Mary Ruppert was a high school student, soaking up ideas and possibilities to discern what seemed to “fit” for her life ahead when she first encountered L’Arche, an international federation of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work alongside one another.
“My religion teacher was dating a L’Arche assistant,” said Ruppert, 35. “She invited him to speak with our class. I’d been thinking of doing service work after college graduation, and (L’Arche) sounded very interesting.”
The word “arche” is French for “ark.” Founded in France in 1964 by Canadian theologian and philosopher Jean Vanier, L’Arche communities are, said Vanier, based on “friendship and the communion of hearts, which allows us all to grow.”
From Catholic roots, L’Arche has inspired people from many other faiths and Christian denominations to form communities on five continents in 38 countries, including 17 communities in the United States.
Ruppert had the opportunity to experience L’Arche firsthand during a college spring break service trip. She anticipated doing manual work, similar to the projects her classmates would do, and was eager to accomplish something tangible, like reroofing a house or cleaning a neighborhood.
“I was an overachiever and always trying to prove to myself that I had some worth,” said Ruppert. “I thought, ‘If I get good grades, I’ll be good.’ In a service project, I thought, ‘If I can help other people, that’ll prove I’m a good person.'”
But at L’Arche, Ruppert discovered that the “work” was not about things, but about people.
“It was completely transformational,” said Ruppert. “At L’Arche, they gave us a retreat for a week! We came in and maybe organized a closet. But we mostly hung out with people, ate dinner together and talked about the epicenter of L’Arche: It’s not what you do, it’s just that you exist, how you relate to one another and how important it is to not be able to do everything. That interdependence is a gift.”
An experience at the end of her service week reinforced this lesson.
“The community was helping to facilitate a prayer service,” said Ruppert. “We met at the church. At the end of a long hallway was a very big, very tall man with an intellectual disability who was part of the community. When we walked through the door, his face lit up like the sun. He was waving like he didn’t have arms enough to wave. All we had done was walk in the door!”
“It hit me,” said Ruppert. “I cannot prove I’m good through anything I do. I am good because I exist.”
Eventually, Ruppert lived as an assistant with L’Arche USA in Washington, D.C. In her day-to-day activities, she realized the profound service L’Arche’s presence provides beyond the walls of its homes.
“In L’Arche, I was helping people with personal caregiving, taking people to the doctor or the bank,” said Ruppert. “But oh, man, I came up to things I needed help with, in the super-wounded place inside of me. It’s not about being the strongest, about the goal of total independence. Vulnerability is where real relationships come from.”
Now manager of donor relations for L’Arche USA, Ruppert said. “In our society, loneliness and isolation are growing problems for everyone, particularly for people with intellectual disabilities. L’Arche is a sign that it is possible for people to belong, a sign of hope that we can be real with each other about our gifts, our strengths, and about the places where we need help.”
“I don’t know who I’d be without L’Arche.”
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