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By Tom Holmes
In some contexts Christianne Msall might be labeled developmentally disabled. In many schools she'd be placed in a special education class. But at St. Catherine/St. Lucy Catholic Church, she's just one of the members, and that's the way she likes it.
Rev. Dan Whiteside, pastor of the church at the corner of Washington and Austin in Oak Park, describes her simply an active parishioner. "She just wants to be part of the community," he said. "She's not saying 'make me special.' She wants to be treated like everyone else — normal."
The same thing holds true where she lives, at a L'Arche residence call Angel House located at 1049 S. Austin on the Chicago side of the boulevard, in the area informally known as "The Island."
Lisa Sinnott, house coordinator at Angel House, refers to Christianne and the three other developmentally disabled residents who live there as "members."
"We call them core members, not residents or patients," she explains, "because they are the reason L'Arche is here."
"We try to be an intentional community, which does not use words like "resident" or "staff," because that can imply that one is higher and one is lower. What we try to do in our mission is to be in mutual relationship, which means we decide together on our responsibilities. I don't go around making sure people are doing what they are supposed to do. My job is to make sure that people are living out their dreams as best they can."
L'Arche — French for "The Ark," as in Noah's Ark — is, according to the organization's website, "a place of safety and refuge, a place in which we share our lives in mutual relationship and do our small part to renew the world."
The L'Arche movement began as a Catholic ministry in 1964 in Trosly, France when a French Canadian named Jean Vanier invited two men with disabilities to live with him. It has grown into an international federation of 135 communities like Angel House in 36 countries with 5,000 people.
"Each L'Arche community," states the website, "is unique and autonomous but internationally federated. We all share a common vision of the basic dignity of each human person and the centrality of mutual relationship between God and each person and between persons of all races, religions, cultures and abilities. We seek to create home and provide meaningful work for all our community members and to witness to a way of life where everyone is recognized as being of equal and infinite value."
Because she lives seven days a week in that kind of environment, it was natural for Msall, who is the sister of Laurence Msall, executive director of the Civic Federation of Illinois, to approach Fr. Dan after Mass one day about three years ago and ask him if she could be one of the lectors who read the lessons in the liturgy each Sunday. Likewise, given the culture of St. Catherine, which is accepting of diversity, it was natural for the priest to reply, "Absolutely." So for three years Msall and another core member named Chris Abri have been in the regular two-month rotation of church members who assist their pastor in leading worship.
Whiteside noted that there has never been a negative reaction to Abri and Msall being side by side with the priest on the altar as he leads worship. According to the pastor, the congregation's attitude is just what Msall has always wanted — i.e. to be normal. He thinks the congregation has been so accepting partly because the core members not only attend Mass every Sunday, but they also have become friends with members by socializing at events after worship.
Whiteside says the presence of these core members has had a positive impact on his faith community. "When there is a group like that in which the members have their own limitations," he said, "but they go about life anyway, I think it gives everybody a little perspective."
Lisa Sinnott said the same thing happens with the assistants at L'Arche houses. "When I talk about the core members," she said, "I start getting in touch with my own disabilities, like I have a lot of impatience or I get frustrated easily." She said that Jean Vanier started L'Arche with the intention of giving his two disabled housemates a better life. After a while, he said the three of them were learning together and he finally admitted, "I've learned so much more than I could ever teach."
The testimony of an assistant named Steve Nazaran illustrates her point: "He has said that he came to L'Arche because he knew he was broken, and he wanted to be in a place where it was OK to be that way, where it's safe to share vulnerabilities and struggles."
Sinnott contends that the core members contribute to society as well as to the other members of the L'Arche community. Elbert Lott, for example, works in the dining hall at Concordia University three days a week cleaning tables. "I think he makes more money than I do," Sinnott said with a laugh. Msall works at Arts of Life in Chicago, a nonprofit where she creates art for sale and also sings in their rock band. Abri works at the Tennis and Fitness Centre in Oak Park cleaning the exercise machines.
A normal day at Angel House begins with everyone waking up between 7 and 7:30, grabbing some breakfast, making lunch on their own and heading off to work. Since the core members do not work full time, they return home between 1 and 3 in the afternoon and relax. Cooking is done on a rotating basis and everyone who didn't cook helps with the clean up.
After the dishes are done comes evening prayer time. Sinnott will sometimes lead what she calls a guided prayer, asking those present at the table to respond to statements like "think about things you are thankful for" and "what do you need help with?" They then hold hands, say an Our Father, a Hail Mary, a Glory Be and an Amen. Sinnott acknowledged that Angel House and many of the other L'Arche houses around the world tend to be Roman Catholic in their spirituality but added that people of all faiths are welcome and that the other L'Arche house just two blocks south of Angel House on Austin is called Interfaith House.
"L'Arche may mean 'The Ark,'" says Laurence Msall, "but it is also an oasis of hope and inspiration for my family and all families that seek to have their disabled loved ones reach their full potential. The love and kindness that the assistants and of the L'Arche community pours onto my sister, Christianne, and all the core members is without a doubt the most beautiful gift she and our family could ever receive. L'Arche has allowed Christianne and the other core members to grow and be cherished as essential members of a family-based community, complete with unconditional love and support."
Funding for Angel House comes mainly from the state in the form of disability, Social Security and Medicaid Checks. Since L'Arche homes are nonprofit organizations, they also receive some donations.
"The hope and goal for L'Arche Chicago," notes Laurence Msall, "is to attract enough financial support to allow them to grow into two or three more homes in the greater Austin-Oak Park community, which would improve their fiscal viability while still maintaining the tightness of a common family-centered community."
Many of the assistants who live and work with the core members are young adults who approach their time with L'Arche very much like they would if they were working with Vista or the Peace Corps. There seems to be a shared attitude that what people contribute to society can't be measured by how much money they earn or by how much wealth they create.
Speaking partly for herself, Sinnott said, "Just because someone doesn't make a six-figure income or doesn't have a car doesn't mean they don't contribute. It might be important that a core member be able to balance on a bike and for someone to witness that they rode it for a block and say, 'Good job. I know that's really hard for you.'
"How well I provide for others says a lot about how successful I am in this life. That's why I'm drawn to ministry.
That's what ultimately matters. Like the Bible passage says, when you fed all these people, you did it for me. When you take care of other people, you're really taking care of yourself. You're really taking care of God's creation."