by Lorraine McCrary
We live in an individualistic society, and most political theory puts reason and self-interest as primary drivers in political life. But as I began my post-doctoral research in 2012, I heard about places where dependence and vulnerability are at the center, and where community aims at developing people’s agency.
That led me to L’Arche.
L’Arche was founded in 1964, when Roman Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier welcomed two men with disabilities into his home in the town of Trosly- Breuil, France. Today the L’Arche Foundation operates in 38 countries—153 communities where adults with and without intellectual disabilities share life and friendship and learn from and empower one another in the process.
Vanier wrote that “a society which discards those who are weak and non-productive risks exaggerating the development of reason, organization, aggression, and the desire to dominate. It becomes a society without a heart, without kindness… a rational and sad society given to competition, rivalry, and, finally, violence.”
As a political scientist, I wondered what I might learn from Vanier and the communities that have embraced his philosophy.
So when I was doing my post-doctoral studies in St. Louis I called the L’Arche community there and asked if I could visit and spend time with the community. They invited me to join them, and I spent two evenings each month there for much of that year.
I felt welcomed the moment I arrived. Before we ate our first meal together, one of the members pulled from a glass jar a piece of paper with the name of a song on it, and we all sang. It turned out to be a daily ritual, but that night it made a guest feel comfortable, long before I really knew anyone there.
Getting acquainted by working side by side was another template they had for being together. At L’Arche, those without disabilities (assistants) don’t do things for the core members, but with them, and it wasn’t long before I was cooking with Pauline, a core member there. Sometimes she suggested what we might make for dinner; once we worked together on sausage gravy and biscuits, a tradition in my family.
During my visits I would join the community in their regular activities, whether it was going to the gym or their evening reflections. When they heard that my fiancé (now husband) Lewis was in town, they wanted to meet him. And upon my departure from St. Louis, they gave me keys made of paper and decorated with markers, each with a different lesson about living in community — tips for my upcoming married life.
At my wedding in Pennsylvania months later, several members of the community came to my wedding and danced. Their presence was a gift. I’m still grateful for the friendship they offered me that year in a city where I had few friends.
In 2018 I was excited to have the opportunity to visit the founding L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, outside of Paris. I spent a week there interviewing L’Arche members. I brought my three-month-old baby, Callum, who mostly laid on his back and kicked his feet during interviews. I don’t speak French and so had to rely on a translator; where there was no translator, Callum turned out to be the perfect way to connect with people.
At a meeting soon after I arrived, one of the members publicly interviewed me so that the community would understand why I was there. Then the whole group sang me song. All I remember is the catchy little chorus that repeated, “Bienvenue.” Like the songs we sang at meals in St. Louis, it was a great communal act of welcome.
One member emphatically asked to hold Callum (there was a language barrier, but she made herself understood). When I let her hold the baby, she carried him around and showed him off to her friends. L’Arche is typically a community of adults; they seemed to value a child this small, and their love and appreciation transcended communication barriers.
One of the members walked the baby and me home each of the three nights that I had dinner at his house. I felt bad inconveniencing him in this way, but he insisted. On our way back to my apartment he would stop several times to shuffle over to Callum, then lean over and give him a gentle kiss on the forehead. He was careful not to hurt or wake him. It was just a break in the walk to kiss the baby—time taken for the most vulnerable among us.
After my last dinner there, one member painted me a beautiful picture on a canvas and cried; another gave me a picture she colored with crayons. One man gave the baby a blessing. My visit was bookended when the members of the house sang me the “Bienvenue” song again.
The evening finished with kisses on both cheeks in the French tradition for me and a kiss for the baby from everyone.
The people at L’arche in St. Louis and Trosly-Breuil welcomed me into their way of being, and I learned from them—those with disabilities and those without. For my research, I saw that community can be structured in a way that gives people agency. Care is something that we all need, and something we all can offer, and care doesn’t have to control people.
Personally, I saw how people are valuable, have dignity regardless of their rational capacity, and how this is lived out in community. I learned that connection and relationships are possible across what divides us, even when communication is difficult. In taking time for one another, being present to each other, these people share something that many of us have forgotten.
I also think that what L’Arche is doing is a sort of politics—working together for the common good. It can prepare people to be good citizens, yes, but it is a form of citizenship in its own right.
This is a profoundly welcoming community and people; they live the kind of welcome I think the world should be offering to them.
What L’arche taught me about agency and community informs my teaching at Wabash. It has also challenged my students.
When I taught a class about disability and politics last year, I worked with Ability Services Inc. (ASI) in Crawfordsville and asked my students to spend time with the clients there.
At ASI they have a way of being, and like the people at L’Arche, they welcomed us into it. Taking cues from the templates L’Arche employs to help people get acquainted, we worked and played alongside the clients. Students did whatever activities clients were doing—taking cooking lessons, playing basketball, eating snacks, making art. It was a new situation for all of them so there were times they weren’t sure what to do, but I emphasized what L’Arche had taught me— that just being together is enough. And it was.
The staff at ASI complimented the students—one, in particular, deeply impressed them. When we discussed our experiences afterward the students called it by far the most transformative part of the course. Several said it made them question some of their preconceived ideas. One plans to direct his career more in the direction of the concerns people with disabilities.
During his time at ASI, another of my students mistook one of the clients for a staff member. When he finally caught his error, he realized how differently he had been treating the man. Reflecting on the experience, he wrote: “There shouldn’t be different groups at all, but just one group: human beings. If the rest of the world could see this, who knows what potential we could have.”
Lorraine McCrary is BKT Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wabash.