Michael McDonald with L’Arche Kenya residents in 2011. Photo by Michael McDonald

Looking at the world through L’Arche eyes

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic New
  • February 25, 2019

EDMONTON – Some things in life are predestined, others are accidental.

Michael McDonald, an author and filmmaker, has had a mixture of both on his journey   around the world documenting life in L’Arche communities.

He fell into filmmaking by accident through L’Arche, a network of 131 communities worldwide in which people with and without developmental disabilities share their lives together. 

For more than a decade, McDonald has lived in L’Arche communities from Kenya to France,  where it was founded by the Catholic theologian and humanitarian Jean Vanier in 1964. In that time, he has made lifelong friends and learned a lot about his own humanity.

“The L’Arche mission isn’t about disability. The L’Arche mission is about relationship,” McDonald explained. “People with disabilities, across all cultures, are among the most crushed and pushed down wherever you go, and I can say that because I’ve been to the six continents and interviewed people.”

McDonald has told their stories through As I Am, a L’Arche International video series that looks at 12 L’Arche residents. The 31-year-old filmmaker shared some of his experiences at a Feb. 6 fundraiser for the Edmonton chapter.

“It’s a place where you go to start to unknow what you’ve learned in society,” McDonald said. “What you do might not be that important. Who you are, kindness, these things are really valuable. But also guts. It does take a lot of guts to be doing things in a way that is so counter-cultural.”

Growing up in South Bend, Ind., McDonald had an experience as a child that shattered his own notions of disability. It came in 1999 when he was in Grade 4 and had to volunteer in the community as part of his school curriculum. 

His dad Fran chose the Logan Center, which provides services for people with intellectual disabilities. 

“When I got there, there was a woman waiting for me. She said, ‘Michael, you’re going to spend the day with a woman named Claire and she’s going to be very different than most adults that you’ve met. She doesn’t walk with her legs. And when you speak to her and she speaks to you, you probably won’t understand what she’s saying.’

“After the day ended, I got in the car, looked up at my dad and said, ‘I’m not going back.’ 

“My dad said words that I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘OK Michael, you can keep going back until it no longer feels weird.’

“Later he told me, ‘You thought it felt weird because you thought your humanity and her humanity were different. But I knew if you kept going, she would teach you otherwise.’ And she did.”

Little did McDonald know it would set him on a path for his life and career in L’Arche.

At Notre Dame, McDonald studied the writings of L’Arche founder Vanier and Henri Nouwen, the priest, writer and theologian who left academia to live at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ont., the first L’Arche community in Canada. 

In 2007, McDonald was captivated when he heard Vanier speak in Washington, D.C.. Reflecting on Notre Dame’s lesson to all of its students — to answer the question, “Where is the school of the heart?” — he realized he needed to act on his faith.

One of his assignments landed him in in Kenya, where he ghost-wrote four books on L’Arche. In 2013 he obtained his master’s degree in peace studies at Notre Dame and, with the university’s help, returned to Kenya to start a radio program there, telling the stories of the disabled.

“I made a little video to announce the radio project, and that video was actually more popular than the radio project,” McDonald explained. “Within two weeks it had been viewed in 80 countries. I got an e-mail from the United Nations. They told me they would show it at their headquarters. All of a sudden that was when the door of film was opened.”

After that, the requests for film projects flooded in. McDonald demurred but L’Arche insisted. 

With no formal video training, McDonald said Louis Pilotte — now the national leader of L’Arche Canada — told him: “‘You have the sense of L’Arche. All that technical stuff is not as important to me.’ It’s a very L’Arche move because it’s irresponsible. It’s crazy. 

“Jean Vanier’s big thing was ‘Society doesn’t see the gifts inside of you. We’re going to create a place where everyone is going to give you a standing ovation for those gifts. Even if you don’t see them yet, through relationships, through time, they’ll come to grow.’ ”

(Grandin Media)


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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.