“When L’Arche comes, the lack of pretense, the joy, the enthusiasm, the simple faith and the light in Jesus, it was and is so refreshing,” says Ryan Dueck, pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church. He has thoroughly enjoyed the relationship between his congregation and L’Arche Lethbridge, which has been cherished for three decades.
“I slid into the grooves that had been worn in long before I arrived,” he says. “It has always been natural, organic.”
L’Arche Lethbridge provides an opportunity for people with and without developmental disabilities to share, live, work and learn together in community. Local people participate in the life of the community as friends and respite workers.
Many members of Lethbridge Mennonite have either worked or volun- teered with L’Arche, creating a bond with those in the organization and allowing the relationship to grow. Each L’Arche house has four core members, who travel together to the church of their choice on a Sunday morning.
“The church is overwhelmingly positive and supportive,” says Dueck, “and I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t say they didn’t love L’Arche’s connection and participation in our church’s life together.”
The group has joined Lethbridge Mennonite for church activities, potlucks, worship, Tuesday night prayer, and church picnics, reading Scripture and enthusiastically participating in the singing. And the church loves to have them.
“They are woven into the fabric of church life,” he says. “One Sunday, L’Arche led the entire worship service, and that was one of my favourite Sundays of my time here.”
Speaking from his own experiences with L’Arche, Dueck dives into how each person has inspired learning and faith.
“When people from L’Arche come, they aren’t trying to impress anybody; what you see is what you get. And I really admire that, and I think most of us can learn from that,” he says. “As followers of Jesus, we should always have our ears tuned to the people in our society and in our churches, whose voices wouldn’t naturally be amplified or wouldn’t be seen as wise.”
The origins of the connection stem from placements working through Mennonite Voluntary Service, an organization that connects people with service opportunities. From there, it grew depending on the connections between the two entities.
During the pandemic, L’Arche had to be very careful, as many individuals were immuno-compromised, and attendance at Lethbridge was low.
“The steps of reintegrating into more normal pre-pandemic patterns will be slow and cautious,” says Dueck. “It will take time, but we miss their presence.”
The dynamics of L’Arche Lethbridge may also be changing, with workers coming from a variety of faith backgrounds and perspectives. Dueck believes that some of the connections with Christian churches are not as strong as they once were.
“Our connection with L’Arche remains to be seen,” he says. “The makeup of the houses changing might affect how and when they want to reintegrate into churches. I want to intentionally welcome L’Arche back into our lives together once they feel comfortable with the health realities and their own dynamics.”
Dueck tells the heartfelt story of how the people at L’Arche came forward in a time of grieving a former friend and service worker.
“Despite the fact that they weren’t comfortable with the pandemic, they were one of the more prominent groups to come to a vigil that we held for a former voluntary-service worker who took their own life in Germany,” says Dueck. “He was a L’Arche worker when he was here.”
Two favourite songs at Tuesday night prayer are “Jesus Loves Me” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” which were sung at the vigil.
“Whenever we sing ‘little ones to him belong,’” he says, “it rings differently in that context, and when you are grieving together and singing, this is a source of comfort and strength for us as a congregation, as we go through a hard time together. It was L’Arche that, in memory and in practice, helped me through that.”
“They came out to pray with us and share the burden together and, to me, it was a sad moment, but also a reminder that that doesn’t happen unless there are deep connections,” he says. “It would be very much my desire to welcome them back with open arms because I think they were an integral part of our church’s life and our character, and I would hate to see that go.”
As time moves on and the hope in reuniting is strong, Dueck seeks to reach out to those at Lethbridge Mennonite who have connections to L’Arche, and make plans for the future.
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