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L’ARCHE, CANTERBURY

 I did not know much about L’Arche when I first came to England. I was asked once by a guest in Alnmouth if I knew about this community and I only had a vague idea that it was about people with disabilities. When I was told about my move to Canterbury, one thing I knew about the house was its involvement with the local L’Arche community and that was something I wanted to know more about.

After my conversation at Alnmouth, I remembered also some of the work that was done with and for people with learning disabilities in the parish I worked for in Sweden. I am very happy that today I know much more about L’Arche and the richness this community offers to people from all over the world and with all kinds of abilities.

L ’Arche was founded in 1964 in Trosly-Breuil, a small village north of Paris. Encouraged by Father Thomas, a Dominican priest, Jean Vanier invited two people with intellectual disabilities – Philippe Seux and Raphael Simi – to leave their institution and come and live with him in a small house in Trosly-Breuil, which he named ‘L’Arche.’

The small community grew fast, soon welcoming new people with intellectual disabilities and inviting young people from around the world to share their lives. Unforeseen by Vanier, it did not take long for people to decide to create new L’Arche communities in their own countries; 1969 saw the creation of the first home near Toronto, Canada, called Daybreak, the first of many later communities in North America. In the 1970s, the vision of L’Arche also inspired people to found L’Arche in India, Ivory Coast and Honduras.

This expansion meant that L’Arche needed to open up to a wide variety of cultures, languages, and social backgrounds. Although founded in the Catholic tradition, L’Arche communities rapidly became ecumenical or inter-religious, finding their point of unity in a common set of human values. Open and engaged in the world, they seek to be a sign of hope and solidarity.

The unexpected expansion of L’Arche on five continents revealed the need for proper structures in order to maintain the unity of L’Arche, and accordingly an International Board was established. In 2017, L’Arche consists of 149 communities and 14 projects in 37 countries worldwide. Although grounded in the Christian tradition, L’Arche Communities welcome people of all faiths and none and its vision is a world where all belong.

The first L’Arche community in the UK opened here in Kent in 1974. One of the founding members was Jean Vanier’s sister, Thérèse. The house where she lived is no longer a L’Arche community house, but at All Souls-tide, there is an annual visit to the churchyard where she and some other members are buried. Today’s Kent community comprises three L’Arche houses where people with learning disabilities and assistants live and share life together, two in Canterbury and one close to where the first house was, not far from Canterbury.  In addition, the community supports about twelve people with learning disabilities to live the life they choose in either their own homes or in shared housing.

I have learned to know this community more and more since my move to Canterbury. At our friary, we meet people from L’Arche Kent twice a week as they use our front yard for their stall to sell craft, candles, plants and other things they make. The plants are grown close to St. Mildred’s Church with their gardening project called ‘The Glebe’. During Advent, a group of people enjoyed singing carols on the High Street and collected money for L’Arche, and at other times songs have been sung to collect money for the L’Arche community in Damascus. One of the former assistants living in that community and now working here in Kent lived with us for half a year while she was successfully applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. Her cooking was always something to look forward to.

Food and sharing is an important part of community life in L’Arche. I join one of the main houses, Faith House, most Tuesdays to cook with them and share the evening meal and a community evening. We go through the past and coming week, learn Makaton, signs that support people with no or poor verbal communication, and have prayer time together. Often we celebrate something special, such as someone being welcomed into the community, someone leaving, birthdays, someone who has died, or other aspects of life. I really enjoy what I learn from being part of this community; we all have much to offer. We are all vulnerable, and to embrace that is something good, and the sharing of a meal is such a good way of building community. I have often compared our sharing on Tuesdays with the sharing in the Eucharist.f

At the time of writing Br Michael Christoffer SSF was resident in the Canterbury House.