the poor are our teachers...at least until we pass that class
in the late summer of 2000, when i decided not to extend my time at l'arche so that i could continue with the regularly scheduled programming of seminary, melvin, one of the core members of the community and the undisputed patriarch of the house cornered me with the following question:
why do you have to leave?
after a brief moment of thought i remembered henri's dictum that "the poor are our teachers" and i attempted to build upon this wisdom by simply telling melvin that he had taught me so much about life, persistence and love. although i was indeed moving back to my country to attend graduate school, i promised melvin that i would take his lessons with me and would live a better life in light of his wisdom.
without missing a beat, melvin frowned and said: people are always leaving. and i have so much more to teach!
to that response, i had no retort. i simply told melvin that i would miss him greatly and would visit regularly (which i had the privilege of doing for another 2 years). after that we tromped down to community dinner and i soon set my course for a failed seminary career.
if i could go back and re-do that conversation with an inkling of understanding about life as it has turned out to be, i hope i would have the courage to tell melvin the truth. if i could indeed sack up in such an instance, i would look melvin in the eyes and say something like this:
"melvin, i'm sorry that you are going to miss me, but i can't stay. i have a full life in front of me and i need to validate my existence by trying to scrape together some sort of personal success. i have loved being here melvin, and your friendship means the world to me. however, educated people such as myself don't invest their lives in practical, day-to-day, incarnational acts of one-on-one service to others. instead, we need to increase our influence by empowering younger leaders and playing a more strategic role in ensuring that our shared dreams of community and justice become a reality. melvin, as much as i love greenwood house and as much as i have learned from you, from my perspective there is simply no percentage in remaining at l'arche for the time being. by the way, i've heard sven is making his curry again tonight. let's hurry down to dinner so that we don't miss out!"
as much as i love henri, i know enough about him to realize that while becoming a part of l'arche changed him on a deeply fundamental level he never seemed fully able to identify with the poor in spirit at richmond hill. i have no intention of denigrating henri's service and i know a number of people who were deeply blessed by his ministry at daybreak. however, i also realize that henri was never able to fully set aside his jet-setting, sojourning ways to stay at l'arche for any truly extended period of time. moreover, when difficulty beset his personal life he didn't have to work through all of his issues within the context of the community, but could retreat for up to six months at a time in order to take a personal sabbatical, write or simply visit friends.
as i reflect upon my time at l'arche, my current role within the rectangle community and henri's significant example, i cannot help but worry that my education, ambition and perhaps even my vocation will limit my ability to identify with the poor in spirit and accompany them in a manner that is genuine and not self-serving. i don't want to build a career upon the backs of people with disabilities, but would like to walk beside them, assist them, be assisted by them, advocate for them, and receive the blessing of their advocacy, in a truly mutual way.
i'm not necessarily saying that i will ultimately fail to experience this deep mutuality with those at the center of the community. however, when i reflect upon my participation in the lives of the l'arche as well as the rectangle community up until this point and ponder the path that uncle henri has walked before me, i realize how allusive such mutuality can be.