In the summer of 2008, during my fourth co-op work term of my undergraduate degree, I had the privilege to serve at L’Arche Ottawa, a community for people with developmental disabilities. The two main aspects that I had to learn, as I served in the “foyer” of one of the seven-odd homes, was firstly meeting the medical needs of the residents and secondly cultivating the social by engaging in communal activities. One of the highlights of the summer was travelling to Lévis, Québec when we exchanged foyers for a week with a French Canadian foyer.
I distinctly remember my father questioning why I chose to pick this as my final work term. Why couldn’t I had gotten a “practical” job in the government similar to my previous three work terms? Couldn’t I work a term in a workplace that was more career-oriented? In retrospect, I view my decision more as a calling to dedicate these four short months to discovering my shared humanity with all of God’s children.
I also had the opportunity to meet other students and develop friendships with young people my age during my time at L’Arche. Many 18-year-olds from Germany have come to volunteer with L’Arche because they used to be required to complete a year of military service or volunteering before embarking on their studies or apprenticeships. These students would often take the time to travel across Canada afterword.
Jean Vanier, the son of a former governor-general, is the founder of L’Arche. He started the first community in Trosly, France. Vanier is an academic who has considered deeply some very profound questions about our shared humanity. I have enjoyed reading his book Becoming Human, in which he shares his reflections and proposes a society where we learn to value weakness rather than strength. It is important to emphasize that this does not come naturally for most folks.
This was precisely the attitude of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. I have found L’Arche to be good praxis, or out-working, of my faith. Through summer barbecues and Christmas parties, I have kept in touch with this community. Not without its challenges, I learned that summer nearly ten years ago the words of the Apostle Paul ring true: “… for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Indeed, another aspect about L’Arche that is encouraging is how it helps dispel stereotypes about mental health. Our society has come a long way. Whereas residents used to live in large facilities, like the one that was in Smiths Falls, now places like L’Arche and Christian Horizons offer a more humane way for people with developmental disabilities to live their lives. Now, mental health is recognized as a real concern for many Canadians, and there are efforts underway to help each of us in this area.
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12).