Photo: John Cook knows he belongs when he can pull off wearing a jester hat in public. Photo by Brian A. Taylor Photography
The most important lesson I’ve learned about joy and belonging in L’Arche is this: Commitment produces belonging, and the most steadfast commitment produces the greatest joy.
Bread crumbs dropped by L’Arche core people* have guided my own journey into belonging and joy. I didn’t even really know where I was going; I was just hungry for belonging. Bread crumbs kept appearing and I ate them one-by-one. Now I can say that I experience joy in belonging.
The bread crumbs were little moments of commitment and belonging in relationship. There was the moment about 30 years ago when I, feeling terribly shy and insecure, stood alone after church while others gathered in groups to talk. L’Arche core person Michael Schaff came up to me and started asking me about my family. I’d never met him before, but for the few minutes he talked with me, I wasn’t embarrassed about being alone. For a few minutes, I didn’t feel like a social failure, and, as Michael says, he got me to talk.
There was another moment about 25 years ago when L’Arche core person Melonie Nelson said to me, “John Cook, you gotta quit hatin’ yourself. You gotta start lovin’ yourself.” I felt both known and humiliated. I can still feel today the impact of Melonie’s words. She left L’Arche many years ago and later passed away. She probably now knows that I followed her advice. I’ve started loving myself.
Then there was the moment when I was ordered by a government official to evict L’Arche core person Eugene Sampson or to risk prosecution, fines, and jail, all because of a paperwork error. I realized that I would joyfully go to jail rather than evict Eugene. Fortunately, he got to stay in L’Arche, and I didn’t go to jail.
There have been thousands of moments like those, thousands of bread crumbs, since that first one with Michael 30 years ago.
The key to belonging and joy for me, I discovered, is to commit myself in relationship with people who are left out and left behind in society and to consume the little crumbs of commitment and belonging as they appear in front of me.
L’Arche founder Jean Vanier wrote: “The vision of God is to go down the social ladder to take the lowest place in order to be with the weak and the broken. Then God rises up with them to build a new humanity which does not forget or exclude anyone.”
My 30-year journey leaves me personally committed to sharing what L’Arche offers — and what L’Arche offers has inspired a commitment to growth by our whole community.
Last year, I announced at our annual breakfast our commitment to create more homes. Today I can report that we own one new home and have another under contract, both located in northwest DC. YAY!!!
After we complete extensive renovations and additions, another neighborhood will witness the joyful life that people with and without intellectual disabilities can create together. Over time, hundreds and then thousands of people will be touched and changed through the life of our two new homes. We are also exploring the feasibility of new homes in Maryland and Virginia.
Our three main challenges to growth are having enough people WHO LACK intellectual disabilities and who have committed to stay the course; having enough able leaders; and having enough money. Please pray for us as we continue engaging these challenges.
The miracle of L’Arche is this: among the most isolated is found the warmest welcome; and those most stung by society’s rejection offer the balm of belonging, an invitation with no strings attached, no caveats, no quid pro quo.
As you recognize your own hunger for belonging, I hope that you, too, will follow a trail of bread crumbs, savor them, and find joy.
John Cook has been the executive director of L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C. since 1996. This article is an excerpt from his talk at the annual Heart of L’Arche fundraising breakfast held on May 6, 2014.
* Core people are the adults who have intellectual disabilities who have made L’Arche their home.