August 2014

Having places where you are welcomed and belong

It is reassuring to know that communities like L’Arche remain places of welcome and belonging, writes Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

The recent media reports surrounding the circumstances of infant Gammy are heart-rending. So it’s good to know that there are communities like L’Arche, which embrace and value people with disabilities.

The story of Gammy was hard to miss. Gammy is a baby boy with Down Syndrome, born to a Thai surrogate mother using the gametes of Australian parents. While Gammy’s twin sister was accepted, Gammy’s genetic parents allegedly abandoned their son on the basis of his disability.

This illuminates a sad reality. Those with a disability, particularly an intellectual or communication disability, experience a particular type of rejection. Before their gifts, abilities and personalities are appreciated, they are dismissed out of hand.

Of course there are numbers of communities and organisations which appreciate, include and celebrate people with disabilities. This year, one such group is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.

L’Arche is a faith-centred international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who support them. It was started by Canadian Catholic, Jean Vanier, in France, when he invited two men to exit their institutions and live in a community house with him. This initiative expanded to become L’Arche (“The Ark” in French, meaning a place of shelter). It’s a form of community that involves people with an intellectual disability and others who choose to participate. Vanier helped develop other L’Arche communities around the world.

L’Arche Australia was founded in 1977. L’Arche communities are not-for-profit and are not based around medical or welfare models of disability support. Rather, they are based around the person as a member of a community of belonging.

I first learnt about L’Arche when a family member became involved with L’Arche in Sydney, and lived in a L’Arche house for seven years. Although she moved out of community to marry and have a family, she still maintains close connections with L’Arche in Sydney, and in other places too.

Through this involvement, when I recently asked about disability-friendly accommodation for our family for a trip to Melbourne, we were invited to stay in a L’Arche House of Welcome. This house was not a community house, but a place where community members can stay for short durations. Over the course of our stay, community members visited us and welcomed us. L’Arche has a particular charism of hospitality.

Suggestive of the Eucharistic table, shared meals around the dining table are a priority for the L’Arche community. Tables are places for conversation and sharing.

I was heartened to stay in such a place of hospitality where we all ‘fit’. So often, because of disability, it’s easy to feel as though the accommodations that are required are burdensome, even with paying customers.

We talked about how many churches, workplaces and other communities do not appear to accommodate those with disabilities and remained ignorant of the diversity and gifts they are missing. Our host shared a quote from disability theologian, John Swinton: “To belong, you have to be missed”.

Belonging is where relationships are formed and maintained. Belonging is where people are present to each other. Belonging is where we support each other through celebrations and tribulations, and our lives are transformed by each other’s presence.

L’Arche is ever-welcoming of those who wish to become involved in their communities. This month, L’Arche Australia is raising money for its work, fittingly, through sharing a meal. L’Arche Australia is the co-ordinating organisation for each of the place-based L’Arche communities. The funds raised during August will help further the work of L’Arche around the country.

Sadly, there are always likely to be some people who refuse to countenance people with disability in their lives. It is reassuring to know that communities like L’Arche remain places of welcome and belonging.

Planning your own Share a Meal event is simple. All you need to do is choose a meal time, invite your guests and ask them to join you and make a donation to L’Arche Australia. Find out more.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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