A Healing Community: Disability, the Friendship House, and Home

Written by Katie Robinson //

I won’t forget the first time James called me his “little sister.” Now our chosen familial bond seems like a given, though he still harkens back to our bond during key moments in our relationship – like when we break even in a game of pool, when we walk around the neighborhood by his church service, or when he knows I need a hug. James regularly reminds me that he is here on earth to “encourage the peoples,” and I am grateful to have bumbled my way into relationship with such a remarkable human.

I met James when I moved into Friendship House, a home that is a part of an international community called L’Arche. L’Arche is a worldwide network of homes for folks with and without intellectual disabilities. This movement began in 1964 when three men – Jean, Raphael, and Phillipe – decided to form a family together. What began as a naive gesture of welcome has evolved (through years of action and reflection!) into an innovative model for inclusive community. This model has not gone unnoticed – folks from far and wide have devoted much thought and time to naming the power of mutual relationships within these homes. Folks outside of L’Arche seem increasingly drawn to the life-blood our community; they respect the gentleness that characterizes our relationships between self, God, and others.

L’Arche is a community of faith, founded on trust in God and the transforming power of mutual relationships. We invite everyone to bring their individual faith traditions to the home, and we discover that the differences enhance our being together. L’Arche’s niche for inclusive living is centered on a vision of peace-building and transformational solidarity. The language of L’Arche describes and shapes our mutual relationships. Folks with intellectual disabilities are named “core members,” because their existence is placed at the center of our life together. I appreciate this practice – our core member’s needs and vision for life creates the bedrock of our community. This may seem like an upside-down way of doing things. Broader society oftentimes pushes folks with disabilities to the fringe of society. However, I have found this model to bring unexpected healing and life to my own humanity.

You see, many folks with intellectual disabilities walk into a room knowing that they are different. They know they will stand out whatever they do, so they pay less attention to that game where we all try to fit in to society’s standards of respectability.  Core members know that someone’s welcome shouldn’t be dependent on how well we are able to impress each other.

I have found that being in relationship with folks in L’Arche has brought to the surface the rawness of my own humanity. It helps center me on things that matter most in life. Recently James invited me to reflect on my time in Friendship House. He was the first core member to join our L’Arche community and when he speaks, you listen.

“God brought you here for a reason,” James told me. I agree, I think it’s been a place that’s taught me a lot about kindness, so I told him I would try to steward that kindness well. “Yes – It’s the only thing that matters, kindness,” James said, shaking his head. “The only thing that matters – kindness, love and friendship.”

James has encouraged me to keep onin this process of conversion towards kindness, and I want to continue to encourage this gentle process in others as well. L’Arche has shown me that humans have a really remarkable capacity for kindness. But I also can’t get over how miraculous kindness really is. Sometimes, given the different burden-backpacks we carry, or the differing narratives that shape our lives in community, it can be really hard to give a gesture of kindness. Or even to receive it. So how do we live well together? I asked James how he continues to find capacity for kindness, and this was his response – God keeps turning him around. I asked him what he meant – where has God turned him around? His smile grew big like it does whenever he is about to speak his truth and he said: “Everyday. Everyday, When I wake up and get out of bed God turns me around. I have been through some hard times – my Mama died, saw my brother murdered, got sick, but everyday God turns me around.” 

In L’Arche we receive this invitation daily – an invitation to turn around towards kindness, love, and friendship. This is crucial in a home formed on mutual relationships between folks with and without intellectual disabilities. I wake up each morning with an opportunity to lean into James’ invitation to “be turned around” by an abundant love, and I am grateful for the new ways this invitation opens me to celebrate the lives of those around me.

*James is a psuedonym


Katie Robinson currently resides in L’Arche Chicago. She recently completed an undergraduate education at Wheaton College, where she majored in psychology and received a certificate from the Human Needs and Global Resources Program. In her free time Katie enjoys long trips to the West Cook YMCA, throwing pottery, and Ethiopian food with friends.

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