By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
CLINTON — Bishop Thomas Zinkula gestured and sang to the lyrics of “The Community Song” with his new friends, persons with and without disabilities enjoying L’Arche Clinton’s September birthday celebration.
“… It’s me, it’s you, it’s us, it’s love, it’s God that builds community,” the group of around 30 people sang enthusiastically. The Community Song is popular with L’Arche, which provides homes where people with and without developmental disabilities live and work as peers.
L’Arche Clinton opened its first home 44 years ago and belongs to the international federation of L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier in France. Bishop Martin Amos, predecessor to Bishop Thomas, presented Vanier with the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in France five years ago.
“I heard about Jean Vanier and L’Arche many years ago, and I have read a couple of Vanier’s books. I also knew and was impressed that there was a strong L’Arche community in Clinton,” Bishop Thomas said.
“Connecting with L’Arche in one way or another has been on my ‘bucket list’ for quite some time.”
Jean Bormann, L’Arche Clinton’s director of development and communications, helped the bishop fulfill his bucket list wish. They met earlier this summer during a retreat for individuals with developmental disabilities at the Benet House Retreat Center in Rock Island, Ill. Jean accompanied two core members from L’Arche Clinton, Brenda Connell and Sarah Jane Spalding.
Sharing gift of self
Jean thought the monthly birthday party at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Clinton, where L’Arche Clinton has its office, would make a wonderful introduction. L’Arche Clinton is home to 18 core members, persons with developmental disabilities who share life with 29 assistants.
Assistants accompany core members in their daily activities and support core members in sharing their gifts within the houses and apartments where they live and in the larger community.
“We celebrate everything and we love to celebrate each other’s gifts,” Jean said. “It might not be a diamond ring gift; it may be that you have the ability to make me smile when I walk into the room.”
Bishop Thomas received an abundance of gifts at the birthday party: smiles, handshakes, L’Arche Clinton T-shirt, and a baseball cap that he wore for the rest of the celebration. The evening began with dinner — pulled pork, green beans, fresh tomatoes and fruit — after L’Arche Clinton Community Leader Devin Land introduced the bishop. Cakes baked by Devin’s cousin would be served as the celebration’s finale.
Spiritual Life directors Annette Lyons and Deacon Jeff Schuetzle of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton facilitated the group in song and prayer, along with Sister Michael Marie Burns. “Let’s quiet ourselves and acknowledge God’s presence,” Deacon Jeff said after the energetic singing of The Community Song led by Jo Anne Horstmann. “As we heard in our song, it’s God who builds community.”
The deacon asked the group to pray in a special way for people experiencing the effects of a hurricane, and to keep them in prayer. Then everyone settled in to listen to the story of Noah’s Ark. Core members Brenda Connell, Darren Dreher and Robbie Anson moved to the center of the circle holding colorful paper puffs to illustrate the rainbow in the Bible story. “The rainbow is the sign of hope and a sign of the promise God made to us,” Deacon Jeff said.
Afterwards, the party’s honorees, some celebrating birthdays and others bidding farewell, were called to the circle’s center for affirmation, a blessing and gifts. Each honoree was asked, “Which would you like to receive first: a blessing or a gift?” Everyone asked for a blessing first.
Honoree Jacob Brogden will become a core member this month. “We at L’Arche are excited to be sharing life with Jacob,” said Trevor Huizenga, an assistant at Arch I. “Don’t feel scared,” core member Robbie said in a reassuring voice.
Affirming the honoree
Community Life Coordinator Stephen Kline’s mom, Vickie, visiting from California, was surprised to be called to the circle’s center to celebrate her birthday. Stephen and his wife, Lauren, lead assistant at Arch IV, are in their first year at L’Arche. Lauren told the group that her mother-in-law is caring, kind and “very interested in each and every one of you.”
Hilary Graham, L’Arche Clinton’s director of professional services, stood in the circle’s center and smiled when Robbie formed his fingers into a heart, placed them over his eyes, and said, “You have a heart for L’Arche.” Among the gifts Hilary received were graham crackers and marshmallows from Robbie because her last name is Graham!
Some party attendees walked up to the circle to place a hand in blessing on the head of the person being honored. Others raised their hands in blessing from their place in the circle. Bishop Thomas received a blessing and small gifts of appreciation for taking time from his busy schedule to celebrate with L’Arche Clinton.
“This birthday celebration is pretty cool,” the bishop said. “I like how you affirm people when it’s their birthday.”
L’Arche Clinton also affirmed three people leaving the community, including two young women from Azerbaijan. “L’Arche will never leave your heart,” Robbie said.
“It was a special treat to visit the Clinton L’Arche community for their monthly birthday celebration,” Bishop Thomas said afterwards. “The community was very welcoming; there was a genuine sense peace and joy; I felt very much at home. The core members seemed to have confidence in and a clear understanding of themselves and their abilities. The assistants and volunteers seemed to have immersed themselves, lovingly and wholeheartedly, in their ministry of presence and relationship.”