I’m always searching for the “elevator pitch” to describe L’Arche. You know, the sentence that captures the essence of who we are and what we do, and can be delivered in the length of time it takes to ride an elevator. It’s not easy. Sure, L’Arche is an organization that creates home and work with men and women who have intellectual disabilities. L’Arche is a worldwide movement that advocates for full citizenship for people traditionally left on the margins of society. L’Arche is an intentional community that nurtures deep relationships between people of diverse abilities.
But L’Arche is so much more than that.
I’ve lived at L’Arche Cape Breton for almost 20 years. I arrived upon completion of my university degree to be a live-in assistant (caregiver) for men and women with disabilities. I came convinced that I had a lot to offer, and that L’Arche would be lucky to have me! Turns out, I was the lucky one. The education of the heart that I have received here, the skills I have developed, and the friends I have made, have tied me to this place for two decades, and I expect will keep me here for many more.
I met my husband here, and we’re raising our four kids in this incredible community. Our children are growing up in a way that few others are. They have a couple of dozen friends they see each week who each have an intellectual disability. They know people who use wheelchairs or walkers, people who don’t speak, grownups who need help with things like eating or getting around. They know that people are different, as they know who in the family is left or right-handed, or whose hair is straight or curly. Difference is ordinary.
But I remember when my oldest reached the stage when we wanted to talk with her about disability as a particular form of difference. It’s not an easy concept to communicate to a three year old, especially if what you want to communicate is that disability isn’t a disease. It isn’t something that makes you less human. It isn’t a problem to be solved. My experience with people with disabilities in L’Arche has taught me to think differently, to see the world differently, to laugh more, to forgive easier, to live with compassion, to learn from unexpected teachers.
We tried our best to explain all this in simple terms and crossed our fingers that at least some of it made it through. A few minutes later, when we had moved on to other topics, she casually asked, “Can we talk about possibilities again?” “You mean disabilities?”, her dad asked. “Yeah, possibilities.” What a wonderful mix-up in language.
Because of course my toddler’s “mistake” is really what L’Arche is all about – possibilities. The possibility that people on the margins of society can change the world. The possibility that a university graduate and a person who can’t tie their own shoes can form a bond that lasts a lifetime. The possibility that someone who was in a “special class” in high school can host their own radio show. The possibility that embracing weakness and vulnerability actually makes us stronger.
L’Arche has opened me up to a world of possibilities. And that’s the best elevator pitch I could hope for.