L’Arche community engenders appreciation of relationships
Belief in the inner beauty of each human being is at the heart of L’Arche communities, said Lura Southerland, director of L’Arche Spokane since 2008.
Lura Southerland and Kevin Vandeventer
Photo by Deidre Jacobson
In the Logan neighborhood, 12 “core members,” adults with developmental disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, live in community with each other and three assistants in two adult assisted-living homes that are among 137 communities in 40 countries under the International Federation of L’Arche. In the western world, communities are predominantly Christian. In other areas, they are ecumenical and interfaith.
“They are God’s angels, sent to bring some joy and fun to the world, and to teach ‘intelligent’ people, who are serious much of the time, to forgive and enjoy each other,” said Lura, a member of St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
“We do not have the wisdom to know which life will be a gift and which life will not,” she said. “As Christians, we must see every life as unique and valuable.”
The international federation helps communities create and develop homes, programs and networks, in which people with and without intellectual disabilities live, work, play and pray together.
Core members, persons with disabilities, are the heart or “core” of communities. Assistants are live-in staff, who share life with them and receive a stipend.
L’Arche’s philosophy is summed up in its slogan: “Relationship, Transformation, Sign,” said Lura.
“Through mutual relationships that come from living together, people are transformed. Through transformation, we become a sign of peace and a sign of hope that all different kinds of people can live together peacefully,” she said.
Lura, who has seen faces of many people with Down’s syndrome—slanted eyes, flat nose and small mouth—found it profound to see that face on Mexican, African and Middle Eastern faces, when she and core member Kevin Vandeventer attended the General Assembly of the International Federation of L’Arche in Atlanta, Ga., in June 2012.
“Members of almost every community around the world made the journey there,” said Lura. “Kevin found it meaningful that he belongs to something bigger than Spokane.”
She returned inspired to help create “a more human society,” as she and Kevin realized they are part of a family around the world.
L’Arche, a French term, means The Ark. In the Bible, it refers to the vessel Noah built at God’s command to save himself, his family and the world’s animals from a worldwide deluge. An ark is also a place of safety and refuge, in which people share their lives in mutual relationship, she said.
In that context, L’Arche seeks to be a sign of hope.
Lura has worked with people with disabilities for more than 20 years. Raised Lutheran in Great Falls, Mont., she began worshiping at a Catholic Church while attending Montana State University and began working at a Catholic church in Havre.
In 1987, her brother came to Gonzaga University and told her about the L’Arche community in Spokane, founded in 1976 by Sister of the Holy Names Mary Hurley at a farm in Mead.
Lura visited and joined the community for a year.
In 1989, L’Arche Spokane bought the two houses in Logan neighborhood near Gonzaga to be closer to services. Men and women live together in each house.
After marrying and while working for 18 years providing services for disabled people through SL Start, a program serving disabled children and adults in Washington and Idaho, Lura continued to volunteer with L’Arche.
Since coming to L’Arche Spokane in 1988, Lura said she found herself by living in community.
“The relationships I have experienced have transformed how I look at life,” Lura said. “Peace in the world has to begin with peace with the people we live with.”
With nine people living together in a house, she said, the residents will connect with some and dislike others.
“Our commitment to find that common ground with those we dislike is where the work is,” she said. “This is where our Christian faith is vital. Jesus asks us to love each other. It is the hardest thing for us to do, and yet it is the thing that brings the most reward.
“It is both really hard and really good,” said Lura.
L’Arche “celebrates the unique value of every person and recognizes our need for one another.”
Its mission is also to “make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities.” For example, core member Sean often conducts the choir at the 11 a.m., Sunday Mass at St. Aloysius.
“Sean has a beautiful love of music and a tremendous gift of welcome,” said Lura, telling of meeting him when she was a new assistant in 1988, in the community just two months.
She went away for four days, came home and walked in the door. Sean was watching TV as he often does. He stood up, ran to her and hugged her. Lura was surprised at his welcome. She didn’t know Sean that well, but he had accepted her into his life. He had missed her while she was gone.
That experience of the gift of welcome taught her an important lesson. Now she wants to put a similar “look of welcome” on her face when others come into her home or her office.
“That look of welcome can change the interaction that follows,” she said of the lesson she learned from Sean, a man whom many may dismiss as not having anything to offer to the world.
“So many of the people I have worked with have taught me lessons of life about forgiveness, genuine joy, passion for fun and the power of being loved for who we are,” Lura said.
Her work with L’Arche has inspired her to talk more about the “gift of life.”
Today, she said, Wikipedia says that more than 90 percent of unborn babies with Down’s syndrome in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe are aborted.
“This is tragic because people do this believing these babies will be a burden to their family or will have nothing to offer the world,” she said. “Both of these beliefs are so untrue. Families say the person with disabilities bonds their family together, that their families have more love in them because of the care needed by the disabled person.
“They teach us to live closer to the heart, because our intelligence can interfere with our giving and receiving the gift of forgiveness. People with disabilities share readily, helping us accept ourselves and each other just where and as we are,” she said. “Joy goes down to the toes over the simplest things.
“We grow, learn and heal with the disabled,” she added. “L’Arche teaches us about our own littleness and gives us the ability to recognize our need for each other.”
Lura believes L’Arche is the work she is supposed to do.
“It has taught me how to treat people. I’ve learned I need God. When we pray for people, we look deeper. When we care for people who can’t communicate, we learn how to know what they are saying without words,” she said.
It is a challenge to keep the houses fully staffed. Through the L’Arche USA website, L’Arche Spokane learns about AmeriCorps volunteers and other people around the country interested in working as assistants. She also recruits at Gonzaga University and Whitworth University.
Lura asks assistants to commit to one year and hopes they stay for two years.
The volunteers are drawn to L’Arche’s mission and like Lura, soon learn they receive more than they give.
L’Arche welcomes the public each month at a community potluck, an opportunity for people to visit, share a meal and be a part of the community. The meals are at 5:30 p.m. on second Wednesdays at O’Malley Hall at St. Aloysius.