5 Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe About Mental Illness

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Actor Robin Williams who passed away recently due to suicide

As I think about Robin William’s unfortunate death I am reminded of countless individuals in our country and in our world who face severe depression, eating disorders, drug abuse, and various other forms of mental illness each day.  The unfortunate reality is that for as common as mental illness is in our world, many churches and pastors are not properly equipped to care for their flock.  Many seminaries do not spend near as much time as they should to teach a pastor or church leader how to properly care for, counsel, or be with someone whose scars are not physical.  Recounting my own seminary experience as someone who did not major in pastoral or clinical counselling, I can attest to the fact that mental illness was not really a focus in the majority of my classes and if it was it was more surface level than anything else.  Add to this the fact that many churches do not preach sermons related to mental illness and see it as something shameful or a flaw in a person’s impeccable record of faith.  After all, a TRUE Christian wouldn’t feel this way.  A TRUE Christian would trust God at all times and never feel anxious or depressed.  A TRUE Christian would know that God would never give them something more than they could handle…. Yeah… totally not true.  Below, I’d like to dispel some of the most common myths about mental illness in hopes that our churches can become more inclusive and safe places for all individuals regardless of what life circumstances might bring to them.

#1: I’m a Smart, Successful, Educated (fill in the blank) Person.  Mental illness could never happen to me (or my family)

Mental illness affects more people than we may realize. Many studies even suggest that as many as 1 out of every 4 adults will face mental illness at one point or another in their lives and the rates increase due to certain medical conditions as well as due to natural factors such as child birth.  On average, more women are diagnosed with mental illnesses every year (which could also be a result of hormonal factors), however, women are on average more willing to accept professional help for their symptoms in comparison to men.  With 25% of the Canadian population facing mental illness at one time or another, it is completely possible that you, a very close friend, or a family member may be experiencing some troubling symptoms.  With a quarter of the population struggling it is also A SURE FACT that a number of people in your congregation are also struggling.  Many of whom are probably not where to turn for help or even sure how to ask because they don’t want to be seen as “crazy” or “disillusioned.”

Mental illness affects people from a variety of socio-economic, educational, and religious backgrounds.  Having a faith in Christ DOES provide great comfort and hope but IS NOT a magic cure to end pain and suffering.  Some of the most creative and bright people experience depression and anxiety.

NOT everyone who has a mental illness will end up homeless, unable to hold down a job, or unable to have a family.  In fact, the percentage of people for whom this is the case is relatively small in proportion to the amount of people who are diagnosed each year.  On the contrary, many people with depression, bipolar, anxiety, or OCD are able to not only finish school but to excel at their jobs and to be excellent parents.  They may occasionally struggle from time to time and have to ask for an extended leave from work or extensions on their papers, but in between episodes, many of them are quite stable and have the potential to be great friends and even very supportive helpers to others who go through similar experiences.

#2:  Mental illness is a sign of weakness

Some people believe that if they ask for help when facing a mental illness that they are showing they are weak and unable to take care of themselves.  Our culture thrives off of individualism and being a self-made man or woman.  We have no time for people who don’t fit into that mould.  In reality, this is not the way that God ever intended human life to look like.  In the Garden of Eden God saw that it was not good for a man to be alone and so He created a spouse, a HELPER for Adam.  He intended humans to live in community, to be vulnerable with one another, and to help each other out.

The unfortunate reality of many churches is that because they lack knowledge and understanding about mental illness that instead of seeing how to gently walk with a struggling person they right away put up this defense mechanism that it is the person’s own fault.  Jesus did not come as Superman.  The book of Hebrews reminds us that He was tempted in every regard as we are yet without sin.[1]  Jesus understood pain and suffering.  He understood grief, denial, and rejection.  He even understood what it was like to not be able to feel God’s presence in His life anymore.[2]

Churches are great at quoting verses out of context thus maligning a person who experiences mental health difficulties.  They may make outrageous claims such as that God will never give us more than we can bear.  Many Christians mean well when they make share these statements and may even believe that they are helpful or a good reminder, however, when someone is facing severe depression and is not even able to get out of bed in the morning IT IS more than they can bear at that time.  What the verse actually is saying is not that we will never feel that a situation is more than we can bear, but that we will never be TEMPTED beyond what we can bear because God provides a way out for us (through our belief in Christ).[3]  God IS faithful and He does care about our lives, but quoting Scripture at someone who feels incredibly hopeless is probably not the best way to show them Christian care and compassion.

This problem is further compounded by people who out of desperation and who do not know what else to say in this moment make sharp remarks like “just snap out of it” or “you’ve been feeling this way for 3 months, it’s time to get over it” or even “you just need to stop self-pitying yourself.”  Living and caring for someone with a mental illness is HARD work.  It’s a commitment that doesn’t get any easier over time.  HOWEVER, people who face severe depression, anxiety, or OCD are not able to “just snap out of it.”  This phrase makes it sound like it was their choice in the first place to feel this way.  When in reality, the majority of people who have mental illness DO NOT “pretend” to feel bad in order to get your attention and sympathy.  In fact, many of them feel terrible that they think this way and feel like they aren’t being a good friend or being helpful because of their struggles.

Rather than churches making it sound like a person can choose or not choose to be depressed at will, churches need to surround these individuals with love, support, and care.  Providing them with help when they are unable to help themselves.  Showing them the love of Christ rather than displaying their own ignorance or frustration.

#3: Mental illness (especially schizophrenia and bipolar) are sinful and a sign of demonic oppression/possession

Yes, this claim is outrageous, but you would not believe the amount of people who have asked my opinion on this question since I recently took a spiritual warfare course.  Depression is not a sin.  It is a combination of hormonal and chemical imbalances as well as life situations and possibly unresolved childhood issues.  Depression may result from sin in the general sense because after sin entered the world pain and suffering ensued, however, just like #2 suggests it is not a sign of weakness or a sign that someone is not truly following Christ.  In fact, it is thought that many famous and very influential Christians have faced depression or other mental illnesses.  Mother Theresa often had bouts of depression, St. John of the Cross (who wrote an entire book on the Dark Night of the Soul) likely also suffered from depression.  In fact, in a recent Self-Care and Ministry class that I took at McMaster Divinity College I did some research and learned in class that as many as 60% of pastors (or even more) will face depression.  This is due in large part to the nature of their work, the demands placed on them, and having a lack of understanding on proper self-care techniques.  Christian counsellors and chaplains as well as nurses, doctors, and social workers may also face high rates of burn-out and possibly even mental illness due to the nature of their work and the issues that others are bringing to them daily.

Even the most charismatic of people who are big into Spiritual Warfare would generally admit that even if a person was delivered (from a demon) they should still continue to take their medications and that deliverance does not necessarily equal complete healing.

In fact, it is very hurtful and even dangerous for churches to make outrageous claims such as that because a person is bipolar they are demonized or that people who have depression should just stop taking their medications and believe that God will heal them.  They need to have such faith.  This is completely bogus!  How many Christians do you know would tell someone with diabetes they should stop taking their insulin or someone with asthma to stop using a puffer because God is going to heal them if they only had faith?  Not many churches would do this and many of them would think it was sheer foolishness to suggest this… but for some reason when it comes to mental illness we have a different standard all together?

Rather than making outrageous claims that are based more on fairy tales and fanciful myths than on the truth of the Gospel, we should focus on what Christ actually said.  That He did not come to condemn, but to save.  That He came in order that we may have life and have it to the fullest.  That He is the giver of joy.

#4: People who have mental illness should not be allowed to become pastors or church leaders because they are too unstable and could affect the workings of the church

It is an unfortunate thing when churches deny someone who otherwise has an excellent aptitude and possess great skills from serving in the ministry because they struggle with a mental illness.  We are all flawed and sinful people.  We all have the ability to use the church for God’s edification or else to use it to exclude and shut out people who aren’t exactly like us.  Whether or not you have a mental illness you have this potential.  Churches which not only employ pastors who have mental illness but have resources available and make an effort to make self-care more of a priority actually have the potential to really help the congregants.  If a congregant knows that the pastor has experienced something similar and won’t judge them they might be more willing to open up.  If a congregant knows the pastor is taking medication they may feel less stigmatized.  No one should be excluded from a church office on the basis of depression or anxiety.  Instead, they should be seen as allies and friends.  A potential great asset to the church.

#5: Everyone who is diagnosed with a mental illness at one point in their life will struggle with mental illness for the rest of their lives.  They definitely need to be on medication at all times.

While it is true that certain individuals will continue to struggle with mental health issues throughout the duration of their lives, many others may experience bouts or seasons of depression or anxiety with little or no symptoms in-between.  The reason for this is because not all depression is caused by chemical imbalances.  Teenagers (especially women) may be more prone to depression not only because of the stresses of high school but because of the rapid growth that is taking place in them not to mention that many women’s hormones have not settled into a regular cycle yet.  People may also face depression due to circumstances and life situations including loss of employment, financial difficulty, trauma, or abuse.  Depression can also take place in women after the birth of a child (post-partum depression/baby blues) or as a result of a physical health problem (in which case seeing a family doctor might be in order to rule out any physical possibilities first). In these instances, often by learning how to rethink about things medication may be only needed for a very short time or not at all.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is another common illness which often has long-term negative effects on an individual but not necessarily so.  PTSD affects far more than just soldiers coming back from military duty, it can also affect victims of traumatic assaults or even people who have suffered traumatic losses, accidents, or illnesses.

Another factor to consider is people who have recently been diagnosed with a long-term physical ailment especially one that is terminal.  In these instances individuals may feel very hopeless and alone, but with the right support of the church and of a godly pastor and counsellor they may be able to find hope and healing once again as they learn to process their grief.  It does not matter when the person was diagnosed or how old they were at the time, the affects can still be utterly traumatic on the person.

Medication has proven to be helpful for many individuals facing mental illness but at the same time it is important to weigh out the side-effects with the results.  Some people are very sensitive to medication and may even find the meds make them feel worse (this is especially true of people under the age of 25).  If you take medication and find that you are feeling more hopeless and alone it is important to talk with your doctor about whether you should continue or whether there are other options.  Other individuals may find it more helpful to do group or individual therapy and may not require the medications in order to function at a reasonable level.  In any case, it is very important to understand that the most effective form of treatment is a COMBINATION of medication AND counselling.  Medication alone rarely works, it is not a magic formula.  But being part of a supportive network including a loving church will increase an individual’s chance for success.

BONUS: #6: The psychiatric ward in the hospital is the “Looney bin”.  All the rooms are padded and people walk around like zombies rubbing their hands together constantly and shouting obscenities.  As a pastor, this is a place I should avoid.  After all, I may be attacked verbally, physically, or worse.

Contrary to what you might see on TV or in movies, psychiatric wards are generally kept well-clean and with a variety of activities to keep individuals busy throughout the day.  The days of institutions are over, but the mentality still sometimes lingers.  This only adds shame and guilt to an individual who is already experiencing a tremendous weight in their lives.  Rather than buying into these myths, I encourage pastors to get to know local doctors and counsellors and to be able to make informed decisions and referrals in the best interests of their congregants.

View the Origianal Post Here: http://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/5-ridiculous-things-you-probably-believe-about-mental-illness/


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews+4:15

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+27%3A46&version=NLT

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians%2010:13

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My Brother Who Doesn’t Say a Word – My Experience of Living in a L’Arche Community

I’m an extrovert.  I’m so extroverted that on my Myer’s Brigg’s typology indicator I scored 21 for being an extrovert and 0 for being an introvert.  I didn’t even know that was possible, but if you ask my roomate, her response would be something along the lines of “I don’t know Deborah, have you ever met yourself?” So, when I moved into an intentional community for adults who have various forms of developmental disabilities, it was safe to say that I knew a whole lot about talking and was basically oblivious to what silence was.

When I first moved into L’Arche, I quickly became aware of how technology nagged me and distracted me from real relationships with real people.  I’m ashamed to say that my cell phone often was more important to me than live conversations in those early days.  Sometimes it is still a challenge when I’m sitting in the living room with four adults who are not necessarily intellectually stimulating and repeat the same phrases over and over to not glance at a Facebook message or text a theologian-friend instead of engaging in their life style.

Being at L’Arche has been a journey into simplicity.  It’s been about finding my true spiritual center while also walking with the “least of these” – the poor whom Jesus often told us to love and care for.  In particular, one relationship has really transformed my life – my friendship with a middle-aged man named Christopher.

Christopher came to our community 25 years ago when he was about my age (I just turned 23).  Christopher is legally blind and also is non-verbal.  Growing up, Christopher would never be able to speak his first word, learn how to eat a sandwich on his own, or take his first steps unsupported.  I have lived in community for the past 4 years of my life in different ways.  First I lived on the Tyndale residence – an intense community of likeminded believers who prayed and worshiped together often.  Then, I moved to a Mennonite seminary in the states that was big on intentional living and we even took courses preparing ourselves for this possibility.  Yet, nothing in those four years would have prepared me to understand how to live in community with someone who is non-verbal.  To me, community seemed to be getting together with a group of people who have similar interests and hobbies to yours and who want to share life by living and serving together.  Yet, how was I supposed to find anything in common with a man twice my age who didn’t say a single word?

At first my relationship with Christopher was a bit hard to master.  It was hard to think of Christopher and I being friends rather than me simply being his caregiver.  It was hard for me to have any idea of what togetherness looks like when one person uses a wheelchair and does not always make any indication of understanding where you are coming from.  It was also hard for me to know how to share life – my deepest pains, fears, and happiness with a man who couldn’t respond in the way I thought I needed him to.

Yet, getting to know Christopher has brought immense joy and gratification into my life.  Christopher is an excellent teacher. Anyone who wants to know what living in community is really like should get to know him.  Christopher has taught me that togetherness means loving and caring for one another, accepting their true self – flaws and all, and walking with them in supportive and non-judgmental ways.  Through my relationship with Christopher I have learned that togetherness can happen when we share a meal together, listen to good music together, or laugh at a good joke.

I’m a peace studies theologian and activist at heart.  I’ve done all the usual peacenik type things – rallies, protests, and petitions.  I’ve served in soup kitchens, gone overseas to slums, and read Ghandi.  All of these things are very important.  I’ve tried to live intentionally and intentionally live.  Everyone’s story about togetherness and sharing in peace formation is different and if done in God honouring ways helps to bring the Kingdom of Heaven a reality one step closer to earth.  For me, peace begins with togetherness and this togetherness in my life looks like creating home with a group of adults who have developmental disabilities.  For me, togetherness looks like sharing Shalom with my brother who doesn’t say a word.

This article originally appeared in BeanZine – a Canadian grassroots magazine devoted to peace activism and social justice.  If you like what you see hear please check out my personal blog: http://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/sabbatical-journey-my-time-at-larche/ to read more about how L’Arche continues to mold and shape me as a Christian, a member of society, and a budding seminarian.

 

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Panda Cake and Down Syndrome – My 23rd Birthday Party at L’Arche Daybreak

Deborah wearing a party hat with the panda cake in front of her

Me with the famous panda cake made by one of the other L’Arche assistants

There’s something about birthdays that have always made them extra special for me.  In my first few years of life, my family members and family friends gathered around me showering me with gifts – after all, every daughter deserves a nice bike, some new books, and the latest toys.  As I got a little older, my parents helped me to plan birthday parties inviting the girls in my class and neighbourhood kids over for games and other activities.  Then when I got into university I took the fancy approach of inviting some of my best friends out for dinner as well as having an open party in our suite where everyone from the dorm floor was invited to share in pie and water gun fights (for those who don’t know, my birthday is March 14th which is pi-day so pie was to be expected at such a gathering…the water guns…not so much, they were later confiscated by my Resident Advisor’s as contraband due to a silly rule stating we were not allowed to play with water in the halls…they were later given back to me but only after I promised not to squirt the RAs and after I was successfully doused myself).  And then, of course, there was the time when much to my introverted roomate’s chagrin I invited the entire school up to our apartment for a potluck.  Lest you think I was taking advantage of her, she agreed to the party about a month in advance, however, I think she may have been expecting closer to 13 rather than 30 people to show up.

Regardless of how small or large my gatherings have been, whether they have been potlucks after church or a dinner with three of my best friends, birthdays to me represent celebration and celebration to me represents community and a spirit of being together.

This year, I also had a birthday party, but it looked much different than any others I have ever been to.  This year I did not plan a fancy outing or indulge in my guilty pleasure of hamburgers.  This year, my party took place at L’Arche (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities) and around the circle were my new friends who I’ve only known for 8 months.  My friends have spirit, charisma, and passion.  They are devoted to me and love me for who I am accepting my deepest dreams.  They cheer me on, inspire me, and gently chastise me when they think I’ve gone too far with my corny jokes.  My friends also happen to have autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and bipolar disorder.

At L’Arche we do celebrations very well and birthdays are no exception.  Although the party itself was held on March 23rd (due to me being at a retreat on my actual birthday), the festive mood actually happened long before that.  Way before the actual day (back in February) one of our core members, excitedly began telling everyone, “we just finished Jordan’s birthday.  Deborah’s is next.” (Jordan is one of the other assistants at my house).  Over and over she repeated the question, “when’s your birthday?  How will you celebrate?  Who will you invite over?”  As February came to a close and March approached, the questions began to become more and more intense.  “What do you want for your birthday?  What should we make?”

Finally, the week before my birthday it was decided that we would have chicken for the meal and a panda cake.  The person we are celebrating always gets to decide what type of cake they will want and this year I was adamant that I was going to have a panda cake.

The core members (residents), of course, had their own ideas.  You see, chicken and a birthday gift related to a panda theme were not entirely what they were thinking of.  They wanted to have hot dogs and hamburgers for my birthday.  Forget about the fact that it’s still Canadian winter and there’s snow on the ground, they were ready to pull out their shorts and have a barbeque on the patio outside.   When we convinced them that they might have to wait until the summer for the BBQ their next suggestion was to order pizza or Chinese take-out.  They were thinking of all the foods which they enjoyed the best and figured because they liked it I must also want that.  Finally, when we convinced them that we would be having something homemade, Darryl (one of the core members) proudly blurted out, “Deborah, I’m gonna cook for you.  I’m making you spaghetti!”  To which Mary-Anne (another core member) who is best friends with Darryl was not going to be seen as the runner up or the one to not participate so she boldly proclaimed “And I’m making the cake!”  When it came to who would do dishes after the party…well, that one was a bit harder to convince the core members about!

At dinner on Sunday night we all gathered around the table as the chicken was served by the community chef (not really, but he’s the best cook amongst everyone at L’Arche).  After we were done eating, the chef said, “I’m going to go downstairs to do something and I’ll be right back up.”  This was supposed to signal a surprise, but core members can never keep anything a secret, so Jenna blurted out, “He’s going to get the cake!!!”  Well, that was the end of that.

When he came upstairs with the cake, all of the core members began singing happy birthday.  To me it didn’t matter that half the words were missing, that they were completely off tune, and that there was an awkward pause when they came to my name.  To me the song was a beautiful melody and I knew that it was not just a cliché thing but coming from the heart.

After we shared the cake together, we began our tradition of going around the circle and sharing the individual’s “gifts” with each other.  This is a beautiful practice at L’Arche and honestly is one of those moments when you just feel so good inside.  I’ve sat around the table many times when core members have shared about an assistant’s gifts or vice versa, but now it was my turn.  I wasn’t expecting to be so emotional about it and in fact I didn’t even realize I was being emotional until Darryl proposed a toast to which Mary-Anne looked at me with a worried expression on her face and said, “Deborah, what’s wrong?  Why are you crying?”  I hadn’t even realized that a tear had slid down my cheek.

If you ask my friends what my gifts are they would say something like that I’m loyal, passionate, and that my faith means a lot to me.  I have never felt comfortable claiming my gifts, though, because I grew up with this mindset that to say you have achieved something or are good at something was haughty and perhaps would make others who don’t share those same abilities and talents feel badly about themselves.  So up until this year if you asked me what my gifts were I would try to avert the conversation.  However, L’Arche has taught me that there is great strength in naming your gifts and that we have the right to be proud of accomplishments we have met.

When the core members shared about my gifts, I realized how much the little daily interactions I have with them really mean.  It may not seem like a lot when I help them wash their feet, but to them this is an act of dignity and respect.  To me reading a bed time story with a core member might feel like a pleasant way to end the day, to them it means that I value them enough to give them one-on-one attention.  Having core members tell me that I’m their best friend is perhaps one of the greatest feelings I can ever have.  One of the core members offered to take me to McDonald’s after church for my birthday lunch and another (perhaps trying to one-up him) said she was going to take me to Tim Horton’s (a Canadian doughnut chain), followed by seeing a movie on the big screen with me, and then we were going to finish the whole day off with Big Macs!  In that moment I was reminded of just have fortunate I am to have friends like this.

Deborah in the middle of a line of friends

Me (middle) wearing the new shirt my house got me as a birthday present surrounding by assistants who came from other houses to celebrate. Also, Mary-Anne (pink sweater) and Darryl (wolf sweater) two of the core members from my house.

Yes, birthdays are always special times regardless of how you celebrate.  But, if I really feel like being bold, may I make a recommendation?  At your next party invite a friend or two who has a developmental disability.  What you’ll find there is just a whole lot of warmth and love.  It will truly be a birthday to remember!

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“God, I Know You’re There”

Man stands next to large sign that reads "Welcome: Providence Spirituality Center"

Darryl, a resident of L’Arche Daybreak standing outside of a retreat center near Ottawa, Ontario

That Christians pray is taken to be a fact.  An assumption.  Perhaps even a cliché.  How often have we heard people say to us when we are disclosing some personal information, “well, I’m sorry to hear that.  I’ll certainly be praying for you.”?  Perhaps they may even ask us for permission to share our prayer requests with a church small group or congregation.  In many cases, prayer has been relegated to the sidelines in my life as something that is there but I have not made much of an effort to engage in.  That is, until I started L’Arche.  Truthfully, I used to fall into the category of people who said, “I’ll pray for you” sometimes as a way of closing an uncomfortable conversation because I didn’t know what else to say and at other times as a commitment I was really hoping to follow through with until I got side-tracked by my own life and responsibilities.  Of course, at the same time as forgetting to pray for others, I sincerely desired for my closest friends to lift me up to the Throne Room of Grace and to intercede on my behalf.  We are indeed very blest if we have even one or two close friends who pray earnestly for us and sustain us with their prayers when we do not have the strength in ourselves to pour out petitions to God.

Recently, I was going through a difficult time in my own faith walk and began to have many doubts and questions along the way.  One day I shared some of my concerns with a friend (and former roomate) from Tyndale University College where I attended from 2009-2012 and her first reaction was to respond, “what prayerful intercessors have you shared this with?”  After much pause, I realized that my greatest network of prayerful intercessors is not found in the academy, in the congregation, or even in my inner circle of friends.  Instead, my greatest network lies with the core members (residents) I live and serve with at L’Arche Daybreak (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities north of Toronto).  At L’Arche I live in a house with four adults with various stages of developmental disabilities.  Ranging from down syndrome to autism to completely non-verbal, I have learned that the greatest prayers take place around the dinner time where there is lots of laughing, jesting, and silence.  People in my house do not try to impress God with long lists of words, they don’t jibe one another to see who can come up with the “best” prayer request, they definitely don’t use King James language.  No!  They say it like it is!  They pray from the heart.  They simply talk to God like He’s right there, like He’s a friend who is sharing at the dinner table with the rest of us.

Darryl and I making music at the Prayer Partners Retreat

Darryl and I making music at the Prayer Partners Retreat

This past week, one of the core members from my house, Darryl, and I went to a retreat in Kingston, Ontario (close to the nation’s capital of Ottawa).  While at this retreat, an amazing thing happened.  We were singing Taize songs and core members began to offer up their requests.  All of a sudden, it hit me – I WANT THE CORE MEMBERS TO PRAY FOR ME!  I’ve generally been pretty reserved in large church settings to share my prayer requests.  I will share a request or two in a small group of intimate friends or a women’s group if I have had the opportunity to get to know everyone quite well.  Yet, here I was with a group of 36 strangers I had only met a few days before and I felt an urge to have them pray for me.  That night I shared a request with the group that I have not even shared with many of my closest friends or relatives.

The prayers of people with developmental disabilities and the spirituality they live out daily is at once so intense and so simple.  So plain and yet so magnificent.

During the prayer time one woman with down syndrome from another L’Arche community began to offer up this prayer, “God, where are You?  God, I know You hear me.  I know You’re there.  I know You’re present.  When I talk to You I begin to see Your arms, Your legs, Your hands, Your body.”  That was the extent of her prayer.  She didn’t go on to ask for prayer for her parents, siblings, or anyone else.  She simply expressed a need – to know that God was truly there.  A presenting problem – the fact that she had doubts, “God, where are You?”  And a simple trusting faith, “I know You’re here.  I can see You.”

In all of my years of formal theological education, I cannot offer up a prayer like that.  Throughout my life, I have wrestled with doubt, but yet because I grew up in the church, I feel I don’t have the liberty to admit that to anyone.  I’m studying to be a chaplain and eventually a Theology professor.  We are supposed to be the leaders, the strong ones, the ones who console others.  We aren’t supposed to doubt and be unsure.  Or are we?  If we opened ourselves up to truly be honest about our thoughts and emotions would that not present a far greater gift to the community than false piety and certitude?

In this simple prayer that was offered by a core member, a spirit of true vulnerability exists.  Honesty to both doubt and have faith are comingled and bless us.  Her heartfelt cry was an example to me of my own deepest prayers – what I want to say but am afraid to say for fear of how weak my faith would be perceived after all these years of formal theological education.

Darryl and I holding up the candles we made as a craft at the prayer partners retreat

Darryl and I holding up the candles we made as a craft at the prayer partners retreat

The beauty of L’Arche is that here I can be myself. I can truly exist as Deborah and even in my greatest imperfections I will be immediately loved and accepted, forgiveness offered to me every step of the way.  Healing made possible through the ministry of community and fellowship. When I’m with the core members I see how spirituality is ingrained in everything they do.  It’s in the very fibre of who they are.  That’s why when I have a request I want to have the core members know about it.  They’ve got me covered.  They don’t just say they will pray for me, but really do it.  When I have a thanksgiving, I want to share it with them.  They’re the first to rejoice, the first to tell me how happy they are for me, and half the time they are more excited about it then I am.  I’m thankful for this community and this home.  I’m thankful that here I belong and exist.  It is here that I have discovered that prayer is not about the words of our mouths, but it is about the meditations and posture of our hearts.  Sometimes even in its simplest form.  Sometimes even when all around us everything else is purely silent.

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The Messages of Community

Darryl, a resident at L'Arche Daybreak holding up a heart he drew

Darryl with the heart he drew for Valentine’s Day

A little over half a year ago I made the most radical decision I have ever made in my life.  I decided to take a leave from my rigorously academic studies and join an intentional community for adults with Developmental Disabilities just north of Toronto, Ontario.  Before L’Arche I had a lot of questions about where my future was headed.  In a lot of ways looking back at my former self I see a young adult who was exploring the world, asking what they would become, and trying to find themselves.  The good news about L’Arche is that it is an environment in which you truly grow and where you learn about yourself and are PAID for the opportunity to do so.  How many other organizations can really claim that?

As I think back to my months at L’Arche I realize how incredibly deep they have been.  There have been struggles in the community for sure.  A few difficulties have arisen which is to be expected as part of a community.  There are days when I ask myself if L’Arche is truly the best use of my skill set and academic training.  However, even though it is important to name those days in the community, it’s also important to take a step back and to hear the messages that L’Arche has provided me with.

One thing I have learned over and over at L’Arche is how many adults with developmental disabilities in my community simply say the same phrases over and over again.  This can be frustrating at times.  They talk non-stop but are not carrying on any level of articulate conversation but rather are repeating the exact same thing!  However, lately I have taken to living a bit more closely.  One morning at breakfast time my co-worker and I spent some  time together writing a list of the most common phrases.  We came up with about 40 or so.  I wish I could share all of them with you, but time would not permit for this, so instead I will just share some of the highlights.

Two residents from L'Arche playing with some of my toys early in the morning

Mary-Anne pretending that my toy fly is drinking Jenna’s tea

“I love L’Arche Daybreak.  Been here 10 years.  I love it here.  Stay longer.”  Is Darryl’s way of articulating his deep commitment to L’Arche and urging me to also be committed to it.

“Just kidding!  JA-JA” Is an invitation to take life a little less seriously and to be able to make fun of myself.

“No work, no pay” Is a common phrase at our house denoting the fact that we have tasks to accomplish and that we need to stop procrastinating.  It’s an invitation to be dedicated and hard working for the good of those we live with.

“You’re my best friend” is an invitation to be loved by someone with a developmental disability and to love them back.  It’s an invitation to break cultural barriers and to form a deep friendship with someone who is different than I am.  It goes against the world’s view that we should only hang out with those who are exactly like us.

“I’ll pray for you” is a reminder to me of the deep spirituality that encompasses everything that happens at L’Arche.  It’s a reminder to me that the core members (residents) truly do care about what is happening in my life and want to support me through it.  It’s also an invitation to me to pray for them.

“I’m too young for boys” is a reminder that even though we live in a sex saturated society that there is nothing wrong with being single and that singleness should be celebrated.  It’s a reminder that it’s not our place to awaken love before it is time.

“Now tell me what’s wrong” Is Mary-Anne’s invitation to me to be real with her and transparent in the community.  To not hide what is bothering me or my emotions, but to be honest and accept the support of the core members.

There are so many more phrases that are often tossed around in our home and I may share some more in a later blog, but these 7 saying simply are a way of me giving you a glimpse into my life.  It’s a way of once again stating the fact that the core members at L’Arche are truly my greatest teachers and when you really spend time with them you realize that they often have a certain type of awareness and maturity which is not often found in others.  People with developmental disabilities have unfortunately had to gain their own maturity because they have been put down often by others on the outside.  They have had to become committed to L’Arche when many assistants only stay for a year or two.  They have had to learn to trust someone half their age with half of their life experience.

Mary-Anne holding up a puzzle pieced stress ball from my friend's work (she works with children who have autism spectrum disorders)

Mary-Anne holding up a puzzle pieced stress ball from my friend’s work (she works with children who have autism spectrum disorders)

I always stand by the fact that I receive far more than I give to the core members.  Recently, we had our assistants’ (staff) weekend.  It was a great time of just interacting face to face with the other assistants when the core members had all gone home.  It really helped me to refocus on the reason why I am really at L’Arche and reminded me of how I can serve the core members even better than I am doing right now.  Above all, L’Arche is a university of the heart and after spending 7 months in this community I would highly encourage anyone who is thinking of pastoral ministry, chaplaincy, or Practical Theological scholarship to spend one semester in this school of the soul.  In undergrad I majored in Religious Education, in seminary I was majoring in peace studies, but here at L’Arche I major in Spirituality with a minor in disability studies.[1]  Although it is not always easy or practical to do something as countercultural as living in a L’Arche community, I can guarantee you that if you spend some time with an adult with a developmental disability it will be a very rewarding process.  They will mentor you in ways you never knew were possible to be mentored in, they will challenge you in ways you need to grow, and they will offer unconditional love, friendship, and acceptance in a way that few others are able to extend to you.


[1] First articulated this way by Jason Grieg, I simply have adopted his thoughts.

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Hsi-Fu’s Gift

Darryl, a resident of L'Arche helping Hsi-Fu to blow out the candles on his birthday cake

Darryl helping Hsi-Fu to blow out his birthday candles.

Last Sunday, my L’Arche family at the Brookwood House gathered over some cake and homemade pizza to celebrate the life of a special individual Hsi-Fu.  Hsi-Fu was born with a profound intellectual disability.  His parents would never be able to witness milestones that all parents look forward to such as hearing their child say their first word or take their first steps independently.  For the rest of his life, His-Fu will never be self-reliant and will have to depend on assistants and caregivers to help him take care of his most basic human needs such as feeding and bathing.

From a worldly viewpoint, His-Fu’s life may seem intensely useless.  Hsi-Fu does not know how to read, cannot even sign his own name on legal documents, and is not able to hold down a job.  He spends his days largely sleeping, listening to music, and eating.  The world may look at Hsi-Fu and think, “what does His-Fu have to offer to anyone?”  They may even incorrectly think, “Hsi-Fu has nothing to offer to this world.  He requires so much care and is not able to reciprocate.”

However, for anyone who thinks that, I can guarantee you that they haven’t even spent an hour really getting to know Hsi-Fu.  Hsi-Fu and I have been friends for the past seven months as we have shared a house together.  There is still so much about Hsi-Fu which I don’t understand.  In many ways, we are still building our relationship, but then again, that is the way relationships should be.  They are never completed.  They are always transforming and growing.

Unlike the two rambunctious core members in my house, Darryl and Mary-Anne who I had almost an instant connection with, getting to know Hsi-Fu has taken much longer and requires more patience.  Yet, when I spend time with Hsi-Fu listening to music with him or helping him to eat, I begin to form a relationship with him.

Mary-Anne a resident of L'Arche Daybreak spending some time with another resident, Hsi-Fu

Mary Anne with Hsi-Fu during his birthday celebrations

Hsi-Fu has by far been my greatest teacher at L’Arche and I’m not afraid to say that.  When I first came to L’Arche I was an oblivious young hyperactive extrovert.  If you haven’t figured out that combination yet, let me explain it to you in simple terms – it was a disaster.  People who are young, hyperactive extroverts often can be a bit oblivious to social cues.  It isn’t easy for us to calm down, be still, or to listen rather than talk.  That’s who I was seven months ago.  Yet, though my relationship with Hsi-Fu I believe I have really begun to mature and grow in some of these areas.  Since Hsi-Fu does not communicate using words, I have really had to learn to understand non-verbal cues.  One click means yes, two clicks means no.  When he tugs on his apron (bib) he is done eating, when he starts to make certain groans it means it is getting too loud in the house so I either need to put the volume on the radio down or else give him some alone time in his room.  Other grunts and groans may signal that there is too much stimulation, that he needs some space, or that he wants gentle touch.  Learning these cues has taken a lot of time for me, but I have seen how once I learned Hsi-Fu’s cues, my other relationships with friends outside of L’Arche have really blossomed.  I am now able to understand when my other friends need some alone time or space, something which I was largely oblivious to before.

Hsi-Fu has also taught me the importance of savoring the little things.  In the warmer weather, we like to go for walks and he will demand that I slow down or stop just so he can enjoy the breeze or feel the sun on his skin.  Hsi-Fu always is a ladies man and he is quick to offer a kiss on the hand to any woman who comes to see him.  He also gives the best hugs I have ever received.

When I think about Hsi-Fu I see how much he really has to offer to this world.  Even though the world might say that someone who uses a wheelchair and is unable to communicate verbally is not of much use to the world, I know they are wrong because Hsi-Fu is a better teacher than someone who has ten PhDs and he is more patient than even the most skilled counselor.  Getting to know him is an adventure and once a friendship is formed between you and him you know you are holding a rare gem in the palm of your hand.

Mary-Anne a resident of L'Arche showing Hsi-Fu a red shirt which our house got him for a Christmas present.

Mary-Anne showing Hsi-Fu the shirt our house got him as a birthday present.

That’s why I’m so thankful I could help celebrate his 39th birthday at L’Arche.  Happy birthday to a very special man who loves community and is dedicated to our house.  Happy birthday, Hsi-Fu.

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What Community Transformation Looks Like at L’Arche

The following piece was written as part of a Mennonerds synchroblog but I think you may enjoy it here as well.

I have always been interested in community transformation.  Perhaps my interest came as a result of being an Anabaptist (more specifically Mennonite).  Perhaps it came as a result of the family I grew up in which made visiting those in nursing homes a priority.  Perhaps my interest really started to peak when I was a first year student at Tyndale University College and at the end of the winter semester noticed that I had over $200 left on my meal card and didn’t want to waste it all on chocolate (since at that time I was on the verge of becoming diabetic anyways) so instead I gathered a group of other students together and we all did a homeless food run.  Regardless of when this passion first started, there were definitely people who helped contribute to my growing interest, there were experiences given to me that really enhanced my vision (such as seeing the slums in Brazil), and there were books recommended to me to read (can anyone say “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne?).  My sense of community transformation soon stretched from my understanding of what it meant to be kind to those within my church, to honestly wrestling with the question “Who is my neighbour?”[1], to trying to get a sense of global community through looking at the types of clothing I wore and the kind of food choices I’ve made.

I definitely think that when it comes to community development there is much room for freedom as to how we will approach it.  One of my dear friends from my high school days is very involved with an organization called Move-In as are several of my colleagues from my Tyndale days.  Move-In is a Christian organization which tries to reach out to individuals living in rougher neighourhoods (called “patches”) where there may be high rates of immigration, poverty, or other factors which may alienate others.  Through literally “moving into” those patches, people who have committed to the Move-In lifestyle show the love of Christ by being an example of a shining light.  My sense of Move-In gathered from talking to my friend and Tyndale students (although I admit I have never lived in a patch and I have only visited one of the many patches) is that it is less about “doing” than it is about “being”.  It is about being a constant presence, a sign of hope rather than an organization that tries to eradicate poverty.  People who are affiliated with Move-In may assist in ways such as helping new neighbours to move into their homes or hanging out with families, but it also is simply about being a prayer presence.  Gathering weekly to pray over the communities they live in and in their own devotional lives lifting up requests for neighbours to God constantly.  I am really proud of my friend for choosing such a devoted way of being part of an organization which seeks to transform communities both internally and externally.  I am also really proud of her for reaching out in other ways outside of just her own patch by praying through Operation World which is a prayer book highlighting the different prayer requests of different countries.  Although I know that she devotes so much of her time, energy, and prayer power to her ministry with this organization I also see her transforming the community in many other ways such as through being a positive role model to young children, through the friendships she has fostered with others, and through never being too busy to pray for me.

When I was asked to reflect on community development by the Mennonerds I also started thinking of what this topic means in my own life.  As those of you who follow my blog are well aware, I live in an intentional community for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities just North of Toronto.  L’Arche was founded by Jean Vanier, a devout Catholic man and the son of the former Governor General of Canada, Georges Vanier.  Encouraged by his Spiritual director and priest, Vanier decided to take a stand during an era when the general public knew very little about the needs of adults who had disabilities and where oftentimes families of individuals with the disability felt that there was no way to raise the child so the child was simply sent to an institution.  A few years later, Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic Priest, scholar and professor, and acclaimed author heard of this movement and after coming to a place of brokenness and lack of fulfillment in his own life despite his academic achievements, decided to leave the world he knew and the fame he had acquired to become the first pastor of L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto.  Nouwen gave up a life of high standing and ovation in order to descend into servitude serving the least of these.  Although Nouwen passed away several years ago, if you ask any of the old timers at L’Arche about him they are sure to put on a great big smile and talk to you for several minutes if not hours about the impact that he had.

Nouwen was not perfect.  He made plenty of mistakes.  When he came to Daybreak he was a lousy housekeeper and often became impatient with the core members (residents) who were not as articulate as his colleagues in the university.  He often rushed them, only to have one of them have a seizure which indicated to him that he needed to “slow down.”  Yet despite the fact that Nouwen’s early years at L’Arche were somewhat rocky, he grew into his role steadily but surely and became a great pastor, mentor, and teacher to several of the assistants and a great spiritual director and most importantly a friend to the majority of the core members.  Even today when I join a core member on the floor to look at their life story book (a scrapbook containing pictures, letters, and memorabilia of their time at L’Arche) I oftentimes notice a special letter handwritten to them by Henri Nouwen.  I stare amazed and ask them sometimes like, “you have a letter from HENRI NOUWEN???”  Thinking nothing of it they smile back at me and say, “yeah.  He’s my friend.”   Unaware of the books, lectures, and sermons Nouwen produced during his life the core members are simply able to love him as Henri.  What he did outside of L’Arche, the status he held, holds very little interest to them.  They love him because he is simply Henri.  They love him because he is imperfect.  They love him because he transformed our community.

By this point you may be wondering how my initial thoughts about Move-In connect with the life I live at L’Arche and how all of this connects with community transformation?  The thing is, Move-In and L’Arche are two separate organizations.  One is more evangelical, the other is devoutly Catholic (although L’Arche certainly has become very interdenominational and in many cases interfaith over the past several years).  One is more about serving immigrant populations, the other is about focussing all of our attention on living among adults with developmental disabilities.  Yet, even amidst their differences I see that in the end of the day both organizations really have the same cores and that is what enables both of them to transform communities.

Both L’Arche and Move-In serve “the least of these.”  People who choose to live in patches and assistants who choose to devote 4 months, a year, or the rest of their lives to L’Arche have both chosen to live intentionally among a population that is oftentimes ignored, shunned, and spurned by the general populace.  In either case it takes a tremendous amount of energy, passion, and love.  In either case it is a ministry.  From what I know about Move-In the corner stone is on Christ.  It is on prayer and from this prayer and devotion to Christ acts of service naturally flow out of it.  You don’t have to think about serving because it comes naturally since you’re following the direction of Christ.  And it’s the same with L’Arche.  Prayer is the cornerstone of every L’Arche house.  Spirituality is written on everything we do – whether it’s doing a reading before a meeting, praying after dinner, or the spirituality of grieving with a core member who has just heard the traumatic news that they have lost a loved one, we pray, we laugh together, sometimes we cry together.  And when we choose to cry together my tears become the tears of the core member and while they are mingled together we see God’s presence – as if Christ is giving us a great big hug and telling us it’s all going to be okay.

When I first came to L’Arche I struggled.  I was an academic.  I was the type of person who read Bonhoeffer for fun.  I enjoyed a good debate about predestination and eschatology.  Yet coming at L’Arche has shown me how little those things really matter to community transformation.  I’m not saying they aren’t important.  There’s definitely a place for scholarly pursuits and we need individuals who are able to provide adequate theological instruction to pastors.  But when I came to L’Arche I realized none of those things mattered at all to our core members.  What matters to them is NOT what I am capable of knowing, it’s whether I am able to enter into my own woundedness and how I can use my brokenness to serve them.  It’s not about what I do FOR them – it’s about what I assist them in doing so that they can have the fullest sense of independence that is possible.  And in the end of the day, when I have arrived back from a day away and a core member runs up to me with a huge smile giving me a hug and saying, “Deborah I missed you!  Where have you been?”  I know I am home.

I transform community every day, but community also transforms me every day.  It’s not an either/or dichotomy.  It’s a both/and dichotomy.  I have received far more from L’Arche and from the core members than I can ever dream of giving.  I may assist core members in preparing dinner, in bathing, or in personal hygiene.  BUT they have given me confidence, a sense of purpose, and the patience to follow through on long term commitments.  I’m not saying L’Arche is a perfect or easy life because it isn’t.  There’s many days when I may feel exhausted or question my decision to live in community, but there are far more days when having a core member give me a homemade card, a high five, or treating me to a lunch at McDonald’s reminds me of why I am really here.  I’m not here to be a “hero” or a “saint”.  I’m here to build community and to let community build me.

See people sometimes make community transformation seem overwhelming or difficult because of all the various options that one can take in order to make it come about.  It’s actually really simple.  It’s about offering a stranger a cup of cold water and through that cup of water transforming that relationship into a friendship.  It’s about loving the least of these.  As I told my L’Arche coach (mentor) the other day in our session, “L’Arche is about living out the Gospels.  It’s about loving the least of these.  If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.  I could be a pastor, a professor, or a teacher, but if I’m not loving the least of these I may as well not be doing my job because I haven’t understood the point of what Christ said.”

Whether you are in a Move-In patch, at L’Arche, or transforming your community in some other way know that your ministry is not any more or less profound than anyone else’s.  If you love the least of these you are truly a successful person.  You are truly following the commandments of Christ.  And at the end of the day you can rest assured that you will hear the words of Christ, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful with a few things, now I will give you a chance to show your faithfulness with many things.”[2]
**** If you want to check out the rest of the Mennonerds Spirituality series please check out: http://mennonerds.com/special-blog-series/mennonerds-on-anabaptist-missional-spirituality/.  Mennonerds has got some great posts here which you won’t want to miss!

 



[1] http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10:25-37

[2] http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25:21

To learn more about Move-In check out: http://movein.to/

I have always been interested in community transformation.  Perhaps my interest came as a result of being an Anabaptist (more specifically Mennonite).  Perhaps it came as a result of the family I grew up in which made visiting those in nursing homes a priority.  Perhaps my interest really started to peak when I was a first year student at Tyndale University College and at the end of the winter semester noticed that I had over $200 left on my meal card and didn’t want to waste it all on chocolate (since at that time I was on the verge of becoming diabetic anyways) so instead I gathered a group of other students together and we all did a homeless food run.  Regardless of when this passion first started, there were definitely people who helped contribute to my growing interest, there were experiences given to me that really enhanced my vision (such as seeing the slums in Brazil), and there were books recommended to me to read (can anyone say “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne?).  My sense of community transformation soon stretched from my understanding of what it meant to be kind to those within my church, to honestly wrestling with the question “Who is my neighbour?”[1], to trying to get a sense of global community through looking at the types of clothing I wore and the kind of food choices I’ve made.

I definitely think that when it comes to community development there is much room for freedom as to how we will approach it.  One of my dear friends from my high school days is very involved with an organization called Move-In as are several of my colleagues from my Tyndale days.  Move-In is a Christian organization which tries to reach out to individuals living in rougher neighourhoods (called “patches”) where there may be high rates of immigration, poverty, or other factors which may alienate others.  Through literally “moving into” those patches, people who have committed to the Move-In lifestyle show the love of Christ by being an example of a shining light.  My sense of Move-In gathered from talking to my friend and Tyndale students (although I admit I have never lived in a patch and I have only visited one of the many patches) is that it is less about “doing” than it is about “being”.  It is about being a constant presence, a sign of hope rather than an organization that tries to eradicate poverty.  People who are affiliated with Move-In may assist in ways such as helping new neighbours to move into their homes or hanging out with families, but it also is simply about being a prayer presence.  Gathering weekly to pray over the communities they live in and in their own devotional lives lifting up requests for neighbours to God constantly.  I am really proud of my friend for choosing such a devoted way of being part of an organization which seeks to transform communities both internally and externally.  I am also really proud of her for reaching out in other ways outside of just her own patch by praying through Operation World which is a prayer book highlighting the different prayer requests of different countries.  Although I know that she devotes so much of her time, energy, and prayer power to her ministry with this organization I also see her transforming the community in many other ways such as through being a positive role model to young children, through the friendships she has fostered with others, and through never being too busy to pray for me.

When I was asked to reflect on community development by the Mennonerds I also started thinking of what this topic means in my own life.  As those of you who follow my blog are well aware, I live in an intentional community for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities just North of Toronto.  L’Arche was founded by Jean Vanier, a devout Catholic man and the son of the former Governor General of Canada, Georges Vanier.  Encouraged by his Spiritual director and priest, Vanier decided to take a stand during an era when the general public knew very little about the needs of adults who had disabilities and where oftentimes families of individuals with the disability felt that there was no way to raise the child so the child was simply sent to an institution.  A few years later, Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic Priest, scholar and professor, and acclaimed author heard of this movement and after coming to a place of brokenness and lack of fulfillment in his own life despite his academic achievements, decided to leave the world he knew and the fame he had acquired to become the first pastor of L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto.  Nouwen gave up a life of high standing and ovation in order to descend into servitude serving the least of these.  Although Nouwen passed away several years ago, if you ask any of the old timers at L’Arche about him they are sure to put on a great big smile and talk to you for several minutes if not hours about the impact that he had.

Nouwen was not perfect.  He made plenty of mistakes.  When he came to Daybreak he was a lousy housekeeper and often became impatient with the core members (residents) who were not as articulate as his colleagues in the university.  He often rushed them, only to have one of them have a seizure which indicated to him that he needed to “slow down.”  Yet despite the fact that Nouwen’s early years at L’Arche were somewhat rocky, he grew into his role steadily but surely and became a great pastor, mentor, and teacher to several of the assistants and a great spiritual director and most importantly a friend to the majority of the core members.  Even today when I join a core member on the floor to look at their life story book (a scrapbook containing pictures, letters, and memorabilia of their time at L’Arche) I oftentimes notice a special letter handwritten to them by Henri Nouwen.  I stare amazed and ask them sometimes like, “you have a letter from HENRI NOUWEN???”  Thinking nothing of it they smile back at me and say, “yeah.  He’s my friend.”   Unaware of the books, lectures, and sermons Nouwen produced during his life the core members are simply able to love him as Henri.  What he did outside of L’Arche, the status he held, holds very little interest to them.  They love him because he is simply Henri.  They love him because he is imperfect.  They love him because he transformed our community.

By this point you may be wondering how my initial thoughts about Move-In connect with the life I live at L’Arche and how all of this connects with community transformation?  The thing is, Move-In and L’Arche are two separate organizations.  One is more evangelical, the other is devoutly Catholic (although L’Arche certainly has become very interdenominational and in many cases interfaith over the past several years).  One is more about serving immigrant populations, the other is about focussing all of our attention on living among adults with developmental disabilities.  Yet, even amidst their differences I see that in the end of the day both organizations really have the same cores and that is what enables both of them to transform communities.

Both L’Arche and Move-In serve “the least of these.”  People who choose to live in patches and assistants who choose to devote 4 months, a year, or the rest of their lives to L’Arche have both chosen to live intentionally among a population that is oftentimes ignored, shunned, and spurned by the general populace.  In either case it takes a tremendous amount of energy, passion, and love.  In either case it is a ministry.  From what I know about Move-In the corner stone is on Christ.  It is on prayer and from this prayer and devotion to Christ acts of service naturally flow out of it.  You don’t have to think about serving because it comes naturally since you’re following the direction of Christ.  And it’s the same with L’Arche.  Prayer is the cornerstone of every L’Arche house.  Spirituality is written on everything we do – whether it’s doing a reading before a meeting, praying after dinner, or the spirituality of grieving with a core member who has just heard the traumatic news that they have lost a loved one, we pray, we laugh together, sometimes we cry together.  And when we choose to cry together my tears become the tears of the core member and while they are mingled together we see God’s presence – as if Christ is giving us a great big hug and telling us it’s all going to be okay.

When I first came to L’Arche I struggled.  I was an academic.  I was the type of person who read Bonhoeffer for fun.  I enjoyed a good debate about predestination and eschatology.  Yet coming at L’Arche has shown me how little those things really matter to community transformation.  I’m not saying they aren’t important.  There’s definitely a place for scholarly pursuits and we need individuals who are able to provide adequate theological instruction to pastors.  But when I came to L’Arche I realized none of those things mattered at all to our core members.  What matters to them is NOT what I am capable of knowing, it’s whether I am able to enter into my own woundedness and how I can use my brokenness to serve them.  It’s not about what I do FOR them – it’s about what I assist them in doing so that they can have the fullest sense of independence that is possible.  And in the end of the day, when I have arrived back from a day away and a core member runs up to me with a huge smile giving me a hug and saying, “Deborah I missed you!  Where have you been?”  I know I am home.

I transform community every day, but community also transforms me every day.  It’s not an either/or dichotomy.  It’s a both/and dichotomy.  I have received far more from L’Arche and from the core members than I can ever dream of giving.  I may assist core members in preparing dinner, in bathing, or in personal hygiene.  BUT they have given me confidence, a sense of purpose, and the patience to follow through on long term commitments.  I’m not saying L’Arche is a perfect or easy life because it isn’t.  There’s many days when I may feel exhausted or question my decision to live in community, but there are far more days when having a core member give me a homemade card, a high five, or treating me to a lunch at McDonald’s reminds me of why I am really here.  I’m not here to be a “hero” or a “saint”.  I’m here to build community and to let community build me.

See people sometimes make community transformation seem overwhelming or difficult because of all the various options that one can take in order to make it come about.  It’s actually really simple.  It’s about offering a stranger a cup of cold water and through that cup of water transforming that relationship into a friendship.  It’s about loving the least of these.  As I told my L’Arche coach (mentor) the other day in our session, “L’Arche is about living out the Gospels.  It’s about loving the least of these.  If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.  I could be a pastor, a professor, or a teacher, but if I’m not loving the least of these I may as well not be doing my job because I haven’t understood the point of what Christ said.”

Whether you are in a Move-In patch, at L’Arche, or transforming your community in some other way know that your ministry is not any more or less profound than anyone else’s.  If you love the least of these you are truly a successful person.  You are truly following the commandments of Christ.  And at the end of the day you can rest assured that you will hear the words of Christ, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful with a few things, now I will give you a chance to show your faithfulness with many things.”[2]
**** If you want to check out the rest of the Mennonerds Spirituality series please check out: http://mennonerds.com/special-blog-series/mennonerds-on-anabaptist-missional-spirituality/.  Mennonerds has got some great posts here which you won’t want to miss!

 

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Christ Gives the Gift of Joy This Christmas

Two women and a stuffed snowman admire a decorated Christmas tree

Christmas at L’Arche Daybreak

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13 (NIV)

 

 

It’s Christmas Eve.  Time to do your last minute preparations, time to cherish family and friends, and also time to reflect on the coming birth of the Son of God – the Saviour of the world.  Christmas is indeed a time of deep joy and gratitude, however, for many people it can also be a time of great sadness and loss.

For the family who has recently lost a love one, I send my condolences.  To the individual who has just lost their job, I send my sincerest regrets.  To the person who will be gathering with their family this Christmas knowing that they await conflicts which lie just below the surface, you are not alone.

There is this unfortunate reality among Christians that we always need to be happy and we always need to have a smile on our face, however, this is simply not the case!  This Christmas people will be struggling with a variety of things as they enter the church for the service this evening.  Some of them will be wondering how they will be able to put food on the table tomorrow.  Some of my brothers and sisters from other countries will be wondering where the Prince of Peace is in the midst of war and violence.  Some of my brothers and sisters have recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness or suffered a stroke and wonder how Christmas will be the same when their loved one is in the hospital not to mention the medical bills are piling high.

I’m not saying all of this to be a downer.  Not at all.  I am fortunate that today I am with my family, I have survived a massive Canadian ice storm, and tomorrow there will be a lovely spread of turkey on the table.  I’m thankful that I will go to church tonight and that I live in a country where I don’t need to fear persecution for that.  At the same time, I am deeply aware that this is not the reality for all Canadians or all Christians on this sacred and holy day.

Yet that doesn’t make it any less sacred and holy.  The Son of God came so that we might have life and have it abundantly![1]  He came not to judge, but to save us![2]  This Christmas, whatever you are going through, know that Jesus cares and that on Him you can place all your burdens![3]  Come to Him.  He understands.  Christ went through a lot.  He suffered.  There is no temptation which we go through which He also didn’t experience.[4]  Know that this Christmas if you are struggling with alcoholism, depression, anxiety, or anything else that Christ walks with you.  He does not judge.  He is your loving Heavenly Parent who wants to give you the greatest gift of all – peace and joy.

Here’s another thing: joy and happiness although there may be some similarities are not the same thing!  I was thinking about this last Sunday when I was at church and we sang the famous and familiar Christmas song “How Great Our Joy”.  Many of us know that the chorus goes “How great my joy (loudly), great my joy (in hushed anticipation).  Jesus is born in Heaven on high (loudly), Jesus is born in Heaven on high (in hushed anticipation).”

Woman in animal costume stands in front of Christmas tree next to man seated in wheelchair

Me showing off one of the Christmas gifts my house got me for Christmas

I had never thought about the musical dynamics before until that day.  Joy can sometimes be proclaimed loudly as if we are on the mountaintop.  Joy can also be said in hushed anticipation, even when we are in the valley.  There was a lot of anticipation that day, and there is a lot of anticipation today.  Perhaps Christ wants to bring you a special gift this Christmas – healing, a compassionate friend, someone who can lend a listening ear, or comfort.  Joy CAN permeate through us even in the darkest seasons of our lives.  Joy is not a feeling.  Happiness is a feeling and feelings are fleeting.  One minute we are happy, the next we are not.  But joy is so deeply rooted in us that it wells up even amidst grief, pain, and loss.

This Christmas let’s be thankful for the greatest gift of joy that came to us on this earth.  Let’s join the Heavenly hosts of angels and shepherds and sing with them: “How great is my joy (loudly), great is my joy (in hushed anticipation).  Joy, joy, joy (loudly).  Joy, joy, joy (in hushed anticipation).  Jesus is born in Heaven on High (loudly).  Jesus is born in Heaven on High! (in hushed anticipation)”

Never heard the song How Great Our Joy before?  Check out this YouTube rendition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbY6yb-UaNc

PC150005 (1) Darryl (one of our core members) acting as Santa Claus and giving us presents at our house Christmas party

Do you like what are you reading here?  Check out my personal blog for more Advent and Christmas devotionals on the theme “Glimpses of Joy”.  http://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/

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Ministry at L’Arche – On Answering the “This Has Nothing to Do With Your Studies” Comment

“I heard you were in seminary.  Are you still in school?”

“No.  Not really.  I am taking online courses and taking a bit of a break to develop myself as a person and as a professional.”

“Oh, that’s good.  What are you doing nowadays?”

“I’m working at L’Arche.  It’s an intentional community for adults who have developmental disabilities.”

“Hmm…. That has nothing to do with your field of studies.”

PC150013 (1) Mary-Anne (one of our core members) and I at our house’s Christmas dinner

The above represents the conversation openers that I often have received since starting my job at L’Arche.  Along with facing much discouragement from pursuing L’Arche from the beginning, I still find many people who have attitudes about L’Arche that it is not full time ministry.  Often these individuals have never visited L’Arche, had supper in one of our homes, or spent even a few hours with a core member (resident).  I’m sure if they had they would have much different views about what L’Arche is.

Since starting L’Arche I often describe it this way to others, “’L’Arche is not a job.  It’s a lifestyle.”  Yes, I receive a salary, I have to file for taxes, and I have benefits.  In many ways it is a job just like every other vocation – it requires tremendous amounts of paperwork and protocol.  At the same time, if L’Arche was a job I would have left it probably within my first 2 or 3 months.  I don’t think I’d even be contemplating sticking around for the next year or two.  L’Arche is about relationships.  L’Arche is about friendships – not just with other assistants on your day off, but also with the core members.  L’Arche is also a lifestyle.  When you work at L’Arche you live and breathe L’Arche 24/7.  Even on my days off I find myself thinking about my house.  When I get my weekend off every month I find myself missing the core members and by Saturday night my heart aches and I just can’t wait to get back to see them!  They have become so much a part of who I am.  They have truly become my family.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Darryl (one of our core members and I) visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame in Downtown Toronto and seeing the Stanley Cup.  Darryl is an avid Toronto Maple Leaf’s fan and his number one goal is to meet Don Cherry – a Canadian hockey announcer

Often I find it very difficult to put into words – whether verbal or written – what I live at L’Arche.  The truth is that if you are curious, you really have to come and see for yourself!  That’s why when I meet up with friends in the Toronto area and they are filled with questions about the nature of my work, I simply invite them over for a dinner.  If they’re feeling very adventurous I invite them to one of our chapel services.  Almost every friend I’ve invited has taken me up on the offer and afterwards has come out of the experience with a much deeper awareness of what L’Arche truly is and what our mission and vision entails.  In many, many ways (more than you can imagine) the act of my friends visiting L’Arche has deeply cemented our relationship often rooting and growing us as even closer friends than we were before.  I really love the fact that because Daybreak is about a 30 minute car ride from Tyndale (where I went to University) that I am able to share this integral part of my life with several of my best friends.  I’m also thankful that as I continue to grow, learn, and process L’Arche that I have people outside of L’Arche with whom to process and pray about these things with.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Darryl, Mary Anne, and I pose outside for a picture this summer while enjoying a BBQ

So is L’Arche actually related to my field of studies?  I studied peace studies, theology, and religious education.  In some ways, the answer would be no.  What I’m doing now is more closely related to personal care and in many ways resembles social work.  If I really stretch it I could say that with the amount of hours I spend with medical professionals that perhaps I am doing a bit of lay-nursing.  In those ways, what I’m doing is not at all related to the preaching, teaching, and leadership that I was training for the last four years in.

Yet, in other ways, L’Arche is a profound ministry – one in which no amount of education could prepare me for.  Some people say that whatever you do – whether that be engineering, medicine, or car-washing can be a ministry if you are a Christian.  I do not negate that.  However, L’Arche is truly a Christian ministry – similar to being a full time pastor or teacher.  In fact, in my very first months at L’Arche I recognized that many of the challenges I face there are similar to the ones I was taught that pastors would face when I was in university and seminary.  These struggles include: self-care in ministry, having good boundaries, empathetic listening and so much more.  It also includes constantly being alert, being available at any time, and not having the same work schedule all the time.  L’Arche has really taught me how to be flexible and how to take care of myself even amidst a job which can sometimes be very intense and overwhelming.  The nice thing about L’Arche is that you are never truly alone.  We work in teams and we have a leadership structure – this means that when I do start feeling a little burnt out I have people who help take on the stress with me and we help each other out.

So, now after six months of living in a L’Arche community when people challenge me by suggesting that L’Arche is not ministry, I challenge them back.  I challenge them to spend an overnight in our community, to begin volunteering with people who have disabilities, or to even just begin reading Henri Nouwen or Jean Vanier.  Just like L’Arche’s mandate, I know that I cannot be a cure for the way our abelstic society functions, however, I do seek to be a symbol or a sign.  I want to be one more light on the journey that challenges the way our culture has thought for years.  I invite all of you to come and see.  I invite all of you to journey with me in the new year and to become involved with your local congregations and schools to find ways that we can bring more inclusion to our culture and inform others of the various gifts and strengths people with developmental disabilities bring to us all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Darryl and I walking in downtown Toronto

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On Learning to Grieve Beautifully (Part 2 of a 2 Part Series)

Life often can bring many unexpected twists and turns.  One such unpleasant twist was having a core member pass away within my first two months working at L’Arche Daybreak.  Yet, even amidst the grief, I have experienced the warmth and graceful presence that is L’Arche.  And this has left me inspired and filled with gratitude.

L’Arche grieves beautifully.  Even writing that last sentence feels strange to me, though.  How is grief beautiful?  It seems like such a strange irony.  Yet, I have never seen any community come together around a loss as lovingly as this community has – enveloping each other.

One line that gets repeated over and over at Daybreak is that “we are a community of storytellers”.  We take every opportunity we have to share stories with one another and we never pass up on an opportunity to keep this tradition going.

When we first received the phone call that Peggy, one of our longest standing core members had passed away, we immediately were in shock.  I went through all of the stages of grief, which was very profound for me because I only knew Peggy for 2 months and Peggy and I had really only lived at the same house for 1 month.  I knew the sick Peggy – not the strong, vibrant one who had brought such happiness to the house.  I have been through loss before, however, I have never experienced all of the stages of grief.  Yet after Peggy’s death I almost felt it to be overwhelming to walk alongside the other core members (residents) as they struggled while I, myself, was still grieving.

One thing that really helped in this process was talking to long-time members of the L’Arche community.  They shared with me that people with developmental disabilities often exemplify the stages of grief in a much more profound way than the rest of us do.  For the most part, anger becomes sheer rage, sadness can easily lead into depression, and denial can become almost like distancing one’s self from the world.  So I was told early on that I needed to not be shocked by any extreme displays of emotion that I might witness – knowing this really helped.

In the very beginning I also really struggled with showing core members my own emotions.  To be honest, before L’Arche I was not very in tune with my own emotions.  I was a very logical thinker who thought emotions were sometimes embarrassing.  Yet, God really surprised me with the strength in this time to move forward with the core members and soon I found the core members coming to me to discuss what was happening with them as they grieved.  It really bonded us together and I believe this was really the beginning of my friendships with the majority of people in my house.  At the same time I physically was worn out because of the long nights at the hospital and emotionally I was drained.  I was still so new to my job, and learning so much, and to have this loss on top of it seemed like too much to bear.  I felt like I had to be really strong for the core members and not show them I was struggling because I was there to be a leader and an assistant to them.  Yet, the most helpful thing L’Arche provided me with was the opportunity to grieve myself.  One long term member of the community shared with me, “when you act strong you are actually doing the core members a disservice.  When they see you grieving, it also gives them permission to grieve.  It’s okay.  Pick a core member and have a good cry with them.”  Hearing someone say this to me really helped me to understand that any emotions I was feeling were normal and that I didn’t need to put on a façade but could truly be myself at L’Arche.

As the days progressed, L’Arche became a very busy place.  We had several gatherings where we shared stories of Peggy’s life.  A beautiful coffin was handcrafted by our woodery, and the funeral procession consisted of all the members of our house.  Yet the funeral itself was not where it ended.  As the months progressed our core members continued to pray for Peggy’s family every night, they continued to remember her and they still do.  Peggy will always be a part of our house.  Just a few weeks ago some of us who knew Peggy gathered over a lovely dessert spread as we shared stories about her life just for closure.  We also had a blessing of her room and have made plans for converting it into a room that will preserve her memory and to use it in ways that will remain respectful to her.

I never thought I would learn so much about grief at L’Arche, and yet, I am grateful that the core members trusted me enough to walk alongside them in the time of their deepest pain and rawest emotions.  In the end, although we had to say goodbye to a dear friend, we also were able to truly celebrate her life and say hello to her in a new way.

How to Help People with Developmental Disabilities Grieve

By no means am I an expert in this field.  I do not have much training and I can only speak based off of what I, myself, have learned living at Daybreak.

- Validate the person’s feelings.  People with disabilities often can feel many different emotions and they may also have very quick shifts in mood.  It’s important to not only validate what they are feeling but to remain gentle and non-judgmental.  It’s also important to see every day as a new day – not holding tightly to how the person may have reacted the day before.

- It’s okay to be real about your own emotions and to grieve with the person.

- Respect the person’s need for privacy and space.

- Don’t let anything surprise you during this time about how a person may choose to react (you may see much anger or even aggression.  Don’t take it personally).

- Although you must be gentle and thoughtful in this time, it’s also okay to maintain boundaries.  It’s not okay for a person (whether they have a disability or not) to take out all of their anger on you.  It’s important to give space, however, you can also use phrases such as “I know you are going through a difficult time.  We all miss ____.  However, that doesn’t mean that you can take it out in this way.”

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