community came together for a morning where we talked about Joy, Hope, Peace and Love. The morning’s reflection was facilitated by the “As I Am” videos, a series of short films about the individuals in different L’Arche communities around the world. I highly, highly recommend watching any and all of them. They will all make you cry.

That morning, the one that made me cry the most was “No Lions in Paris,” which shows the journey of Musa, from Kenya, as he vacations in Paris. In it, Musa narrates as if he were a travel guide.

He tells us the first thing we should do when we leave home is “Say goodbye and ask your friends to pray for you.” We see him on the plane; observing and participating in life in Paris; making new friends; and also making very true and funny observations about Parisians (“They eat tree leaves like goats”).

All of this is moving, and it is especially moving to see his joy as he experiences these things with his companions. We see what he sees, through new eyes - through his eyes. But the most significant moment comes when it is time to return home, and Musa says, “I didn’t stay long, because I had to go to work, and go back to the people who love me most.”

That is a striking sentence. It struck me because it is spoken without any doubt; with such directness and with Musa’s own faith that he is very, very loved. And so we see scenes of Musa’s return, where he greets his community with open arms, walking toward them for hugs and kisses, never once turned away, being danced around and celebrated in his homecoming, because he is, indeed, loved.

And so, after the film was over, in the quietness of our own hearts, and then in small groups, we were asked to answer the questions, “Who loves you most in the world?”

It took me aback. I am used to thinking of all those people I love the most, and never once considering who it is who loves me most. I know my answers - just as probably you do, too - but it changed the way I look at myself. Me, beloved. Maybe even more so by someone I had not considered! Whose love for me has been ongoing, steadfast, present, and has changed me, made me who I am? What has it meant to me, to be loved? How is it I see and measure the love that those around me give, and am sure of it? What about those at a distance - how is it that love cuts through distance and lands on us with the same effect as that given in the immediate? And I thought of all the different kinds of love, all landing on me, and on everyone - the love of siblings, of friends, of parents, of mentors, of priests, of co-workers, of those who know us well, and see us. All valid forms of love, no more important than another. All working on us, as God’s love works on us. And these are reflections of the love God has for us, because that is what earthly love is - the reflection, the closeness and approximation, of the grandness of God’s love for us. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known…”

So after: this was followed by, “How will I let Love lead this Advent?” It being Christmas day today, I will turn this to simply, “How will I let Love lead?” I immediately thought of the Holy Spirit. Can we substitute “Holy Spirit” for love? This is a common challenge in the spiritual life, to allow the Spirit to work, rather than to try and make the Spirit work how we want. Thine will be done (not mine). What on earth do we have to lose when we let Love lead? I will take this with me through the year.

The last question: “Whose story are you called to be a part of in this coming year?” The priest last night asked this in his Christmas eve homily. We are a part of the story of Jesus, and he is a part of our story. We know the story of the night of his birth, by virtue of hearing it many times - Mary and Joseph with the donkey on the road; the angels appearing to the shepherds; the Wise Men on their path; all of it. It is a story, our story, but one that is not over, because always we will be asked to be with one another, in love, in each other’s stories. We cannot give up on one another; flee when things get tough, abandon a relationship when it becomes difficult. My spiritual director recently told me, “This is where real holiness happens. It’s not just in feeding the homeless - it is in the nitty gritty of knowing other people.” There is where we arrive!

How will I let love lead, how will I know those who love me, how will I show love, like Christ, with the pure and beautiful trust of Musa, because I am beloved?

L’Arche Communities Bring the Differently-Abled Together

Laura DeMaria

Greetings! Friends, see below my latest article at Catholic Stand, which you can read in its original form here. In this article, I discuss what being friends with the L'Arche community has taught me so far - because learning to live in and with these communities is a gift that unfolds over time, in many ways, and I hope, never stops unfolding! Read on to lead more about this special organization (or some would call it a movement) that brings the differently-abled to share life together. Enjoy!

L'Arche Communities Bring the Differently-Abled Together

In 1964 a young man named Jean Vanier visited an asylum for the disabled at the invitation of a priest friend, who was a chaplain at the asylum. There, Vanier witnessed the inhabitants’ neglect, loneliness and sub-human living conditions. Feeling a call and a stirring in his heart, Vanier pooled resources from friends and family and bought a small house.

Once the house was purchased, Vanier, “in response to a call from God, invited Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, two men with intellectual disabilities, to come and share their life in the spirit of the Gospel and the Beatitudes that Jesus preached.”

So begins the story of L’Arche International.

International In Scope and Mission

From this very simple beginning, L’Arche (the French word for “Ark”), which is what Vanier named his little community, has grown to become an organization of over 145 communities in more than 35 countries – homes where individuals with and without disabilities share their lives together.

Although I am active as a Board member and volunteer of L’Arche of Greater Washington, and have visited the homes that make up the L’Arche community in the Washington area, I had never visited any of the houses in the other communities. But earlier this year, a work trip took me to Cleveland, OH.  Knowing I’d get in a day before business started, I reached out to the staff of L’Arche of Cleveland(pronounced “larsh”).  I very much wanted to have dinner at one of their homes, meet those who lived there, and find out how L’Arche life in Cleveland might be similar and different from that in Washington.

So there I was in a town and neighborhood I had never before visited, going to have dinner with people I had never met nor spoken to, in a home I had never stepped foot in. And I couldn’t wait to get there.  The uniqueness of the situation was not lost on me. Then again, the uniqueness of the L’Arche movement is part of what makes it so remarkable.  It is an organization that has led many people through the decades to find themselves transformed by L’Arche.

Celebrating People

L’Arche’s statement of identity and mission says, “We are people, with and without developmental disabilities, sharing life in communities belonging to an International Federation. Mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our journey together. We celebrate the unique value of every person and recognize our need of one another.”

It’s important to recognize that in these communities, it is not one group (the able-bodied) taking care of the other group (the disabled). Many of the “core family members,” as these special people are called, have jobs and hobbies, friendships and family outside the home. They share a sense of life that is much wider than their immediate community inside the home.

That night in Cleveland, a Lyft driver picked me up at my downtown hotel and drove me to the eastern suburbs. It was snowing as we drove, crystalline flakes gathering as we passed the industrial architecture that is so different from what I see every day in Washington. Eventually we emerged in a residential area, full of cozy houses and tree-lined sidewalks. The passing glow of streetlights slowed as we arrived at my destination. Aside from the presence of a very large van in the driveway outfitted to accommodate wheelchairs, the house looked no different than its neighbor houses.

An Enjoyable Evening

Inside, I was welcomed by both “core family members” – those members of the house who are developmentally disabled – and the House Leader and the Pastoral Leader. (These are just fancy names for other members of the household who take care of everything from buying groceries to making sure everyone takes any prescribed medications.) Of course, everyone has a role to play in listening, spending time together, having fun, getting to work on time, resolving conflicts, and any other real-life matters that arise when living in community. The warmth with which all of these people – seven strangers in total – welcomed me into the home made me think, “This is how life should be – how everyone should be treating each other!”

I could list for you all the small and special ways that night was memorable, but what stands out the most was how much I laughed with my new friends. Something I have noticed in every L’Arche home I have visited is the prevalence of inside jokes. Just like siblings tease each other, those living in community get to know each other’s quirks and use them to their own full comic advantage. And yet, I never once felt like an outsider or a spectator. Rather, I was drawn into the lives of those I was getting to know.

Mutually Transforming Relationships

The meal began with a prayer, and ended with a prayer. Every L’Arche home has its own tradition when it comes to ending a meal, whether that means allowing one family member to read a meditation, passing a candle around and sharing prayer intentions, or singing (or some combination of all these things!). I was delighted to find this particular home was a believer in the power of song and we ended the night with a chorus of the great gospel song “Amen.”

Truly, what I find so compelling about L’Arche is its dedication to both individuals and the community family, for who they are. At its core, the organization exists to provide a place for mutually transforming relationships, where others’ gifts and abilities, as varied as they can all be, are treasured and learned from. I am happy that I can bring my own professional experience in fundraising and communications in order to help grow the Washington, DC community; but I also know if I did none of those things, I would still be loved. In other words: the way people love in L’Arche is the way God loves us for who we are, as we are made.

It is a very singular thing, to call out another’s gifts: to tell and show them why they matter to you. This is what L’Arche is helping me learn how to do, with others, and with myself.

Joy and Love

The community I spend the most time with, here in Washington, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Next month we’ll celebrate with our Heart of L’Arche breakfast (if you are in the DC area and are interested in learning more, Message me!). Celebration is a big part of the L’Arche way, and this beautiful, four-minute video about a birthday celebration for a core family member, Fritz, captures that joy and love perfectly.

It is no wonder that people who experience even just a piece of the phenomenon that is L’Arche are drawn in, often for life. The communities have many friends and neighbors, and it can start from something as simple as a joining a home for dinner.

L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier, now 90 years old, is a prolific writer. His works include titles like “Becoming Human,” “Befriending the Stranger,” and “From Brokenness to Community,” which all touch on different facets of the human condition and the innate desire to love and be loved. “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things,” he says. “It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (See a great compilation of his quotes here.)

Jean Vanier wrote in “Becoming Human” that, “My belief and my experience have shown me that there is a way out [of loneliness] . . . But this way out requires that we all discover our fundamental beauty as human beings – our capacity to give life and receive it from others.” To achieve this, we must see we are not alone; that we are a part of the community that is the human family. What a gift to be able to recognize this in not only others, but ourselves: the sacredness of who God made us to be.

Valuing and Loving Others

You may also be interested in reading the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, who was greatly influenced by his years spent at the community in Ontario. This famous psychologist and professor developed a deep friendship with Vanier, as well as a man named Adam with development disabilities. He chronicled their friendship and the impact it had on him in “Adam: God’s Beloved.”

When my evening in Cleveland drew to a close, I was going to call a Lyft to take me back to my hotel, but the Home Life Leader generously offered to drive me back. On our way, we discussed fundraising and communications challenges the homes face. I was excited both to offer ideas and to hear her own enthusiasm for making the L’Arche way of life more visible. That is one of the interesting things about supporting L’Arche: it is about more than just physically supporting those living in community together. When people give their time, talent and resources to L’Arche, they are giving to a broader mission.  They are saying we must value and love those who are differently-abled than us. What a message for our world!

If you want to know more about the overall movement, and where you can find a community in the US near you, visit the L’Arche USA website.

Radio spot: tomorrow at 6 AM!

Laura DeMaria

I had a funny experience this morning (Monday), which was that I pre-recorded a segment for the Morning Air Show to air tomorrow (Tuesday) at 6 AM. As it turns out, even the hosts don’t want to get up at 5 in the morning to be on the show, so they pre-record some content and air it the next day. The more you know! #radiosecrets

I hope you’ll open up the Relevant Radio player at 6 tomorrow morning while you’re a. eating breakfast; b. feeding a tiny human; c. rolling around in bed instead of getting out of bed; d. brushing your teeth; e. whatever you do at 6 in the morning. It’ll be that much better if you do it while being accompanied by the sound of my voice (and that of John and Glen), I’m telling you.

It’s a good topic: my experience with L’Arche, but also just generally what one learns in ministry and friendship with the differently-abled (the disabled). I think the PC term now is IDD: intellectually and developmentally disabled. One main takeaway we discussed was how people with disabilities view the rich and famous, the poor and unknown, in the same way: they are looking for friendship and relationship, not acclaim and renown. So my friend with Downs will treat me the same as she would the president of the United States (she’d invite us both to sing and dance with her). There is so much we can learn from this. Similarly, when you meet someone like that – someone who is so freely themselves – it stirs something in you to respond in the same loving, authentic way. I really mean it, that when my friend with Downs wanted to sing and dance after dinner (as I talk about in the interview) it made me step back and think, what am I doing with my life? Why aren’t I ending EVERY day with a song and dance rendition of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary?!” And now, I am different for it. She has planted a seed which is growing inside me.

So, I hope you will join us. That link again: here.

I hope your Easter has been full of beauty!