Our latest blog post is written by FJV AmeriCorps member Heidi Hanson (Spokane, WA ’15-16) who served as the House Support/Care Giver with L’Arche Spokane in Spokane, Washington. Below, Heidi shares her experience forming relationships and growing in love and compassion with her Core Members and community of L’Arche Spokane.
The celebration of love and compassion was an ever-present aspect of my year of service with L’Arche Spokane, a community of individuals with and without developmental disabilities sharing life together. Life in L’Arche provides a unique opportunity to celebrate authentic love, the love that encourages us to find the gifts in one another, provides the foundation for compassion, and enables mutual relationships to form. Throughout my service year, I reflected on what I learned about the very real and human experience of love as we grew in relationship with one another.
Love is acceptance. When I first walked into L’Arche, I knew I was somewhere special. I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of welcoming and compassion. I observed the Core Members (as the individuals with developmental disabilities are known within L’Arche) and assistants engaging with one another, together as friends and completely comfortable, which was something I could not wait to be a part of.
At the end of my first day of service, one of the Core Members gave me a great big hug as we said goodbye. I’ve received many hugs from this Core Member since then, but in that moment I felt truly welcomed into the L’Arche family! Although he didn’t know much about me aside from being a new JV, his acceptance of me into his life and home was so genuine it made me feel like I already belonged. He literally welcomed me with open arms! In this small display of compassion, I realized that L’Arche is a place where everyone, no matter their role in our community, can come exactly as they are and be met with kindness and grace. As we focus our efforts on the acceptance and appreciation of one another, without requiring them to be anything other than themselves, we are able to discover, value, and learn from their individual gifts. The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, once wrote, “To love someone is to show them their beauty, worth, and importance.” It is through an accepting love that we hope to do that for everyone in our community.
Love is forgiveness. Although we do our best to be accepting of one another, it is inevitable that a community, or any relationship really, will experience times of tension and discord. We are only human, after all. The more difficult times at L’Arche have tested my patience, but it has also been a safe space to accept my own weaknesses and learn to openly communicate with those who think and understand differently than me. Sharing life together includes many moments such as this, revealing that acceptance of others requires daily effort toward understanding and compassion so that we can forgive one another and continue to grow.
A few months into my service, there was a new pizza place having their grand opening where they gave away a free pizza to every person who waited in line. That day only two Core Members were around, so the other assistant and I offered to take them out to get pizzas for lunch. As we were about to leave, one of the Core Members refused to go, because he wanted to go to a different pizza place instead. Even when we offered to go to both, he became very angry and said he wanted to go to his place or nowhere at all. I asked if we could talk about it just the two of us, and we had a conversation about how community living means we can’t always get exactly what we want and sometimes we have to compromise. He listened to what I said, but he still didn’t want to go. I told him that was okay, but I asked him to think about how that decision impacted other people in the community. The time spent on an outing with Core Members is something all assistants enjoy, so it was unfortunate that one would have to stay behind. A while later, the Core Member came to the table, put his hand on my shoulder, and said “I’m sorry. Next time I go with you, okay? I’m sorry.” I was touched by his apology, because normally he cools off and moves on but doesn’t often ask forgiveness outright. Sharing life together includes many moments such as this, revealing that acceptance of others requires daily effort towards understanding and compassion so that we can forgive one another and continue to grow.
Love is in the little things. One of the best aspects of L’Arche is that it is rooted in community and fosters the development of mutual relationships. By experiencing life together, we have the continuous opportunity to share in the celebration and joy that can be found in the little things of everyday life. It demonstrates what Jean Vanier meant when he said, “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” I feel like most of my L’Arche stories demonstrate this lesson in love, but I will share a few that really stand out.
About a month into my JV AmeriCorps year, there was a weekend where all but one of the Core Members were gone spending time with their families. I spent that Saturday one-on-one with the remaining Core Member. We watched an episode of her favorite TV show, went out to lunch, and spent the afternoon making chocolate chip cookies while dancing and singing along to the Hairspray soundtrack in the kitchen. Going into that day I was nervous because she is one of the Core Members who takes the longest to warm up to new assistants, and she still hadn’t quite warmed up to me. As we sat together eating our freshly baked cookies, she looked up at me, smiled, and said “thanks!” Now, I consider her one of my closest friends, and I’m thankful for the many moments we have shared that have brought us closer together!
One night, as I was preparing to go home at 9:20 pm after an evening shift that ran a little late, one of the Core Members suddenly ran upstairs to his room. He came back down with a concerned look on his face and a large flashlight in his hand. He handed me the flashlight and told me to take it with me so I wouldn’t have to walk home in the dark. I was touched that he was worried about me and was willing to give me his own flashlight just to make sure I would be safe.
One of my absolute favorite times in L’Arche is when we are all sitting around the table sharing a meal together. Whether it is for breakfast or dinner, taking the time to sit with one another, to come together to eat and pray, is a little thing I look forward to every day! Joining hands with my L’Arche family around the table provides a tangible sense of the support and compassion I feel in our community! These are just a few examples of the many little moments and simple acts of love that have made my L’Arche experience so amazing and have truly transformed my heart!
I have learned and grown tremendously in my time with L’Arche. I have experienced a love I never imagined I would find in a single place. It’s amazing what you find in an organization based on the common humanity of different people, celebrating and sharing life together. Despite whatever ups and downs may occur, the many meaningful moments we share foster mutual relationships based in authentic love. This love is accepting another person for who they are, looking beyond the surface to see and appreciate their gifts, forgiving them, laughing and crying with them, and an offer of friendship. This is the experience of life and love that I have found in L’Arche, where my friends have shown me a level of trust, compassion, vulnerability, and joy that has challenged me to grow. Is there any greater gift than to be truly cared for, to have people in your life who accept you, forgive you, and show their love for you in the little things every day? I think not. After all, “we are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time” (Jean Vanier). I have been blessed to serve my year with my L’Arche family, celebrating the love we share! They have truly changed my heart and my world with their love!