By Jensen, Randy on May 21, 2020.
Editor’s note: The “nauseating revelations” referred to in the story pertain to the organization’s international founder Jean Vanier, who was accused in February in an international report of having coerced and sexually abused at least six female caregiver live-in assistants at different L’Arche communities between 1970-2005. None of these alleged abuses occurred in Lethbridge. Vanier died in 2019 at the age of 90 years prior to the report’s release.
As L’Arche prepares to celebrate its 30th year in Lethbridge somewhat under a cloud due to nauseating recent revelations about the organization’s international founder Jean Vanier, there are a few thoughts which I would like to share. Now this isn’t an editorial or an opinion piece; it’s just in the interest of full disclosure.
When I was a younger man back in 1998 I spent three months in a L’Arche-affiliated community called Ignatius Farm in Guelph, Ont. And I can say unreservedly, it was one of the most profound learning experiences of my life.
People from all walks of life came to Ignatius Farm to live in fellowship with brothers and sisters with different developmental and cognitive disabilities. We would live together, share meals together and work together on a mixed cattle and apple farm, all held in cohesion by a profound Christian sense of community.
Thus when Lethbridge L’Arche community leader and executive director Tim Wiebe speaks about his own first L’Arche experience as a young man it has resonance for me.
“I started as a friend of the community, and then I moved into one of the homes,” Wiebe remembers. “I lived in the home for about three years. L’Arche homes are big. There are eight or nine people living together in this home, and we’re all very different. We all have different abilities, different ages, and because L’Arche is international Canadians who are interested in L’Arche tend to go elsewhere to have a L’Arche experience. So we also have lots of people from elsewhere who tend to come to L’Arche here; so we are a very diverse sort of group in the homes.”
Wiebe reflects on his experience then, and his ongoing experiences working with local L’Arche community members today. He says when you first come into L’Arche you think your spiritual mission is to tend to those with special needs in your midst for their sake, but what you shortly begin to realize is they are your teachers, and it is you that needs to grow.
“When I came I was mostly thinking I am going to help,” Wiebe says. “These people need help and I am going to help, but as I lived in the home and learned how things work I discovered I was also receiving a lot from the other people in the home. I learned a lot from people with a disability, and from the other caregiver assistants in the home, and I discovered a lot about myself. What were my gifts? And where was I called to grow? It was a real place of challenge, and a place of support, and a place of growth.”
When L’Arche started in 1964 in France it drew on the Roman Catholic monastic tradition with priests and nuns running the houses, but in recent decades has grown into a much bigger thing with 150 L’Arche homes in 38 countries worldwide representing diverse spiritual perspectives. While its stature has changed, at heart those who come to L’Arche as caregivers are drawn to many of the same monastic ideals of solitude, separation from the larger world, true seeking for pathways to personal spiritual growth, and communal fellowship and care.
“L’Arche started out as being very Catholic,” explains Wiebe, “and in Lethbridge we still have those connections but we are much more ecumenical and interfaith these days. We do still have a Christian flavour to our community life. The whole community meets once a week on Tuesdays to have a prayer night together.”
L’Arche has been part of Lethbridge’s broader social context for the past 30 years, and dedicated to advancing the spiritual growth and health of its community members.
“We look forward to continuing to share our gift with the city of Lethbridge as best we can, and continue to raise awareness, and invite people to join us to help us bring our mission to life,” he says.
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