Being the new girl is hard. I am very used to being the door-opener and the welcomer. I recently moved from Washington, D.C. to Chicago. I have been on the other side of the door lately, the one being welcomed. The hospitality extended to me has been intentional and genuine. It seems to me that, lately, the world may have forgotten what Christian hospitality is intended to be, but L’Arche has not forgotten. The core members reveal to me, through every interaction, what true Christian hospitality looks like.
For those unfamiliar with L’Arche (French for “the ark”), it is a community of faith where people with and without developmental disabilities share life together in homes, as a family. The core members are adults with developmental disabilities, and assistants live in community with them. L’Arche provides a unique model of care, where quality professional care is merged with mutual relationships to build a community where everyone has a genuine place of belonging. We seek to be a sign of hope, revealing the truth that all people—including those with disabilities—have gifts to share. I lived in the L’Arche community in Washington, D.C. for five years, and in September moved to be a part of L’Arche in Chicago.
We are exhorted in our Christian faith, particularly by St. Paul, to be hospitable. We are called to recognize every person as a unique and sacred child of God, and to welcome them as such. It may be easy to encounter a community like L’Arche and think that it is simply a place where people with disabilities are welcomed. In reality, those with disabilities are often the ones doing the welcoming. The welcome extended by the core members in L’Arche can teach everyone a little something about the trust, genuineness, and true sight of another that shapes Christian hospitality.
After five years of eating dinner around a L’Arche table in Washington D.C., my first dinner at a L’Arche table in Chicago was emotional (to say the least). I simultaneously felt completely at home, in a familiar environment, and very far from home, with an entirely new group of people. Jean, a core member who has lived in L’Arche Chicago for the last fifteen years, could tell I needed a little extra welcome. After dinner, Jean introduced me, one by one, to each of the large stuffed animals that live in her room. I met Lucky the dog and Snowy and Chloe the tigers. I met her wolves and bears and cats. By sharing her stuffed animals, Jean shared that which is very dear to her. Though she had just met me, she trusted me enough to share that which matters to her. People can be so guarded and so hesitant to share the things that really matter, but not Jean. Trust is such an essential element of Christian hospitality! And time and time again in L’Arche, the core members simply share the things that they love and invite you to love them with them.
On a different night, I stood in a different L’Arche kitchen before dinner (the Chicago community is made up of three homes). I could hear a disagreement happening in the other room. I witnessed the exasperation of the assistant, who was trying to get everyone to the table on time, and that of the core member who refused to be rushed. The six o’clock dinner time came and went. Honestly, I felt welcomed by all of this. It was real life. Their genuine encounters, frustrated as they might have been in that moment, made me feel at home. Who hasn’t had a disagreement at an inopportune time? Who hasn’t tried really hard to be somewhere on time, not succeeded, and been annoyed with the world? By not trying to cover it up, the house invited me into genuine relationship with them. When we all gathered at the table, albeit at 6:30 instead of 6:00, there was a moment of frustration, of acknowledgement, and of forgiveness. There were no pretenses, just reality. It seems to me that true Christian hospitality is one person, in the fullness of who they are, welcoming another in the fullness of who they are. And once again, it was a core member who led the house in this.
In my L’Arche community in D.C., I was known, deeply. The core members and assistants knew, loved, and embraced the many facets of my heart, including but not limited to my extreme passion for holidays, bad television, and deep cleaning. They held me in my eccentricities. The first couple of community events here in Chicago overwhelmed me a bit. It is easy to not feel seen when you are the “new girl,” and on top of that, used to being known so well. A few days after one of these community events, I was sitting at my desk and Chris, one of the core members, walked in. He greeted me, “Hello, Sarah-Ruszkowski-who-is-five-ten-and-allergic-to-cats!” I couldn’t help it. I started to cry. One short conversation days earlier (where I felt pretty unknown) had stayed with him. Chris saw me, remembered me, and truly welcomed me.
People need to be seen. They need to know that they are loved exactly as they are. Hearts yearn to be trusted. At least mine does. I believe each of us has much to learn from the example of the core members of L’Arche on how to create space for another in our hearts, to offer true Christian hospitality.
Featured photo courtesy of the author.