By Kathy Berken
After leading a three-day retreat at Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat in Wheatland on the theme of unity, I visited old friends from The Arch, the L’Arche community in Clinton. My only expectations were to see the core members (those with disabilities) who are still in the community and a few assistants I lived and worked with from 1999 to 2009.
Because so much time had passed, I wondered how our relationships might have changed. We stopped at the house of core member Brenda’s mother Marian and had lunch. We visited a long-term assistant, Marion, at the Alverno Healthcare Facility in Clinton where I felt time had not passed as she explained how to sew a quilt piece she gave me.
The sense of oneness increased at The Arch’s new community center where we celebrated October birthdays. A few core members had trouble remembering me, but no time had passed for the others. Tell Dan what kind of car you now drive and he will remember that forever. Ask David about his latest tech devices and his face just lights up with a smile. Say hello to Kenny and he will smile back, stand up, give you a hug and remember your name. “Hi Kathy!” was sufficient. Harlan just said, “Kathy, Kathy” when asked if he knew me.
Then I spotted Darren, the man who through his disabilities sang his signature song, “Be Not Afraid,” 22 years ago at a blessing service when I first went through breast cancer in 2000. He greeted me with a big smile, a hug and the words, “I miss you.”
Jo Anne invited me to her farm in Lost Nation for the duration of my Iowa stay. We’ve been friends ever since she hired me in 1999 on good faith. She organized a small gathering of former assistants I lived with during my 10-year stint, people I had not seen in 14 years. As each came through the door, my heart jumped back in time. Eric, Diane, Peggy, Chris, Katey, Jo Anne and I just picked up where we left off. We lived, worked, played and prayed with 19 core members then, through every possible scenario from the miraculous to the mundane.
Our three-hour visit over a meal was holy, but none of us talked about that. We took turns telling stories, mostly laughing, sometimes teasing each other about all the — let’s just call them “interesting” — things that happened back then. We spoke at length of people who were ill, who had left the community or who had died. We shared those common experiences and memories with familiar emotions and insights. We are all one.
Although living with adults with cognitive disabilities is often challenging, difficult and demanding work, it is also sacred, as our shared stories reminded us. We were one community, one in purpose, one in vision, one in faith. The spirituality of L’Arche was the foundation of our service, of our lives there.
God is present everywhere in everything. The topic of awareness of God’s presence was always first on our agenda at our weekly assistants’ meetings, as we read aloud from books by our founder Jean Vanier and by Father Henri Nouwen, the great theologian whose life at L’Arche Daybreak in Canada inspired us to see the face of Christ in everyone, especially the most vulnerable.
What I felt during my visit in Iowa with the core members and assistants with whom I had shared 10 years of my life so long ago is embedded in my heart. I am connected forever to them, to L’Arche, to the spirit of God that unifies us through our common mission and purpose. Although friendship comes close to that sense of unity, that group of people I might not have originally chosen to live or work with is more like family. But, you see, when you are doing God’s work, God fills in all the spaces and binds us together as one body, the body of Christ.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)