Such work—and play—takes time: “We need time to listen to and understand people with communication problems. It takes time to become a friend of people with disabilities.”
That, says Hauerwas, is one of L’Arche’s messages to the church today.
“Slow down,” Hauerwas writes. “Just slow down. L’Arche embodies the patience that is absolutely crucial if we are to learn to be faithful people in the world.”
At the heart of L’Arche, is patience, says Hauerwas. And patience, he insists, is another word for peace.
Joining L’Arche at any level requires slowing down. In a L’Arche home, it’s not just “okay” that it takes two hours or more to share a meal—or even longer to bathe a body that cerebral palsy has left twisted and uncontrollable—it is essential.
“L’Arche requires that those who do this important work learn that time is not a zero-sum game,” Hauerwas writes. “We have all the time we need to do what needs to be done.”
It’s not that people with disabilities have a special path to the ways of peace. But life in community with those who are disabled can lead to genuine transformation, Vanier writes. In welcoming the stranger, people are forced to discover the stranger within themselves. Being present to and caring for those whose brokenness is so obvious and undeniable, they are forced to confront their own brokenness, he says.
“We cannot really enter into relationship with people who are broken unless somehow we deal with our own brokenness,” writes Vanier.
It is not through force but through such transformation that the walls that separate the disabled from the rest of the world—indeed, the walls that divide all humanity—are torn down, Vanier says.
For all of us, these walls are built upon fear, writes Vanier, a “fear of being pushed down or being seen as valueless or nonexistent.” To defend against fear, to protect ourselves from being pushed down, we become “obsessed with having a name where we can be glorified, or achieving a position where we can be seen as worthy.”
“We are afraid of showing weakness,” writes Vanier. “We are afraid of not succeeding. Deep inside, we are afraid of not being recognized. So we pretend we are the best. We hide behind power. We hide behind all sorts of things.”
L’Arche seeks to break down those walls the same way Jesus did, Vanier writes, by loving people as they are, in all their weakness and brokenness, by saying to each one, “You are important. You are precious.
“There can be no peacemaking or social work or anything else to improve our world unless we are convinced that the other is important,” Vanier continues. “You are precious. You—not just people, but you.”
In meeting and living with people with disabilities, in reflecting back to them that they are precious and valued, they are changed, Vanier writes. “But we too are changed,” he says. “We are led to God.”
“The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, I am glad you exist,” writes Vanier.
Although Hauerwas has been writing about L’Arche and Vanier for many years, the two had met only briefly until the conference in Aberdeen in 2006.
“Jean was just what I expected,” Hauerwas says. “He is a very gentle, nonassuming, insightful human being. At the Aberdeen conference, I mostly tried to sit and listen.”
Hauerwas agrees there is no small irony in having the Teaching Communities event at a major university, a place not totally unfamiliar with the quest for name and position. “Universities, I always say, are factories for envy.”
But just as L’Arche speaks an important word to the church, so too does it have much to say to the academy.
“L’Arche says to those of us in the university, ‘Whatever your work is about, don’t forget this work,’” Hauerwas says. “‘Because whatever your work is about will turn to sand if you forget what L’Arche is about.’”
Bob Wells writes for Faith & Leadership, an online publication of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, going live in 2009.