I was asked to write a brief reflection for the L’Arche USA Zone meeting taking place soon in the Boston area. Here it is:
“Melissa, there’s a lot of confusion here.”
“I don’t think so, Marilyn…”
“I’m worried about the meeting.”
“Hey, Marilyn, who’s in control?”
“That’s right, Marilyn. And that means that all your needs will be met.”
That was a conversation Marilyn and I had hundred of times in a variety of forms during my year as an assistant at L’Arche Nehalem. In the beginning this conversation was script – she became anxious so my first instinct was to calm her down, and ultimately to get her under control. I think many assistants start out life in the community this way. We are green to the world of intellectual disabilities. The lesson we know best is self-reliance and the threat of anyone who interrupts our commitment to everyone minding his own buisness.
But that changes with time. It changes with vacuuming, sitting up through the night with a sick core member, cooking meals on a shoestring, planning and allowing for plans to be up-ended, in cleaning and flossing and praying and walking together.
After a while I could begin to see that Marilyn and I were both on her side of the conversation. While my way of dealing with the chaos, sickness, war and death in the world exhibited itself in less violent ways, I too needed to be told hundreds and thousands of times each day that God was in control and that all my needs would be met.
After my time in L’Arche, and about a year after getting married, I discovered I was pregnant. Like any expecting parent the news brought a mix of joy and caution. We were told horrible things could have already happened to the little life inside me. We were offered tests that would help identify a child with Down Syndrome or spina bifida. It was inferred that it would be too painful to welcome a child with a disability into the world.
As these conversations went on I remembered my talks with Marilyn. All our needs would be met, I reminded myself. I had seen that this was true. We’d seen the cup of friendship and stability overflow for men and women broken by institutional abuse. We had seen God bring meaning, hope, excitement and renewal to lives that were so often deemed worthless. All our needs were already met.
We decided not to receive any genetic testing because we knew God would meet us no matter what we discovered about our child at her birth. If L’Arche had taught us anything it was that there is no life that does not have the potential to be a gift to someone if that life is cultivated and nurtured with care. We knew that whatever gift God sent us we would pray for the strength and patience to welcome it in the way we had been loved and seen others loved.
In the end our daughter was pronounced genetically normal. Despite this, we know that not every disability our core members experience comes at birth. We also know that life is unexpected and that we have no idea what the future will hold for our little one, still so fragile. What we do know is that Susan is not in charge. I am not in charge. You are not in charge. But God is in charge. We also know that all our needs will be met. It’s a story we have to remind one another. It’s the story of L’Arche, one that we will tell our daughter again and again.
I’m thankful to Marilyn for the hundreds of times and the hundreds of ways she tells this good, good news.