Solidarity. “Unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest. Mutual support within a group.” It’s one of those words that gets tossed around as a big picture idea that seems all but unachievable, especially in the divided world we live in today. But, when you break it down, it’s pretty simple.
Unity or agreement of feeling or action. Not color or language, not ability or religion, or culture, but feelings and actions–things we choose. When we at L’Arche make a commitment to share life together, we are joining together in solidarity, recognizing and embracing our differences.
When I lived in the L’Arche Edinburgh community, I shared life with assistants from Germany, Ireland, India, Kenya, England, Uganda, the Philippines, and France. We looked different, we spoke differently, we liked different foods (it took my mouth days to recover from true Indian Masala). We came from different cultural backgrounds and religious traditions. On the surface we really had nothing in common, but the shared vision of L’Arche brought us together. And not just the big-picture vision of L’Arche; the simple act of living together requires so many small acts of solidarity. The everyday acts of preparing dinner or cleaning the house reflect the solidarity inherent in sharing life together.
While navigating cultural differences was certainly challenging, I experienced the difficulties and joys of solidarity most clearly in my relationship with Gordon. I met Gordon my first day in L’Arche. Gordon had Down Syndrome and had developed dementia. He needed help with nearly all aspects of his daily life and was often very sick. Gordon had a very limited vocabulary and used words in different ways. “Beatles” for example could mean The Beatles, any kind of music, or any device used to play music. He often became frustrated when he did not understand or could not make himself understood and had frequent mood swings.
When I first met Gordon, I was terrified. I was fresh out of college with no personal care experience and limited experience working with individuals with disabilities. I was in a new country an ocean away from everyone I knew. For a brand new assistant, Gordon’s needs were overwhelming. I had such a hard time looking past his needs to see him as a person that I couldn’t imagine making a connection. But, slowly, after days and weeks of living together, I found that my fears were unfounded. I learned to see Gordon’s gifts. I loved singing with him, acting out stories, coloring, and giving and receiving hugs. I learned to find joy in the small moments and in relationships based on simplicity. We found a shared love of Doctor Who and music and I learned to appreciate the intimacy and trust of personal care and the beauty in silent (and noisy) companionship.
Gordon passed away a year after I returned to the US to complete my Master’s in Social Work. Explaining our relationship to those back home, I was struck once again by the power of solidarity. Gordon was more than twice my age and had significant disabilities; he is not someone I would have been friends with had it not been for L’Arche. Yet the life we shared together, based in mutual respect and vulnerability, transcended all superficial barriers allowing us to connect on a deeply human level. That recognition of the inherent humanity and gifts of all people is, to me, the true beginning of solidarity.