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L'Arche's 'laboratory for living'

  • May 4, 2009
{mosimage}RICHMOND HILL, Ont. - L'Arche is important if we think our humanity is important. It's founding principle and most basic commitment is L'Arche founder Jean Vanier's idea that we can be more human.

L'Arche Daybreak , the second of 130 L'Arche communities worldwide and the first established in North America, turns 40 this year. The community will celebrate this milestone with a May 12 gala at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts just down the street from the community's eight houses, its Dayspring Chapel and all its programs.

At the sold-out gala there will be an auction of paintings by L'Arche artists. The centrepiece of the evening will be a performance by L'Arche Daybreak dance troupe The Spirit Movers on stage with the L'Arche Toronto theatre group Sol Express in Dancing the River.

The L'Arche Daybreak heritage is as varied as its community. There's the serious thought that went into nearly 40 books by Fr. Henri Nouwen and there's the life Michael Barrett leads in his wheelchair among friends. All of that is being celebrated at Daybreak's 40th anniversary bash. But it's not merely on display. L'Arche is not an act — not a performance for the sake of the rest of us who live selfish, individualistic, consumerist lives.

It often seems that L'Arche is there to instruct us about the sinfulness of our times — this evil generation searching for a sign. Two-thousand high school students every year show up at Dayspring for day-long retreats at which they are taught by L'Arche core members how life can be connected and how the simple act of living is important. The Spirit Movers perform in churches and schools all over Ontario.

"There are lessons that are being learned in L'Arche that are for the church," said Daybreak board member Jacqui Boughner. "It's a laboratory for living in this multifaith and diverse world."

But the community really lives out of its heart — the core formed by core members.

"The elements we live that are most intense are not public," explains Daybreak executive director Carl MacMillan.

In his office MacMillan keeps a print of a painting of St. Francis of Assisi he was given by Nouwen, a member of the Daybreak community until his death in 1996.

MacMillan fights to protect the privacy of L'Arche core members — the personal life of the community — but at the same time believes in the importance of sharing the "radiance of our community."

Life in L'Arche remains an ideal and dream unattainable for most intellectually disabled people even in Ontario where there are 29 of the movements 130 communities. MacMillan warns that L'Arche can't create an inclusive society for the rest of us.

"It's not a solution. It's a sign," he said.

For Cheryl Zinyk, artistic director of the Dancing the River gala performance, the ideals of L'Arche have shaped her life for the last 16 years.

"It's a place I can connect with. A place of belonging," she said. "It's like finding your people"

It's also where she has explored her creative abilities in theatre and music.

"Our world is a more interesting, vibrant world when we allow for creativity and make room for difference," she said. "I came here because it's a place that allows for a lot of variety."

The creativity of life in L'Arche is expressed in ways that go far beyond dance and music. For Woodery program director Joe Child there's creativity and self-expression in holding a job and finding your place in work.

"It's a different kind of dance. It's the dance of the wood," said Child. "It has every spiritual dimension that the Spirit Movers has."

What impresses Child most about The Woodery's work force is how proud they are of the work they do.

"The people really love having a job, and they do work of high quality."

The kind of sheltered work environment The Woodery provides isn't as common as it once was. The emphasis has shifted to integrating disabled people into regular workplaces. But Child doesn't believe the work force at The Woodery could be as happily or steadily employed as tin the old barn on the L'Arche property.

L'Arche often finds itself at odds with current trends in the disability world.

"It's now fashionable to group people by functional level. L'Arche does the opposite," explains MacMillan.

A good community is often one with wide variation in the level of ability or disability, a wide range of ages and experience. Disabled people need not simply to be cared for but also to care for others. The chance to support someone else, whether emotionally or physically, is part of how we all become more human.

"We look for a grouping that is fruitful and can live together well," said MacMillan. "A chemistry that is much more interesting."

For St. Joseph Sister Sue Mosteller the magic of those fruitful groupings has been a constant since she first moved into Daybreak in 1972.

"For our world today, where difference is seen as a problem, we're trying to suggest it's a gift," she said.

Mosteller first attended a lecture given by Vanier in 1967 at Montreal's Expo ’67 and heard a Gospel message that bonded deeply with her own sense of vocation. When Vanier spoke of how God speaks to us through the poor, Mosteller looked around and saw the world through new eyes.

"My head just blew off," she said. "My heart was opening."

Mosteller is almost surprised to find herself still at Daybreak 37 years after she first arrived at what was then one old farmhouse plus a barn on a swath of donated farmland. Mosteller's first commitment was always to her religious community, and she's been ready to go elsewhere at any time. But now she finds herself growing old with core members who have lit the path to maturity in the community.

"Who else has this? Friends for 30 years?" she asks.

Though she's edited books and published articles, Mosteller isn't sure she can put her experience with L'Arche into words.

"To celebrate 40 years, that's the thing," she said. "There aren't words to put around this thing."

Today L'Arche continues to be the vocation it was for Mosteller in the early 1970s.

"It has called me forth to reach down and find the deeper aspirations of my faith and vocation," she said. "L'Arche is a sign for those who are seeking a way to become fully human."


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