The Gift of Presence

Katie Robinson

Published 1 November 2019

Last week I found myself in an unexpected encounter at my job: I was in an office of a homeless shelter on the west side of Chicago, being offered potato chips and a hoodie sweatshirt from a dear social worker who had just celebrated her 76th birthday. As she passed over the chip bag to begin our meeting, she opened with this question: “Where did you learn how to be present with people?”

“Oh.” I paused, surprised. “Well, I used to live in this place called L’Arche.”

After living in L’Arche Chicago for the past two years, I accepted a new role as the care coordinator for a medically assisted treatment program. I support individuals seeking recovery from heroin use disorder by accompanying them to inpatient or recovery home facilities. The transition from the slow pace of L’Arche, centered on simplicity and relationship, to a fast-paced clinic setting has been disorienting. Each day, I am chasing the clock to secure needed services; it is a landscape of scarcity and a snare of bureaucracy. I’ve been curious about learnings – if any – that transfer from L’Arche to my current role.

This social worker had the eyes to see and name a gift from L’Arche, that has contributed to my effectiveness as a recovery care coordinator. She stepped in for me when I had hit a snag in supporting a patient. The patient was distressed and hungry and we needed to adjust our plans. She pulled me aside, placing her arm over mine and said: “Listen. You’re accompanying people. That’s important work. I like how you’re doing it. Come meet with me again and we can learn from each other.”

So, that’s how I ended up in her office, eating potato chips and sharing about how life in L’Arche – more than any previous work placement or educational degree – has shaped me.

“Being present” is difficult to describe. I didn’t learn to be present in a classroom or online seminar. Instead, sharing presence was revealed to me in a particular way at L’Arche. It’s where I leaned into the ways of the human heart. I learned about the communion of human hearts through receiving a core member’s blessing at the end of our nightly routines or chatting through our joys and griefs while being careful not to knick my housemate’s face with a razor during a morning shave. Presence in L’Arche meant that I could trust others to hold my limitations with gentleness and extend that same grace without resentment. Presence meant that we could hold our celebrations and sorrows in the same breath and see each other with breathtaking dignity. I have transitioned to a new job with a wealth of presence to offer, and that has been enough.