By Tom Holmes
Nate Sullivan had been looking for a place where he could be human, and he found it in L'Arche.
He visited Angel House, the L'Arche home on Austin Boulevard in Chicago, in the spring of 2018 to explore the possibility of committing to a year of service with the nonprofit. The night before he returned to California for his last month of seminary, he went out for ice cream with Christianne, whose diagnosis is Downs Syndrome.
During that simple outing, she touched his face and said, "You're my friend now, so I hope you come back soon."
"Those words choked me up," he recalled, "to be welcomed that freely. That's one of the most powerful embodiments of the Kingdom of God I've ever experienced."
Growing up as the son of a pastor in a small town in Pennsylvania, he felt like the members of his father's congregation expected him to be perfect, a job description he felt he could never fulfill, which explains why Christianne's parting words to him were so life giving.
Jeremy Chia, the development director of the nonprofit whose administrative office is located at 7313 Madison St. in Forest Park, said L'Arche — i.e. the ark, as in Noah's Ark — was founded by Jean Vanier in 1964 and is now located in 37 countries worldwide.
"L'Arche Chicago," he explained, "supports adults with intellectual disabilities (core members) through intentional relationships in family-style homes, where residents live together with adult staff members (live-in assistants) in a spirit of faith and friendship."
L'Arche Chicago currently has one home on Austin Boulevard and two homes on Ferdinand in Forest Park where a total of 11 adults with intellectual disabilities live together with their assistants.
Vanier's vision was to create small homes where both core members and their live-in assistants can experience life-giving community. That his vision is still being realized 55 years later is confirmed by 24-year-old Molly Townsend who is starting her third year as an assistant along with Sullivan at Angel House.
"I came to L'Arche originally because I wanted to help people," said Townsend who was a psychology major in college, "but it is becoming more and more clear to me that I need L'Arche as much as it needs me. It's not just what I can give to other people but also what I receive from them, especially forgiveness."
For example, the intimacy of living with eight other people in one house has revealed to her that she is not as patient as she would like to be. Like Sullivan, she is a perfectionist, especially when it comes to cooking, and has had to face that truth about herself and work at letting go of it, at least to a degree.
Sullivan puts it this way: "At Angel House I'm learning what it means to live out of a real self and not an ideal self, which has been a tremendous gift."
When asked if they are getting rich by working for $11/hour, both Sullivan and Townsend laughed. "Not in a financial sense," Townsend replied.
Mic Altena, director of L'Arche Chicago, tried to explain why so many young college graduates are attracted to serve as assistants for one or two years.
"A lot of assistants come into L'Arche from a culture that's very status based — climbing up the ladder. Very consumeristic and competitive in which you matter because you produce or consume or achieve something.
"What we are doing is creating a culture in which we lift up the value of every person. You matter just because you are you."
In that sense, he acknowledged that life in a L'Arche community is counter-cultural, if not downright "subversive."
Christianne, for example, said in an interview with the Review, "I have Downs Syndrome" in a matter of fact way, without a hint of embarrassment or shame, and then added, "I'm the mother of Angel House. I've lived there for 17 years."
To learn more about L'Arche, attend a monthly Community Night on the second Thursday of every month 6:30-7:45 p.m. at Cornerstone Anglican Church, 171 N. Cuyler Ave. in Oak Park, or contact L'Arche at 708-660-1600, firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to the website.