At that time we had a stable group of Australian Assistants and Core Members (those with Intellectual Disability around whom the Community was formed), Associates and Board Members in both the Burwood and Merrylands houses; Campsie house evolved towards the end of that time.
Living in L’Arche satisfied a deep search in me for home, spiritual community and belonging. It was a profound experience of joy, laughter, forgiveness, welcome and lived spirituality. In the lives of the Core Members I experienced the incarnate Christ. They never failed to welcome, to hope, to see the best in others and to share their love, friendship and laughter. As an Assistant one can feel like one is there to do the loving and supporting and yet it was humbling to discover that I received so much more than I ever gave. Friends and associates of the Community, past Assistants, family members and current Assistants were welcomed with such joy by the Core Members for meals, cuppas, outings, prayer. There was never judgement that visits had been too few and far between, patience was short or attention wanting, rather a gratitude or perhaps a simple delight in the current moment and the goodness that it offered. The Core Members accepted others, ‘warts and all’, despite so often having been rejected as ‘wanting’ themselves. I think this is a great attribute of people with Intellectual Disability and an insight and ability that the world is greatly improved by.
Not to say that there weren’t tedious and challenging times, but as often as not these were conflicts of will with the Core Members who struggled for some control in their lives, conflicts of attitude with other Assistants or internal battles about love, independence and power. The formation (practical and spiritual) provided for Assistants allowed us to grow in understanding of ourselves and each other.
My memories are of evening prayer, cooking together, celebrations filled with laughter and music, friends and family, outings to have the ubiquitous cappuccino, doing chores together, doctors and specialists’ visits, accompaniment, retreats and meals. Laughter pervades and especially the easy laughter of ‘Bonfire’, the man with Downs Syndrome for whom I had majority care during my time in L’Arche. He was ever ready for a joke and remains a dear friend today, despite my inconsistent contact.
For me L’Arche modelled a way of life that I think Christ may have envisaged when he called us to have ‘life to the full’. It was not about financial wealth, prestige or power, but rather about genuine and mutually respectful relationships; about those with various abilities sharing them to enable others to live a life of dignity, love and joy. The abilities of Assistants, Associates and Board Members were practical; the ability to read, drive, manage finance and personal care as well as, I hope, providing care and respect. The members of L’Arche with an intellectual disability offered acceptance, forgiveness, welcome, laughter, love and in their need for practical care, a call to Community and the dignity of personhood. I wonder who was more like Jesus, and who provided the greatest gifts? I know my life was blessed for my time there and it has flowed on to bless my own family. I went on from Sydney to be associated with the Community in Hobart and now Newcastle where I have experienced the same laughter and welcome and the various gifts each person brings to create a community. L’Arche for me has truly been a home of love, a ‘House of Hearts’.