I’m a Jesuit Novice, and I get sent places to experience things. I get some say, not too much though. The current “experiment” I’m on is called the hospital experiment, and essentially we’re asked to accompany people who are in need of some form of medical care, whether it be those in a nursing home, Jesuit retirment home, or L’Arche community (we used to work in actual hospitals, but law frowns on that now, probably rightfully so).
I knew this was coming up at the end of my 30-day silent retreat, and I asked to come to a L’Arche community. I could have gone to a Jesuit retirement community, but I LOVE stories, so I thought that might have been easy for me and wouldn’t encourage a whole lot of growth in me.
What is a l’Arche community you say? Well I’ll tell you friend–it’s a really awesome community made of up folks with a mental disability and those without, and they live together in small, tight-knit communities. Those of us without mental disabilities help those with to live what many of us considering a “normal” life: waking up, eating, bathing, going to work, enjoying movies and music, praying, socializing with others, all sorts of stuff. They’re lots of things that I take for granted. I asked to come to a l’Arche community because I’m prejudiced, and it’s one I wanted to be rid of.
My one previous experience of a person with a mental disability came in high school, on a week-long summer service trip to Camden, NJ (poorest city in the US) and neighboring Philly. One of my days in Philly, I helped at a great nursing home that specialized in helping folks with a mental disability. I was asked to play pinball with a gentleman who operated the flippers by moving his head to one side or the other on his wheelchair headrest. We alternated games for a while, but he mostly wanted to watch me play. This gentleman lacked verbal communication, which made me uncomfortable. He also started to lift his shirt and pick his belly button, and then to undo his pants. Highly uncomfortable, I walked away to the table where folks were playing UNO. I never forget that moment of being uncomfortable, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to react, not knowing how to love as I should.
This is why I asked to come to a l’Arche community, to confront my internalized oppression. Houses are made up of core members (folks with a mental disability) and assistants (those who assist). One of the guys I assist in the house is Attila. He doesn’t have verbal communication skills, but he’s very responsive and intelligent. We like to work on puzzles, go for walks, and he seems to absolutely love listening to music, which is great, because Mike (another core member) and myself do as well. Sometimes the 3 of us just sit in the living room listening to jazz, folk or bluegrass (Mike’s favorite is Johnny Cash).
A few nights ago, Attila and I were out for the walk he likes to take between dinner and his bath. This was the first walk I’ve gotten to go on with Attila. We were about to cross the street when Attila grabbed my hand to hold. I was uncomfortable. I was at that same moment, ashamed I was uncomfortable. What if somebody thinks we’re a gay couple? Who cares what some passerby thinks? Why do I care? I held Attila’s hand for crossing the street, but pulled my hand away once on the other side.
As we walked, it got a bit chillier and I put my hands in my pockets. Walking through a residential neighborhood, folks were out on their porches. Attila makes some pretty fun noises, kind of little chirps or a noise that sounds a bit like a mortorcycle reving. He also claps his hands and kind of skips. I didn’t really care if people stared–he was having a great time! But then he hooked arms with me like couples do. Uncomfortable again…. Why? Who cares?
I realized this was some internalized oppression in me; unfortunately, not just against someone with a mental disability, but homophobia as well. This was super hard for me because I’ve been such a strong ally for so long and done all sorts of anti-oppression training. How dare I be uncomfortable? I realized what was going on and just ignored the stares. This wasn’t about me. None of this is about what I want. This is about Attila wanting to be comfortable and feel safe on his walk. This is about him wanting a friend. This is about him having a good time and knowing I will help him cross the street. How could I be so ignorant simply because Attila couldn’t verbally communicate any of this? How could I be so awful and not realize my own version of homophobia?
We linked arms the rest of the walk and he seemed to have quite a dandy time. I realized this was me overcoming some internal oppression, a good growing edge, and a healthy experience.
L’Arche welcomes summer assistants or post-grad volunteers. I highly encourage you to look into it. If you want to learn to be human, spend time with those treated the least human–those in poverty, with mental disabilities, those who are oppressed.
http://www.larcheusa.org/ To learn more.