During my time of service, the holidays always ushered in a sense of celebration and play, but definitely brought some loneliness, too. I had always been surrounded by family and friends at Christmas, so the holiday season was a reminder of just how far I was from home.
But fortunately, I was not alone. We never truly are, are we? God's presence is always near if only we stop to recognize it. Christmas is an annual reminder of the Divine becoming flesh and living in solidarity with creation. And that presence is still among us. Especially during times of loneliness and times of desperation, I felt God's love from the people around me. I was lucky enough to have a community of other volunteers supporting me. But even more importantly, those that I was serving ended up serving me in return.
This was illustrated repeatedly during my three years in the L'Arche community in Tacoma. L'Arche (French for "the Ark") is an international federation of communities in which people without disabilities (or "assistants") live in intentional community with people with developmental disabilities (or "core members"). In the Tacoma community, we have four homes and a farm. The purpose of L'Arche is to announce the gifts of people with disabilities, as revealed through mutual relationships between core members and assistants.
I had only been in the community for about three months, and I was asked to participate in a reenactment of the Good Samaritan parable. I was the guy who gets beat up and left for dead. Here's a refresher of the story: a man is robbed and left by the side of the road; after a priest and Levite pass him by, a (good) Samaritan takes pity on him, dresses his wounds, and brings him to an inn.
Two kids of friends of the community assumed the roles of the thieves, attacking me with a plastic sword and a windshield scraper. The narrator read along as I lay "suffering" on the ground. (I was able to put my college theater background to use.) I cried out, "Help me! Help me!" Janice, a core member who takes things very literally, shot out of her seat near the back of the audience, ran towards me, and helped me up. This was not part of the skit. I thanked her and sank back to the ground...the show must go on!
Dicko played the priest, as usual. He was a round, wrinkly core member beloved by the community who always insisted on playing the priestly figure, whether Noah, Moses, or Jesus. As the story goes, he was supposed to pass me by but, using my acting chops, I reached towards him and moaned. Clearly concerned for my well-being, he dropped character, stopped and pulled me up. As with Janice, I thanked him and went back to the floor, but Dicko stayed with me. He stroked my shoulder for the rest of the skit.
Prompted by the narrator, I cried out, "Help me! Help me!" once more. And again, Janice sprang out of her seat, raced forward, and assisted me. This was getting a little out of hand. Three times I was rescued before I was supposed to be! Fortunately, the rest of the reenactment went as planned. Les, one of the core members in my house, played the Levite. With a sweep of the hand and a turn of the head, he knocked it out of the park. Finally, another core member Carie, came to my rescue as the Good Samaritan. She (and Dicko, who had never left my side) helped me up and sat me down in the "inn," then they proceeded to pet my head, letting me know that I was going to be okay.
While I wasn't truly hurt during the skit, I certainly would be during those three years in L'Arche. But the core members carried me just as much as (I thought) I carried them, memorably illustrated by the Good Samaritan reenactment. I had had very little interaction with Janice, Dicko, and Carie at that point. They had no reason to help me. They loved me not for anything that I had done for them but simply because I was worthy of it. (Les was the only person that I knew well, and he walked right by me!) I was repeatedly surprised by the love and wisdom from this segment of society that is so often pitied and undervalued. Jesus was in these people, the last place where I expected to find him. It's the same with any population that we are serving.
As we celebrate this holiday season, let us remember to recognize the many unexpected ways in which God's love has been revealed to us in 2012. And as we pray and work for peace and justice in the new year, let's also ask God to continue to, as the lyrics above state, "teach us now where you are found."
Bill volunteered with the L'Arche Community in Tacoma, Washington from 2005-08. His experience with L'Arche led him to an accelerated nursing program at the University of Washington. For the past two years, Bill has been a home health and hospice nurse case manager in the Seattle area. He's also (very slowly) working towards a graduate degree at UW to become a nurse practitioner. Bill thinks of himself as a Krista Foundation "Super Colleague," as he serves on the Sojourner Support team and the first ever Colleague Council, and he's lived with two other Colleagues (and their future Colleague offspring) for over three years now.