Last week we explored An Ark Built of Respect flourishing in Toronto. Not far from there in the town of Erie, Pennsylvania a name forever associated with a modern miracle of transportation, another Ark had set out in 1972. On November 22, 1972, just eight years after Jean Vanier had established the first L’Arche in France, two similarly visionary planners, Benedictine Sister Barbara Ann and Father George Strohmeyer of Gannon College committed to “do something together for God,” and L’Arche USA was born. They recognized the need and the potential to adopt the model of the shared community to Erie. They brought together Intellectually challenged individuals and those who would assist them to live in the style of a family and this shared home enriched both. Jean Vanier’s dream had been communicated to Sister Barbara Ann in a conference when she heard him describe the power of mutual respect as the basis for a healing community modeled on the family.
L’Arche Home in Atlanta
By 1982, the consummate planner Sister Barbara Ann died at the time of an international gathering of the L’Arche Federation. Jean Vanier had come to the US to address the group and her passing seemed to come as a reassurance to all that the dream would continue. Steve Washek, the current Vice National Director of L’Arche USA refers to the Erie foundation as “the Mothership.”(of L’Arche USA) As he told the story of Sister Barbara Ann’s death it is easy to imagine that she went with a peaceful certainty that the ship was on course to carry Jean Vanier’s dream towards new horizons.
Now in 2016, Gannon has become a University and L’Arche a national phenomenon stretching from Long Island to Seattle, 20 communities comprising 64 homes (57 houses and 7 apartments) in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Each community is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit corporation governed by its own board of directors and managed by a caring professional staff. They are united by their membership in L’Arche USA and the International Federation of L’Arche.
Christianne and Rebecca of Chicago L’Arche
Groups called “Friends of L’Arche” are actively engaged in the process of nurturing emerging communities. Each L’Arche house or community serves the needs of intellectually challenged persons who live and grow along without such challenges in what Steve describes as “honesty, forgiveness and authentic relationship.” Both are similarly transformed by the daily discovery of what can happen when a myopic view of disability is replaced by a wider vision of ability that is based on creativity, hope and mutual respect.
Steve Washek began his L’Arche voyage of discovery as a college student in his native Erie in the Spring of 1980. Like so many, he came to help people living with intellectual disabilities. And as he shared a daily life of the commonplace: chores, decisions, reflection, assessments, meetings and celebrations, concern for each other with a special emphasis on care for the most vulnerable, a job became a life. In 1980, he had met his wife Vicki who shared his commitment to the daring social experiment that is L’Arche and is now a Community Leader. At present, their three adult children exemplify the ideal of living lives transformed by meeting and sharing life with people L’Arche understands are partners in the building of a humane society and not just recipients of care. Jamie is a husband and a student pursuing his Doctorate of Physical Therapy; Meghan, a Mother of four and House leader; and Matthew living and assisting in one of L’Arche’s 7 homes and 4 Life Sharing arrangements.
St. Louis L’Arche at a Cardinals Game
As the population of intellectually disabled becomes older, more diverse and independent, L’Arche is expanding its horizons to integrate single individuals into existing families. Steve and Vicki, for example have invited Leroy to live with them. He will celebrate his upcoming 79th birthday in their home as a member of their extended family.
There has never been any question as to the value of the L’Arche philosophy for any of this Pennsylvania family. The challenge for them, and especially for Steve in his administrative role, is to find ways to ensure that the L’Arche vision is sustainable. Its nonprofit status and respectful relationships with various sources of public and government funding can help ensure that their funding follows members of its core communities. Development programs are designed to capture the imagination and good will of donors who want to support this brave social experiment. All of this converges at a point where people of realism, hope and good will choose in the words of the L’Arche website to become involved in the building of a more humane world.
Opening photo: Seattle L’Arche’s community vacation.
All photos courtesy of L’Arche USA
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.