By Claire McGrath
“Kinship—not serving the other but being one with the other. Jesus was not a man for others; he was one with them,” says Father Greg Boyle in the book Tattoos on the Heart. There are many reasons that I moved to the L’Arche Harbor House in Jacksonville almost two months ago, but when I try to express what exactly it was that led me to L’Arche after graduating from college this past May, I keep coming back to this call to kinship that Father Greg Boyle talks about; God’s invitation to go beyond serving others and seek to be one with others, especially those who feel forgotten or pushed aside. L’Arche is made up of communities all around the world where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. Core members, those with disabilities, and assistants, who provide support to the core members with whatever they may need, share a home and a community where they can celebrate, mourn, laugh, cry, and learn with one another. L’Arche gives assistants the unique chance to go beyond doing things for people with disabilities, and invites them to become one with them, giving them the opportunity to not only to offer their gifts to the core members, but also to receive the many gifts that the core members have to share with them.
When I reflect on the things I’ve been learning at L’Arche so far, one word that I keep returning to is “unconditional.” Life in L’Arche so far has felt countercultural, even rebellious, compared to the way that current society is structured. It seems that the way our culture has been structured is full of conditions. When we give things away, whether it be love, a gift, assistance, advice, or hospitality, it’s often attached to some kind of condition, even if we don’t recognize it or name it. I’ll love you, as long as you love me back. I’ll help you, but you have to show me gratitude. I’ll welcome you, if you prove yourself to be a good guest.
I think that this conditional approach to giving also applies to the way that we value others and ourselves. In a culture that gives value to things that prove their worth, sometimes we get the false impression that our own worth and sacredness is conditional, as well; our value must be earned. We think to ourselves, “If I can live up to a certain standard, I’m worth something, and I deserve love.” We’re used to associating worth with function; people are admired, respected, celebrated, and praised for what they do. Not that we shouldn’t praise people’s accomplishments—it’s important that we celebrate others’ hard work and success. However, as I’m learning at L’Arche, it is even more important that we celebrate people for who they are. Sacredness is not earned, although we sometimes treat it like it is.
Sharing life in L’Arche has challenged the notion that beauty and worth are conditional. From the moment I walked through the door, I was welcomed as part of a family. I was celebrated, and valued, and loved, before I even did anything! I was received with love simply because I showed up. Nobody waited to love me or value me until I had been given time to prove my competency or my capabilities. This so closely resembles the love that God has for us; God loves us simply because we exist. He doesn’t wait for us to prove our love for Him, or prove our dedication, or our willingness to work—he loves us from the moment we walk through the door into the world!
A few weeks ago, one of the core members caught me off guard my mentioning something about my “other” home. I looked at her, a bit confused, and questioned, “What do you mean, my other home?”, trying to figure out why she was under the impression that my family owned two homes! She looked at me and said, “I mean your home in Maryland. You have your home here, and you have your home back in Maryland.” This was only a few days after I had arrived, and I hadn’t done anything except be there, yet already I was accepted as a member of the family. I was unconditionally embraced as part of the family right from the get-go, without having to prove anything to anyone or even do anything. All I did was walk through the door.