Disability and Community in L’Arche Atlanta

L'Arche Atlanta crew playing basketball.
L’Arche Atlanta crew playing basketball.

On my first day at L’Arche House, a sign on purple paper greeted me:


I do not yet know who drew it for me, but it fills me with warmth. I have never been here before, but they are welcoming me back, welcoming me home. During my time at L’Arche, I have discovered that this attitude is the air we breathe. Some communities never get beyond talking about welcoming the stranger; L’Arche puts this into practice daily.

This welcoming attitude pulls me through my uncertainties: What do I say? What am I supposed to do? I have no experience working with people with intellectual disabilities (known as core members, who are at the heart of everything L’Arche does). I’ve been placed here through my work with Quaker Voluntary Service, an organization that drew me by its emphasis on Quaker faith, social justice, and community. I don’t know what to expect. I’ve read a little about the founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, who welcomed into his home two men with disabilities, Raphaël Simi and Phillipe Seux, and found his life utterly transformed. I am finding my life transformed, too, with my questions and presence gently, lovingly embraced.

I ask, “Isn’t L’Arche’s mission to celebrate the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities?”

“Oh yes,” I am told. “But it is also about the gifts you bring here.”

The revelations of these gifts stun me. My frantic double- and triple-checking of my paperwork: a gift for administration; my compulsive baking whenever someone’s coming over: a gift for hospitality; my continual need to ask people to please repeat themselves so I can understand what they said, cultivated through my entire life with having a hearing disability: a gift for listening.

L’Arche gives me a space to transform what I consider to be a gift or a disability. This culture we live in sets stock by ability: productivity, competence, performance rating, income, willingness to ignore one’s human limitations. In community with people who will never meet those kinds of expectations, L’Arche offers me a choice to step outside as well. The moment that I do, what I consider to be valuable changes. Formerly ignored gifts become brilliantly apparent, and we value what draws us into wholehearted togetherness, rather than what gets us ahead individually. It might be a full-color artwork of the Nativity, or of an Atlanta Falcons player; songs sung from the heart; trash talk on the basketball court; or an intimate heart-to-heart that brings forth the most vulnerable questions on our minds. My perception of my own disabilities changes: reluctance to ask for help, judgmentalism, and stubborn independence all disable me from community life. Meanwhile, each core member’s unconditional acceptance, care, and openness enables all to live as themselves in this community.

I am someone who identifies outside the gender binary of female/male, and who uses non-gendered pronouns accordingly (ze/zir or they/them, instead of he/him and she/her). My being genderqueer was openly acknowledged from the first email I got from L’Arche, and each person has welcomed it as a gift—the first time anyone has done so. Each core member has accepted my identity with no question or difficulty. I have rarely experienced this kind of radical acceptance. I feel incredibly safe and incredibly vulnerable. While I am cooking, cleaning, or driving, the people I am ostensibly serving offer me the gift of respect and acknowledgment of my whole identity, in ways that the outside world so often fails to do. I yearn for the ease that our core members have shown me, that I may share it with others.

I struggle to tell this, knowing I am narrating only one side of the relationship; I cannot speak for the core members of L’Arche, but neither would they speak as I do in this medium. You would only know them by visiting, talking, slowing down, and spending time with them. I can only say: Come and see.

My life as a young Quaker, growing up in Chicago meetings, was suffused by a sense of love that surrounded me as I settled into the silence. At L’Arche I can settle into that same sense, even as the language of silence changes. Our prayers are loud, or messy, or involve dancing, or there is a candle passed around, or paint is flung on paper, or they are a bumping hug in the middle of a hallway. But the love remains.

Adrian Nelson

Adrian Nelson is currently living, working, and playing in Atlanta, Ga., with Quaker Voluntary Service and L’Arche Atlanta. Ze worships with Atlanta Meeting and is a member of Northside Meeting in Chicago, Ill. Ze also delivers vegan baked goods and organizes for the network Showing Up for Racial Justice.

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