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L’Arche London 20th Anniversary
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In his book “Ruthless Trust (HarperCollins, 2000),” Brennan Manning recounts an encounter Episcopal priest Tom Minifie, at the time with St. Luke’s Church in Seattle, Washington, had with a prominent couple of the church. He saw them sitting in the back pew and they were clearly embarrassed with their one year old son with Down’s syndrome. He asked them to come to the church office after the service, and asked them if they knew what a gift their child was.

“Sensing confusion and even concern from the parents, he explained his reaction: ‘Two years ago my three-year-old daughter, Sylvia, died with Down’s syndrome. We have four other children, so we know the blessing that kids can be. Yet the most precious gift we’re ever received in our entire lives has been Sylvia. In her uninhibited expression of affection, she revealed to us the face of God as no other human being ever has. Did you know that several Native American tribes attribute divinity to Down’s children because in their utter simplicity they’re a transparent window into the Great Spirit? Treasure this child, for he will lead you into the heart of God.” While Minifie was not a member of a L’Arche community his insight into the heart of God toward people representative of L’Arche core members illustrates the soul of the organization.

On Friday February 24, the community of L’Arche London celebrated it’s 20th anniversary. What started two decades ago with one community home has now become three: Cana House, Jubilee House, and Bethany House. There is a total of 12 core members (community members with intellectual disabilities), 12 live-in assistants, and a large day program serving the core members and others in the community.

L’Arche began in Trosly-Breuil, France in 1964. Canadian Jean Vanier invited two men with developmental disabilities to come and live with him. This revolutionary idea of living in community with and caring for those with developmental or physical disabilities rather than institutionalizing them for life first came to Canada as L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill in 1969 (the first community outside of France), and has since spread to nearly 40 countries and more than 140 communities.

“Community” is the key aspect to the L’Arche philosophy. People with disabilities are not treated as defective or less than, but as vital and equal members in the community. Core members and assistants live together, eat together, worship together, and travel together. While institutionalization brought with it certain economies many in those institutions suffered from neglect, abuse, and degradation.

Many hundreds of people packed the conference room at the Double Tree Hotel to help celebrate the anniversary. Core members were in their finest clothes, past and present assistants and administrative staff were in abundance, past and present day program staff and board members celebrated, many friends of L’Arche from London and elsewhere attended, and Mayor Brown and Councilman Usher represented the city of London.

The past, present, and future of L’Arche London was celebrated. One of the most exciting moments was when the crowd was treated to a video detailing the progress being made on the construction of the Gathering Place in Lambeth. The Gathering Place will allow L’Arche London to consolidate the many different aspects of the day program (http://larchelondon.ca/programs-day-programs/) under one roof and provide space and meaningful activities for many other people with disabilities in the London area.

While it was a wonderful night there was more to be seen than simply the celebration, and if you were there I hope you caught it. At one point a core member had a bit of respiratory distress, and all over that section of the conference room assistants and house leaders turned immediately, listening, evaluating. When it didn’t immediately subside a couple of L’Arche staff moved in quickly and confidently, and assisted, bringing comfort and solving the distress.

I hope you didn’t miss the conversations. All around me conversations that included core members were virtually indistinguishable from those that didn’t. The genuine affection and deep sense of community was palpable. Despite all its’ humanity, disparate personalities, and messiness, in those 20 years L’Arche London has forged that community that so inspired Jean Vanier so many years ago.

To learn more about this philosophy and community you can start by going to http://larchelondon.ca/. If you wish to contribute to the day to day operations or to the new Gathering Place you can go to http://larchelondon.ca/donate/. For any questions you may have you can email office@larchelondon.org.