By Barb Arland-Fye
The Scripture reading of Abraham entertaining three strangers, which we heard last Sunday at Mass, brought to mind the hospitality Bishop Martin Amos and I experienced at L’Arche in France earlier this month.
We were guests at La Ferme (French for “the farm”), a retreat center of traditional stone buildings, surrounded by gardens and sitting at the edge of the forest of Compiegne, about an hour north of Paris. Bishop Amos and I traveled to this place of prayer and hospitality to deliver the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award to Jean Vanier, who calls himself the “beginner” of L’Arche. La Ferme is within walking distance of the house in Trosly-Breuil where Jean Vanier began L’Arche a half-century ago.
An international federation of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together, L’Arche (French for “the ark”, or “the arch”) models Abraham while carrying out the Gospel mandate of Jesus.
Organizers of our brief visit (July 5-8) planned every detail so that we would be well rested, able to visit L’Arche communities, enjoy the award ceremony, attend Mass and see the sights in Paris.
Even though we don’t speak French, our hosts took great care to bridge the language barrier for Bishop Amos and me, sometimes with humorous results.
During dinner that first night with “foyer of L’Arche” (the house where Jean Vanier first welcomed men with intellectual disabilities to share life with him), eager housemates peppered us with questions, in French. Their community leader, Martin, who does speak some English, had disappeared into the kitchen. “Oh, Martin … we need your help translating,” Bishop Amos, with a smile on his face, called out from the patio where we had been invited to sit.
The housemates with disabilities treated the bishop like a rock star. “I sit close to the priest,” Olivier said in French and then proceeded to sit down beside Bishop Amos, wrapping an arm around the bishop’s arm. We dined on homemade pizza and salad, and after we finished I asked the housemates (with Martin interpreting) what they liked best about L’Arche. Their responses varied from silly to serious to deeply touching.
Olivier said he loves his family, which is L’Arche. Deborah said she is grateful to Olivier, a huge fan of the late pop music star Michael Jackson, who performed his Michael Jackson dance for her on her birthday.
Deborah also said she likes to take care of “Fanny,” a housemate with severe disabilities who was not at the picnic table with us. “Fanny is really important to the house,” explained Martin. “Everybody in the house can take care of her.” Martin, who is from another part of France, doesn’t particularly like the weather in Trosly-Breuil. “I don’t stay for the weather, I stay for L’Arche,” he says.
The following day, Isabelle Aumont and Widad Bisher, who have long worked for L’Arche, took Bishop Amos and me on a tour of Paris that included a visit to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Widad had made arrangements for Bishop Amos to celebrate the noon-hour Mass in the cathedral. Because the Mass was said in French, a French-speaking priest concelebrated. Two priest friends who minister in Cleveland, where Bishop Amos is from, happened to be at the cathedral and we had lunch together at a French café.
That evening, Widad hosted an elegant dinner at her home in Trosly-Breuil. Everywhere we dined our hosts offered a tray of rich cheeses at the meal’s conclusion, an expensive treat brought out for guests.
Sunday morning, Maria Aronio, secretary of Jean Vanier, took us on a tour of quaint French villages, ending up at another L’Arche community in Cuise la Motte. Again, we had a delightful visit with the housemates. Before and after the mid-day meal started, everyone held hands and sang a brief prayer in French, as happened at the first L’Arche house we visited.
That afternoon, Jean Vanier, who has given countless interviews over the decades, patiently accepted another one, with me. He asked about my son Colin, who has autism, and at the end of our interview asked me to say hello to Colin for him.
Our interview was followed by the Pacem in Terris award ceremony in the L’Arche community hall, the first part of a what is now a three-part celebration. I inadvertently left the award in the guest room where I was staying, so the award had to be presented during Mass afterwards in the chapel at La Ferme. Jean Vanier, with good humor, said this was something he would have expected to happen at L’Arche!
“Being able to meet with Jean Vanier himself, visiting the L’Arche communities and saying Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral made the trip to France to present the award worthwhile,” Bishop Amos told me.
On Monday morning as we prepared to leave L’Arche, Bishop Amos and I stopped for breakfast in the La Ferme kitchen where we were greeted, as we had been each day, by a man in blue jeans who always had a smile on his face. He didn’t speak a word of English, but his graciousness and hospitality didn’t require translation.