At the L’Arche home on South Sixth Street in Arlington, VA I am simply known as “The Wednesday Volunteer.”
“Hello, Wednesday Volunteer” is how Father Tim Malone usually greets me. He is an Episcopalian priest and a devoted supporter of L’Arche.
“Here comes the Wednesday Volunteer” chimes in Lauren Palmer, a community leader.
When new assistants arrive and I introduce myself, they often reply “Oh, I’ve heard of you. You’re the Wednesday Volunteer.”
So how did it all start?
Ten years ago, this month, L’Arche opened a new house in Arlington. I had been a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps International Board, which was merging with the U.S. Board. Since the merger meant we had more than enough members, I offered to leave. So, I volunteered to leave since I was soon retiring from my day job. My fellow board member Fr.Tom Gaunt SJ said “Not so fast.”
He invited me to an open house for a new L’Arche home opening in Virginia. I went. And the rest is history.
So, with a few exceptions for holidays and vacations and the current global pandemic, each Wednesday I drive the 23 miles to South Sixth Street.
I clean the main floor toilets with Bruce Weaver, who lives at the house. We bonded at an early outdoor concert at Pentagon City when we both started singing when the band played “Africa” by the rock group Toto. I wash the windows—sometimes with the help of Charles Clark—the acknowledged elder statesman of the house. We also play cards, argue about baseball and politics. Mostly, hang out.
Occasionally I get to take a walk with Francene Short. Francene also loves to drive in my car with me to monthly prayer meetings. She likes to listen to the music I play. Once someone else tried to get in and Francene left. That drive is ours.
I occasionally cook—my curried chicken salad is popular. So are my enchiladas. Charles likes the wine I bring.
So why? At first, my thought was to help some faceless, nameless folks with disabilities. An act of Christian charity. But soon they had names—Eva-Elizabeth, Francene, Laurie, Bruce, Charles. And then Hazel and Fritz and Eric and Linda and Kelly from Highland House. Michael and Sonny and Eileen and Deborah and others from the DC houses. Names with stories. Stories they wanted to share. Soon, they were friends. And part of my life.
What volunteers offer is our presence. As Woody Allen once said: “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” We show up! We enter into friendship. We become, as Charles Clark likes to say, “family members.”
And there is more. I have come to know and admire and love dozens of L’Arche assistants. I have seen them grow and marry—four times to other assistants—and have children.
Yet, since March, volunteers are not allowed to visit. Covid 19!
We meet on Zoom—but, in all honesty, it is a poor replacement. I pray for the end of the virus for an endless list of reasons. On that list, is my odd prayer that soon I can return to simply cleaning the toilets with Bruce.
I miss being the Wednesday Volunteer.
Photo: Brian (far right in blue) lends a supportive hand to Bruce as they pose with 6th Street house members in 2018. Photo Credit: Brian Taylor