Spending the summer as the Duke Divinity School (DDS) field education intern in a L’Arche community was for me the fulfillment of a long-standing dream. Like countless others, my introduction to the organization came through the writings of Henri Nouwen and, later, Jean Vanier. A couple of years after I read Nouwen’s book The Inner Voice of Love, I consumed his posthumously published Adam in nearly one sitting. It remains one of the most formative volumes that I have ever read. Even before I knew how to properly pronounce its French name, I was keenly aware that the mission of L’Arche had touched me very deeply and that I was attracted me to their way of life. However, given that both of these writers were formed in the Roman Catholic tradition, I perceived that L’Arche would have little use for a Baptist like me. I assumed this for years until I learned through the field education office that the organization was ecumenical and that I could live into this yearning by serving as an intern. With the summer well under way, I arrived on the Washington D.C. community’s doorstep on the evening of June 5th after a tediously long train ride from North Carolina. Once I had deposited my bags onto the floor of my small bedroom, an obviously seasoned assistant gave me a brief tour of Ontario House and left me to rest from my travels. Before we parted ways, I told her that I feared how my tired exhaustion may have made me seem especially aloof. She responded by saying: “You don’t have to be any sort of way to be here.” I had no idea just how important that phrase would become over the next ten weeks.
Contrary to my initial hopes and expectations, life as an assistant did not come easily for me. Though I had done some ministry among students with intellectual disabilities while I was a resident chaplain at Campbell University, the duties of a L’Arche assistant were entirely foreign. To get acquainted with these duties, my time at the Ontario House began with the immersive experience of a fast-paced (albeit incredibly thorough) orientation that exhausted me early on. I was simultaneously learning the unique dimensions of each core member’s personality, and this demanded my undivided attention at times when I had so little to give. This whirlwind of information, as well as the feeling of inadequacy over a new job about which I knew nothing, indicated to me that I might not be the sort of assistant that I had expected to be. Though I relish a good conversation, I am not an extraordinarily gregarious person. I usually amass energy while I am alone. With rare exception, I nearly always maintain a calm, steady demeanor that makes it difficult for me to “loosen up” by making animal noises or singing silly songs loudly for everyone to hear. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced these things were two essential marks of a good assistant. Because I connect so deeply with the literature that has come out of L’Arche, I assumed that I might miraculously acquire them within the atmosphere of any given community. Learning that I was still Austin Maynor came as unwelcome news for my insecure spirit. These frustrations boiled over into much of my internship, making it difficult to return to work on some days. Thanks to the incredible direction of my supervisor, I realized that L’Arche’s message of affirmation was not exclusively reserved for the residents (they’re called core members at L’Arche). It was for assistants, too. Realizing that I “don’t have to be any sort of way,” I slowly became comfortable in my own shoes (frequently penny loafers, to be exact) as a person who brings both gifts and weaknesses to a community like Ontario House. That person–not the fantasized version of myself to which I cling so frequently–is the one L’Arche affirms and the one whom God loves. At the core of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the imperative to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and so it makes sense that it was not until I acquired my own affirmation that I was able to appropriately dispense it to my friends at Ontario House.
As a summer intern, my name was added to a long list of temporary assistants who make a brief appearance into the very full life of a L’Arche community before leaving abruptly at a predetermined date. The fact of my presence was welcomed by some core members, but it was heavily resisted by others. Though it became easier to navigate in the final weeks, grappling with this frequent rejection was very difficult and often infuriating to the point of having to step away for a break. Still, a core person’s rejection is entirely plausible. Since I was a stranger to them, my fairly insistent grip around their gait belt or my presence in their shower routine was understandably perceived as an unwelcome intrusion. Just as any other person might do, they sometimes loudly refused my assistance in order to restore their sense of security. When standing on the receiving end of this rejection, it was easy to inhabit an angry disposition and become distant from the person in order to protect myself from the emotional upheaval that results from conflict. Doing this comes at great cost, though, because to reject the person is to reject the image of God. L’Arche has taught me that it is when we accept the risk of becoming present with others that we encounter the gifts that they offer to the world. Ten weeks is not a very long time, but it is long enough to establish relationships with four adults who, in the words of Thomas Merton, are “shining like the sun” with the radiance of God’s luminous image.
My internship concluded nearly a month ago, and I have since returned to the orbit of the familiar by entering a new semester at Duke. Even though I am now absent from the Ontario House community, I expect that the lessons that these cherished people taught me will continue to form me as a person and as a minister. During my last twenty-four hours in Washington, I visited each of the four core members one last time. This would be goodbye for the foreseeable future. I will always remember the hugs, the smiles, and the tears, but one memory has become especially valuable to me. When I reached the core person with whom I had shared the most tension, I stood on the other side of his door and remembered how our summer had gone and how much we had learned about each other. When I told him that I was leaving the next morning, he didn’t quite understand why. “Are you taking another job?” he asked me. I replied that I had to return home to get ready for the new semester. When he understood this, he told me that I could come back any time because I was now “part of the family.” He then blessed me twice before I finally closed the door and walked downstairs. When I saw him again the next morning, he offered yet another blessing. With two fingers raised in benediction, he prayed: “God, we come to you today to pray for a member of our community. Today is his last day. Go in peace with God, Austin.” I savored this blessing while I rode the train back to North Carolina, and the only word that came to mind that accurately described what I had been given was “grace.” As Paul Tillich once preached,
In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves. We experience the grace of being able to look frankly into the eyes of another, the miraculous grace of reunion of life with life… We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, by which we have been accepted… And in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in relation to ourselves” (The Shaking of the Foundations, 162).
In this particular core member I encountered the Jesus who accepts both of us and delights in our shared communion. During his earthly ministry, Jesus shared his life among the people whom society had exiled, and he taught that it is among these people that he makes himself known (Matt. 25:40). People living with intellectual disabilities would have been included in Jesus’ circle of friends. Though often forced into the shadow of cultural abandon, they are a diverse, lively people among whom the Son of God can reliably be found. I have experienced Jesus through my friends at L’Arche, and through their own distinct voices Jesus has spoken these lessons of forgiveness, affirmation, and celebration directly to me. Just as he was about to ascend into heaven, Jesus commanded his disciples to bear witness to the work he had done and to live out what they had seen him do (28:18-20). On a basic level, Jesus’ “Great Commission” informs us that an encounter with the living Christ always results in a shared testimony with the rest of the world (Acts 1:8). The people of L’Arche understand this, and they sing it frequently during celebration gatherings:
Roll right over the ocean! Roll right over the sea!
Go back to your homes and build community!
It’s us! It’s us! It’s us that builds community!
This summer’s fresh encounter with Jesus now compels me to live out of the beauty that I have witnessed. Indeed, that small community that is nestled in a row house on a busy street in Washington, D.C. testifies to a vision that extends beyond its four walls. That vision is not easy, and it demands much from all who commit to its realization. Even with its demands, it paves the way for a life in which I am called to listen more intentionally, to celebrate every good gift, to forgive with understanding and humility, and to open myself daily to the mystery of community through which Jesus’ message of radical love and affirmation can be heard and proclaimed again and again.