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L’Arche: From humble beginnings to international participation

Hindu and Muslim members of the L’Arche community in Kolkata, India. - submitted
Hindu and Muslim members of the L’Arche community in Kolkata, India.
— image credit: submitted

This is the fourth in a series of articles that will explore the nature of developmental disability, its impact on our community and the resources available. Wendy Dyck is a freelance writer working in the Comox Valley since 2001. She has been a regular contributor to Infocus and other magazines and has written an arts column for CYMC. She is also an editor with seven books, both fiction and non-fiction, to her credit.

Integration and relationship - authentic community - is the raison d’etre of L’Arche. Begun in the 1960s by a Canadian named Jean Vanier, L’Arche is good idea that caught on – today there are over 200 L’Arche homes and work settings in Canada, and 130 more L’Arche communities around the world.

But back in the ’60s, Jean Vanier was one of many energetic and ambitious young men. He was restless - having served in the Royal Navy during World War II, he had returned to Canada and earned his doctorate in philosophy. But he was looking for a way to make his life count.

He moved to France and while studying there was confronted with the harsh institutional reality faced by adults with developmental disabilities. In what must have seemed a moment of folly, Vanier bought a small house and invited two such men he had befriended to move in with him; he never looked back. The unique community he created in the little house he nicknamed ‘L’Arche’ (French for ‘the ark’) inspired others, drew them in - especially young people.

Vanier’s model is striking in its simplicity: Create a space where relationships between people with and without developmental disabilities can be nurtured; a family-like setting where people can ‘rub shoulders.’ Because one of the central ideas to these communities is mutuality, that everyone – without or with a developmental disability – has a something to offer, and that time and sustained contact will reveal it to us.

L’Arche Comox Valley believes this. Celebrations, meals, recreational activities, are shared by a diverse community. Some are L’Arche employees, some are L’Arche volunteers, but many are just people who have finally found a place where differences are a source of celebration, not exclusion.

Some folks live at Jubilee House, the L’Arche residence in Courtenay. Some folks hang out at the Outreach Centre and participate in art classes or Seniors’ groups. But everyone attends the Fall Pig Roast!

A key component of L’Arche is that it is not-for-profit. The friends who bring you a birthday gift or invite you for supper are not being paid to be your friend – they are including you in their circle because you bring something that no one else could.

The word is integration, real community. And while L’Arche does have a spiritual side, it is welcoming to all beliefs - as L’Arche communities in India, Japan or Egypt will attest. Values of compassion, honesty, commitment, and authenticity are shared by many faiths and cultures, and affirm the deep respect for shared humanity that Vanier recognized when he invited those two men into his life.

The story of L’Arche continues to evolve, inspiring new generations, who like the ones before, long for authentic community and practical ways of living out the values they hold. What happens when these communities begin to dream will be the subject of the next and final article.

 

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