Beth Porter has been a member of the L’Arche Daybreak community for four decades. Here she answers some of our questions about her recently released book.
1. What was your biggest goal in writing Accidental Friends?
When I retired, I was full of gratitude for my life in L’Arche. The book was a natural outgrowth of this gratitude. I wanted other people to have a sense of our life together—that the people with intellectual disabilities, with whom we assistants share life, have particular gifts of welcome and forgiveness and creativity and living in the present moment, that it is fun to live with them, and that they have a lot to teach the rest of us. They create an atmosphere in which we are all called to grow as human beings. Life in L’Arche is sometimes challenging but it is a wonderful place in which to come to know ourselves better, to make lifelong friends with and without disabilities, and to discover the gift of community and belonging.
2. What did you enjoy most about living in a L’Arche community?
I especially enjoyed our daily life with interesting and good people, often people who are very different from me in their abilities–people from whom I could learn– and I enjoyed the simple spirituality of L’Arche, focused each evening around the table at the end of dinner. It was the core members, as those who have disabilities are termed, who would call us out of ourselves to celebrate and to simply be together. In my first house there were nine of us, and it really did feel like one big family. There was Peter, who liked to avoid drying the dishes and would tease us relentlessly by flicking his tea-towel at whoever was scouring the pots, and Lloyd, a man who seemed shy but who drew me into the water fights, usually instigated by Phil, our house leader. And there was Phil himself, a university grad in his early 20s who, on some late evenings, would be in our TV room darning the socks of the men in the house. I came to form a lasting bond with Michael when we were stranded overnight in a snowstorm. Lloyd could be counted on to take out the recycling and garbage regularly. Francis wanted to learn to read. The high point of the day was usually the evening meal, where we all came together and each person could talk about their day. The meal would end with prayer. Peggy could read and would often read aloud the Thought from Jean Vanier. She subscribed to the Globe and Mail and listened to the news. (All of these people, of course, are in my book.) Each of us assistants discovered a mutuality in our relationships that was deeply meaningful. The assistants whom L’Arche attracts, in my experience, are almost always fine people, the kind of people one would like to have as friends.
3. What was your greatest challenge in living in a L’Arche community?
For me, initially it was the challenge of long days with not much free time. However, this, in a way, was also a gift in that I was drawn quickly into the experience of belonging and being an integral part of our household and then of the larger community of homes and day settings. A person has to want this rich experience of community with its demands and its gifts, or they will not stay long. The demands of community life can impact one’s ability to stay in touch well with family and friends, although now, with government regulations about hours that assistants can “work,” this may be a bit less the case. (I put “work” in quotes because L’Arche is a lifestyle choice. It is not a job in the usual sense.) Of course, no one gets rich financially by joining a L’Arche community. It offers a different kind of riches.
4. How would you characterize your personal growth over the course of your life in L’Arche?
In L’Arche, one is often called to take leadership quite quickly. This was good for me. I had been successful in the academic world, but I was reserved by nature and not so sure of myself when it came to human relations. I grew in confidence and in competence. Also, I learned from the people I lived with. Sometimes they were models for me—people I wanted to emulate, such as Peter who loosened me up by his teasing, and Gord, who was sensitive and prayerful—and sometimes they showed me my own shadow side. I lived with one person who invariably would take the biggest piece of cake or the one remaining cookie. I would be annoyed with her for being greedy, but in time, I realized that she was doing what I actually wanted to do myself, even if I did not act on my inclination!
5. What would you say to someone who is considering life as an assistant in a L’Arche community?
In my book I describe my first visit—a meal with the members of one L’Arche home. I did not know what to expect, but it turned out to be a life-changing evening. I would suggest similarly to try to come for a meal or a short stay initially, and to come with an open mind and heart, open to discovering “the other” and to whatever the experience holds. Do your best to come without preconception, especially any preconception that L’Arche is perfect. (It isn’t!) Then see how you feel about the experience afterwards.
L’Arche communities generally have a three-month trial period that includes an orientation to the community. This is a good amount of time for a new assistant to discover whether L’Arche is a fit. The signs will be that you are happy and growing as a person and fulfilling the responsibilities of an assistant and a community member. Then usually people make a one-year commitment. Over time, it will become evident to you and others whether L’Arche is a good long-term place for you or whether it will be an enriching shorter-term stay. Let the experience unfold month by month, year by year.
6. How would you explain the value of L’Arche for today’s society and world?
Jean Vanier said that L’Arche is a sign, a sign of hope, in our society. L’Arche will never be very big, but it can show a way, a direction; it can be a light. Still today, people who have a disability are readily dismissed and often are ranked very low in terms of the services they receive. Also, people with intellectual disabilities often have great difficulty making and keeping friends. L’Arche focuses on people’s gifts and it models a quality of relationship and, indeed, friendship among people who are very different—different in abilities, in education, in ethnic background, in religious identity or perhaps not adhering to any religion, but who deeply appreciate and care about each other. A healthy society needs all its members.
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