James Schreiner, assistant member of Highland House, accepted an opportunity to visit India for several weeks of the winter months. He moved to Asha Niketan Asansol in India in December to experience life with the L’Arche community there. Here is the first letter he sent back to our community.
It has been an incredible first week here with Asha Niketan Asansol (L’Arche India). Throughout the week, I have very much been aware of how your loving support has helped me to embrace this commitment. Thank you for the meals we shared, the blessings you offered, all of your encouraging words, and your prayers in the weeks prior. Thank you for continuing to hold Asha Niketan Asansol in prayer while I am here, and please also pray for the L’Arche community in Chennai; there has been significant flooding in that city.
What could be expressed about this experience so far? Well, it is amazing here, unlike any experience I have ever had. Every morning, I awake to the sounds of community life: core members cleaning and gathering to take their morning baths. *I am committed to supporting the day programs/do not offer personal care in the home. After everyone has their baths, we meet in the prayer room. Songs are sung, there is a period of silence, various sacred scriptures are read, and there is a time for blessing one another. I will try to describe the prayer time in more depth in future emails. It is mysterious and beautiful. A time of unity.
Everyone eats breakfast together. Unlike what I had anticipated, we do sit at tables rather than on the floor. We eat with our right hands: no forks or spoons! Sometimes even breakfast is spicy. Everyone brushes their teeth and takes medication before gathering for their day programs. Asha Niketan Asansol has a day care for children, an arts and crafts workshop, and about a 30 acre garden and forest. During this past week, I have primarily shared life with everyone who works in garden. Together, we have planted cauliflower, cabbage and onions, pulled weeds, cut wood, and watered plots. The community has several banana trees and a variety of other trees with fruit. In addition to eating the food that is grown here, the community is able to sell some at a local market. Mid morning, everyone pauses to drink tea together. Everyone eats lunch including members of L’Arche and various individuals who come solely to be part of the day programs.
After lunch, everyone takes about two hours for rest. Several people rest on mats on the floor, while others go back to their rooms. Everyone goes back to work/day care until 4:30, and once again everyone enjoys a cup of tea to conclude their time together. I have been taking my showers in the afternoons. Even though the weather is very nice in the winter, we can work up a sweat by working in the garden; plus it is dirty work. I have some free time in the afternoon while members of L’Arche often fold laundry together and watch a sitcom. Everyone eats a snack at 6 pm, once again prays together at 7:30, and has dinner at 8 pm. This week, I have been going to bed right after dinner. The days are full of activity, and it is easy fall asleep quickly.
The L’Arche community has been so welcoming. Everyone is very willing to serve one another. When I express gratitude, they all seem to express “of course/I am happy to do so etc”. There is such a collective spirit here. One thing I did not realize, prior to coming, is how little English is used. Bianca, the community leader, and Sabrina, a year long term volunteer, are both from Germany and fluent in English. All of the assistants can express ideas fairly well in English but primarily communicate with one another and the core members in Bengali. It has been a good experience to not always be understood or to find different ways to express thoughts. I am developing an empathy for people who find it challenging to communicate in dialogues. As a whole, we are all able to relate. Sometimes gestures help, or someone helps translate. Often I do not even need to say anything and just sit back and enjoy the reality of life here. Everyone is very loving. They are sometimes firm with one another but in a loving way. Witnessing tenderness is a daily experience.
Like any new commitment, there have been new challenges and joys. Fortunately, the challenges have been few. One thing I did not realize is that mosquitoes are still a concern even in the winter months. On my first night, I did not know I had to tuck in the mosquito net under my mattress and had several companions as a result. Another thing to adjust to has been the noises of life here. Everyone speaks loudly at times and sometimes music is played early in the morning. Some of the members here have a lot of energy and can be pushy/forceful at times. Despite those little factors, it has been great to bond with everyone. When I look into people’s eyes, it is clear they experience much joy in L’Arche. One evening, Barnabas and I played on the swing set as others went for a walk. Rahul, a newer core member of the community, is able to speak much English, more than most assistants, and has helped me to learn the schedule of each day. He and I plan to attend Mass each Sunday and on Christmas eve. We all attended a field day at the nearby school, and community members performed a traditional dance they have been practicing for weeks. All of the assistants have shared about their experiences and are curious about L’Arche in DC/Arlington. All in all, I am already feeling welcomed and belonging here.
Well, that is a lot for a first reflection. Please write with any questions you have. I realize I am not just embracing this experience for my own enjoyment, but also to serve as a member of L’Arche GWDC and to help us all grow in awareness of the charism of solidarity that we share. Please know I will also appreciate reading stories from back home and knowing how all of you are doing.
Thank you for your love. I love you all.
Peace & All Good,
PS One more thing I love about this community: young core members and children in the day care address assistants by their first names and add dada or didi at the end. Those terms mean elder brother and elder sister. Many are already calling me Jamesdada 🙂
To see more from James, continue checking on our website. The next story in this series is here.