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Stepping Into the Water

Photo: Paul Popernack finds miracles daily in L’Arche. Photo by Brian A. Taylor Photography

There is an old midrash—a rabbinic story that expands on incidents in the Bible—about the parting of the Red Sea. The story we know from Exodus and Charlton Heston goes that Moses raised his rod, and the sea parted. However, the midrash elaborates: Moses lifted up his rod, and the waters stood still; he lifted it again, and the sea did not move. Finally, with the Egyptians closing in, one brave Israelite named Nachshon waited no longer before walking into the water, and it was then that the sea parted. The moral is: sometimes miracles only happen when you jump in.

Since jumping into L’Arche a year ago, volunteer Paul Popernack has witnessed and experienced a network of miracles. “If you are willing to be in and with the moment,” Paul reflected, “what you need will be made available to you as quickly as you are ready to receive it.”

It started with his first Prayer Night in June 2011. He’d been intrigued by L’Arche for twelve years, since reading Henri Nouwen’s Adam, but it took that long to rid himself of all the excuses and throw away the personal crutches holding him back. He knew he wanted to be a part of a L’Arche community, but he was waiting for ideal circumstances that refused come together.

That is, until he took the first step himself.

The first step was letting Mary Ruppert in the L’Arche office know that he would like to attend. When he called the office, he asked, “Is there anything I can bring besides an open mind and an open heart?” to which Mary replied, surprised at his intuition, “That’s exactly what you need to bring.”

First miracle.

Paul’s gusto paid off, as he found the night to be beautiful and inclusive, and from then on he began regularly attending prayer nights as well as dinners. A turning point for Paul came during suppertime at Ontario House, to which he hurried after work and was rushing around Adams Morgan, late for dinner as he struggled to find a parking place. Upon at last stepping into Ontario’s bustling dining room, he saw a place set for him in the middle of the full table, was greeted by a warm “Hi, Paul!” and felt an overwhelming sense of having just come home.

Second miracle.

Paul soon decided to make a greater commitment to volunteering at L’Arche, symbolized by getting his required PPD test. He deadpanned, “You cross a threshold of commitment when you let someone stick you with a needle.”

He committed to spending every Monday evening at Ontario, eating dinner and then reading with Debora Green. They read anything from picture books to the backs of tea boxes, and chat about their days, their memories, and God. “Debora and I are part of each other’s journey,” he asserted. “I’m not here for her; I’m here with her, and she for me.”

Paul calls L’Arche “part of my faith journey since the first time I heard of it.” But actually participating in home life, the heart of the L’Arche community, has invited him toward spiritual growth. “In the home I see glimpses of the Gospels’ ‘Beloved Community.’ I don’t mean that to romanticize or diminish it; I mean to say that participating in life here is participating in a life much, much larger than mine.”

Now Paul frequently visits other L’Arche houses throughout the month, joining in on outings and meals. He recently began sharing his eclectic music collection with Eric Arntson in Arlington.

“Becoming the person you’re called to be involves helping each person become who they are invited to be,” he has learned. Paul becomes the person he is called to be by the simple shared acts of reading, eating, talking, listening to tunes, and hanging out together with core members and assistants. These are invitations for transformation.

There’s no going back now. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about this community,” Paul gently admitted in his signature rhythmic voice. “They’re always in front of me.”

When I first met Paul, it surprised me he had only been volunteering at L’Arche for a year. It was clear he was fully immersed in the waters of community, without so much as a toe still anchored on dry land. How has it influenced him? “In every way possible. The process of being radically welcomed influences and helps me be in community wherever I am.

Hundredth miracle? We’ve both lost count.

Mari Andrew started as Development Associate at L’Arche in April 2012. She recently moved to D.C. via Baltimore via Chicago via Seattle, with a couple pit stops in Europe and South America. She already feels attached to D.C. as her home, mostly due to the wonderful L’Arche GWDC community, and to her neighborhood Jamaican sandwich shop. Contact us at to find out how YOU can volunteer at L’Arche.

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