L’Arche Brisbane Dinner, May 13th, 2017
|Eileen with Jason May 2017|
It is a pleasure for me to here with my Brisbane L’Arche friends!
I have been invited to share something about L’Arche International and I want to begin with the first sentence of the Identity Statement of L’Arche International, We are people with and without disabilities sharing life in communities belonging to an International Federation.
Tonight, as I am coming to the end of five years in the role of Vice International Leader of L’Arche, I would like to share with you something of my own journey in L’Arche over more than forty years, and of my understanding of the importance of our communities being part of an International Federation.
I discovered L’Arche in the original community in France in February 1974 after an overland journey from Nepal. As a young person at that time I was caught up in the movement for social and political change that had erupted across the western world during the latter years of the 1960’s. Finding a community where people with disabilities and their assistants shared life, and so gave radical expression to the value and importance of every person, was a significant challenge to me in face of my personal search for a meaningful way of living. I spent six weeks in L’Arche Trosly, struggling to speak French, to understand something of the nature of intellectual disability and to try out communal living. Needless to say, it was a turning point in my life!
I continued on my travels and by June ’74 I had arrived in the community of L’Arche Winnipeg in Canada, where it was a relief to be fluent in at least one of the languages spoken in the community! All but one of the eight women and men welcomed in the community had lived for many years in a large institution in rural Manitoba. As I got to know them, my eyes were opened to the cry for real friendship in the hearts of these people, a need often greater than their need for accommodation, education or work. I also discovered the profound capacity for compassion, forgiveness and true friendship in their hearts, whatever their real or perceived limitations. This in turn made me aware of the injustice experienced by vulnerable people in our societies when they are relegated to the margins, whether through stereotyping, enforced congregate living, lack of appropriate education and training, all of which result in systemic social isolation and deprivation.
Given my beginnings in L’Arche in France and Canada, I could say that I was formed from the beginning in an international context. While I quickly adapted to community life, the deeper attraction of life in L’Arche for me was that it offered a way of living that encompassed internationality and religious diversity, and so gave me a concrete way to engage with the big questions of the world. While the first community had been founded in France by Jean Vanier, who is Roman Catholic, the first foundation in Canada was with an Anglican couple, and the foundation in India, with Christians, Hindus and Moslems, had an all Hindu Board of Directors. So the realities of interdenominational and interreligious community life were established in L’Arche within the first six years of the original foundation.
In the 1970’s the community in Ottawa was established in a large building, divided into two homes, one English speaking and the other French speaking, with a common front entrance! In Mobile Alabama, the Board had to work through several neighbourhoods before they found one where a household with black and white people would be able to live under the one roof. Through such foundations L’Arche was inserting itself into the social and political realities of the cultures in which it was taking root. Part of the contribution of vulnerable people to society is that they have a way of drawing us to the fault lines in the political and social fabric and many L’Arche communities have grown from that earth.
When I returned to Australia in 1976 and began working with people for the establishment of L’Arche in this country we were involved in a process of inculturation. What would L’Arche in this country look like if it was both authentically Australian and authentically L’Arche? Our cultural and regulatory landscape is not that of France or Canada and from the early days we looked somewhat different to L’Arche in most other countries. Our homes have always been smaller for example. We opted for typical homes in neighbourhoods as opposed to large semi institutional dwellings. When I was community leader in Canberra in the mid 1980’s I was told by a government official that they were watching our development with interest as we were the first service provider to neither purpose build, nor opt for what was described as a ‘welfare neighbourhood’. When the national legislation was overhauled in the 1980’s despite being a very small organisation, L’Arche Australia was consulted on how the legislation might be shaped so that an organisation such as ours would not be negatively affected. In this country we have had to find our own expression of the spirituality of L’Arche as we developed in a context of religious plurality in an increasingly post Christian culture. If we are to remain significant today I think we need to keep before us the question of how L’Arche in Australia poses questions and offers insights to the dominant culture about the place and the contribution of people who live with the experience of disability.
In the early 1980’s as communities were opened on the south coast of NSW and in Sydney, Australia became a Region in L’Arche International and I was the Coordinator representing Australia to the International Council. These years brought a widening of my experience of L’Arche in the world as we met in different countries and grappled with questions of growth and sustainability on an International level. Perhaps the most confronting experience of those years for me was to be in Haiti during the visit of Pope John Paul II. The power and control of structural injustice has never been more real to me.
From 1993 – 2001 I was the Coordinator for the Zone AWP. This grouping of communities in India, Japan, the Philippines and NZ offered and rich and diverse experience of often challenging realities of economic, social and historical significance. At the same time, it opened possibilities for L’Arche to truly live it’s mission to be a sign of hope in the world. I was very touched, for example by the community in Manila which was founded on the welcome of children who had been abandoned. From the beginning, there was a Japanese woman who was part of the team of assistants. When she was proposed as the second community leader I witnessed the struggle of the Board members, every one of whom had lost family members during the Japanese occupation in WWII. Their ability to not allow that painful experience to stand in the way of Keiko’s leadership, and her choice to give 20 years of her life to L’Arche in the Philippines became one of the most profound journeys of healing and reconciliation that I have witnessed.
Since June 2012 I have been the Vice International Leader of L’Arche, living in a L’Arche home in France for six months of the year. The joy and the challenge of this role has been to work to grow a deeper unity amongst the diversity of an increasingly complex family of communities. As in those early years, the communities continue to encompass the big questions of our world: in Damascus as the civil war continues, in Bethlehem as the Israeli settlements are expanded, in the Ivory Coast where the community had to relocate and is now trying to rebuild after civil war, in Ukraine in an unstable political situation, in Lithuania where the fear of Soviet invasion is ever present, in the changing political landscape in the US, in Haiti as we work to rebuild two communities, firstly after the earthquake and more recently following the typhoon, in France and Belgium where the possibility of terrorist attacks is ever present.
In and through all these realities we discover the beauty and fragility of being an international family and the importance of the international dimension of our Identity as an organisation. Over the past year and a half, we have released a series of short films entitled #As I Am, portraying stories of people who live with the experience of intellectual disabilities in different parts of the world. The voices of these people cause us to stop and reflect, to laugh and cry, to marvel at the resilience of people who have known exclusion, abandonment, and oppression, and to rejoice with them as they have found a place of life and of flourishing in L’Arche.
For all the challenges, questions and limitations which our communities face, they remain a sign of hope for our world as they live their mission to make known the gifts of people with an intellectual disability. Where communities are intentionally engaged in outreach to the societies in which they exist, they point to the possibility of human cooperation and flourishing when vulnerable people are accorded a place of belonging at the heart of the human family. It is in that spirit that L’Arche International has developed a partnership with an organisation in China which is providing homes and work to over 1,000 people with disabilities. Through such partnerships, we hope to spread the spirit and vision of L’Arche beyond the confines of our exiting communities and to positively influence the lives of people with disabilities for whom we cannot provide direct support. To translate that to the local level, there is the challenge to all of us to be communities of engagement and of witness in our neighbourhoods, our churches and our local communities, and in doing so to recognise that in our DNA as an organisation we carry a rich dimension of internationality.