When Jean Vanier decided to live in community in a small French home together with Raphael and Philippe, two persons with disabilities, he didn't know he was going to start a worldwide L'Arche movement. He didn't even know the transformations - those inner deaths and re-births - and transitions that he would experience over the course of over 50 years in L'Arche.
Surely, Jean is a man that experienced many transitions in his life. Born in Switzerland, Jean was a Navy officer and then a Philosophy professor in Canada, before choosing to live with Raphael and Philippe in Trosly-Breuil, France. Son of the Governor General of Canada, he decided to dedicate his life to community with persons with disabilities and the God who reveals himself through them. Throughout the years, Jean was invited to transition from the need to be in control to the delight of being in relationship, thanks to the community experiences he has had at L'Arche.
The initial L'Arche home in Trosly that Jean, Raphael and Philippe started has also seen transitions. Raphael has since passed away, Philippe now lives in another city, and Jean now lives in an apartment not far from the original house. Yet, in the midst of all these transitions, the power of relationship remains strong. As I lived there as a live-in assistant some years ago, it was special to see Jean still come over to the house for meals or visits, as it was to meet Philippe, who seemed smiley and glad to be known and recognized as one of the founders of L'Arche. The community itself is now comprised of various homes - not only one, it has grown - inviting more people to experience the transforming power of relationship with people that have intellectual disabilities.
Here in Chicago, our own community members and our own homes experience internal transitions from time to time. After all, our very human journey is full of transitions and changes; sometimes these can provoke fear of the unknown, often they help us reach out for community, for relationship.
Community life mirrors our human life. Therefore, transitions are a normal and natural part of its being.
The most obvious community transitions are those related to house team changes, but the biggest transitions are actually less visible - and less talked about.
These "hidden transitions" happen in the lives of core members, as they age and their bodies and energy levels change, as they keep finding their own voice, and as they learn to relate with new people.
These "hidden transitions" happen in the hearts of assistants, as they discover their gifts but also their shadow areas, and as they become transformed by encountering core members.
When our new volunteer from Brazil Renata started sharing time with Christianne, both needed time to learn how to communicate with one another. One evening, Christianne expressed how she cared for Renata, telling her something that reminded Renata of her mother in Brazil. Christianne told her: "Did you eat something today? I didn't see. Go eat something." This moved Renata. Christianne was watching and caring for her, in her new home, her new culture, her new country. A transition happened within Renata. From the confusing reality of starting a new adventure in another country, which can provoke fear, to the comforting power of relationship.
Renata is surely not the only assistant who has experienced a transition in L'Arche Chicago. All our assistants have experienced inner transitions during their time in L'Arche, and they have not run away from them. This might also be why they decide to stay closely connected to our community.
Almost all of our domestic assistants stay as live-in assistants an average of two years, even if they initially arrive with a one year commitment. Various assistants that don't live in anymore but live in the Chicago area have remained involved as live-out assistants. Our summer interns have generally decided to return/stay for a whole year. Our international volunteers can only legally stay one year, but they have often remained in touch with us or visited us after their time here. If we take an even wider look, most of our founding members are still meaningfully involved in our community as accompaniers to assistants and core members.
What keeps people so connected to L'Arche?
Maybe, partly, it is the fact that in the midst of the constant transitions we find within and outside ourselves, having a core member like Philippe lead Jean to let go of control, or having someone like Christianne show Renata her gift of care in the midst of a new country experience, encourages us to let go of fear and enter into the transformative delight of relationship.