Thursday, April 3, 2014

Eileen Glass L'Arche Jubilee Dinner Brisbane

Eileen Glass is the first Australian to be appointed International  Vice Leader of the L'Arche International.

On 29th March 2014 Eileen was the guest speaker when L'Arche Brisbane hosted a Jubilee Dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of L'Arche by Jean Vanier in 1964.

We are grateful to Eileen for her generosity in providing us with the text of the speech for publication.

L’Arche Brisbane Jubilee Dinner

One of the significant challenges facing our country, and our world, concerns our response to human diversity, including human frailty and the felt experience of ‘otherness’. As travel and technology makes the world seem ‘smaller’ than it once was we become more aware of great diversity of peoples, cultures, languages and religions. This diversity contains the potential to wonderfully enrich human life and experience. As we embrace and live it we discover that together we can accomplish marvelous things. However every gift contains a shadow and the shadow of human diversity is that it becomes a point of conflict, of exclusion and even of persecution. Deep within the human heart is the need to prove that ‘my’ group, ‘my culture’, ‘my’ religion or ‘my’ tribe is the best, to the exclusion of others.

In every culture there are groups of people who are excluded because they are weak. People who are weak remind us of the fundamental fragility of human nature. We are born weak and we will die in weakness – that is the story of each one of us. It is a story that we find difficult to accept and individually we spend much of our time and energy trying to pretend that we are not part of that story. We fear diminishment and frailty in their various forms. We work to ‘fit in’ to accepted cultural norms and patterns of being, to prove that I/we are ‘alright’, successful, respected and in control of our lives.

It is a challenge to move beyond the barriers of fear, judgment, and exclusion. It is a challenge to grow in compassion, respect, inclusion, and celebration of the diversity of the human family. And yet this is a fundamental task for any society, which aspires to become more just and more human. In this endeavor, it is people at the margins of our society, who have most to tell us. People who are ill, old people, refugees, those who live with mental illness or with disabilities reveal to us the true nature of our society. Their lives witness to the level of inclusion or exclusion, poverty or sufficiency, justice or lack of justice, recognition or denial of human rights and of power or powerlessness, which exist within the human family.

It is not the accomplishments of a society that reveal its true nature. It is not a prosperous economy, a stable political system, or our standing on the international stage that are our measure as a people, important as these things may be. Rather the true nature of a society is revealed in the extent to which each citizen is valued, included, and accorded dignity, respect and a decent life.

Fifty years ago, Jean Vanier, a French- Canadian living in France, was touched by the reality of social exclusion of people who live with an intellectual disability. He invited three men to leave an institution and to share a small home with him. He began very simply and with very limited means. He was motivated by a deep conviction that he had to respond to the injustice he saw reflected in the lives of people living in large institutions and by the certainty that for him this was a call from God. His life, his writing, and his teaching over those fifty years have inspired countless others around the world to make a similar choice and today the Federation of L’Arche is make up of 145 communities in 40 countries.

True to Jeans initial inspiration, shared life remains the basis of our mission. We share life in our homes and workplaces, in times of recreation, of prayer and of celebration. We discover that as we share life, we are all changed. Year after year, assistants who have spent a few  months, a year or longer in L’Arche, speak of the ways their  lives are changed by the encounter with people who live with an intellectual disability. Our hearts and minds, our communities and even our neighborhoods are changed as barriers of fear and exclusion are breached. In the person who is ‘differently abled’, who is ‘other’ than me, we discover another experience of life, another way of being human in the world. And so our understanding of ourselves and of our belonging in the human family is enriched.

I want to stress this dimension of sharing life together. We are not simply one group of people taking care of others. Such a stance always maintains the power of the one who ‘cares’ and can serve to define the other as ‘less than’. Rather, through the experience of friendship, of mutual relationships, of life shared, we discover that each person has a gift to bring and a contribution to make to the human family. Let me give you some examples.

As I flew from Paris to Dubai on Sunday night I was aware of our communities in the Middle East and I sent a message to Kathy who lives in L’Arche in Palestine. On Wednesday morning I opened my mail to find a message from Kathy, telling us of the death of Ghadir – a woman who was one of the founders of L’Arche in Palestine. Her death notice was entitled, ‘A Life of Extraordinary Radiance’. It tells us ‘although she had very few words she radiated a joy that touched each person she encountered… she truly met people, encountered them, entered into their hearts and gently invited them to enter hers. She seemed to gracefully dance her way through life, drawing everyone around her into the dance. And when she danced - literally and figuratively – she would seem to transcend her physical limitations … it was clear that transcendence came through a definitive, courageous acceptance and integration of those limitations. It was as though she understood her vulnerability to be a gift and she offered it generously and whole-heartedly to those who would receive it. And we were all the richer for it.’

Two weeks ago at a meeting of L’Arche leaders in Germany I met Florence, a member of L’Arche in Paris. She had come to the meeting as part of a small team of people who live with an intellectual disability, to contribute their experience and perspective to an important piece of work, which the leaders of L’Arche were undertaking.  At a moment when I was busily dashing past the room where she was working, Florence called my name and gently insisted that I stop and greet her.  I was touched by the quality of her presence, the quality of our encounter, and became more attentive to the contribution she was making to our meeting. Two nights ago I received an email; “Florence, sweet and enthusiastic Florence died during the night…’  In the hours that followed there were many messages from people in different countries who had known Florence, expressing their shock and grief, reaching out to one another through their tears.

What could we say was the contribution of Florence and Ghadir to the human family? In the eyes of the world that might seem a curious, even irrelevant question. What is the gift that these women brought to those around them? Why were their deaths mourned around the world? In their very being, Ghadie and Florence invited people through the barriers of fear and exclusion. They demonstrated self acceptance and acceptance of reality. They taught those around them about patience and gentleness, calling them to slow down and to experience life differently. In their need they invited others to give priority to relationship, to tenderness and to delight in one another. One of the gifts of the Ghadirs and Florences of the world is that their need and vulnerability are an invitation to us to put aside our differences and work together for unity and peace.

During the past two years as members of the family of L’Arche we have been journeying with members of our community in Damascus. It is difficult for most of us to imagine what it might be like to try and sleep each night against the noise of shells and mortar fire. It is difficult to understand the cumulative effect of living with the insecurity of not knowing when a bomb blast in the neighbourhood might cause injury and death. And when the community sent a greeting at Christmas they told us, ‘In the darkness of the situation in our country at present we want our community to be like a little window that lets the light in.’ This week we learned that the community is working with Caritas Damascus to distribute food rations to 600 displaced families in the city’s poor neighbourhoods. Among these families they are meeting a number of people with disabilities and so in the perilous situation of their daily life they continue to share life with those around them who are most vulnerable.

Our communities link us to the suffering of many in the world, to the cry of the human heart for justice, dignity and a place of belonging. Because of the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, today we stand in solidarity with each other and people in Syria, the Ukraine, Palestine and Egypt. Over the years we have worked together in the face of social and political unrest and natural disasters in Haiti, Honduras, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Poland, the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe.

Throughout this year, in forty countries around the world, people of L’Arche are gathering to celebrate the gifts of people who live with an intellectual disability and the contribution they make to our societies and our world. We are thankful for all we have learned and are learning about a pathway to justice and peace that is possible when each person is accorded his or her rightful place. We are grateful for this year of Jubilee as an opportunity to remember what has been given, to reflect on what is asked of us today, to celebrate our shared life and to look to the future with renewed hope and conviction for our mission. It is a particular joy for me this evening to be present for the first Australian celebration of our Jubilee with the members and friends of L’Arche Brisbane.

Eileen Glass
March 29th  2014


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