Testimonial by Kate Schulte, assistant
“I had to recognize that there is no “right” way to live L’Arche – if the community is loving the core members and helping them to recognize their gifts, then it’s L’Arche.” This is Kate Schulte, from L’Arche USA, who has taken a year out to be a solidarity assistant in L’Arche Mymensingh, Bangladesh.
For Kate, living in L’Arche far away from her home country has been the catalyst for many new and creative thoughts about life: “I also had to recognize that I don’t know much about anything. My sense of value and ethics come predominantly from the West. When I suddenly I found myself in a place that thought very differently, I was confused. It wasn’t enough to immerse myself in community life – I needed/need to immerse myself in the culture here. I needed to “seek to understand”- I started to read books by Indian philosophers, I listened to Hindi music, and most importantly I listened to the stories and perspectives of those around me. I had so much to learn and I still have so much to learn!”
Settling into a new culture: surprises and shocks…
India: Upon arrival in Asha Niketan, I was swept away into the magical world of India. There were strange smells, lights and so many people! I was overwhelmed; it was so different and I felt so out of place. There have been many moments during my journey in L’Arche where I have felt inadequate, but I had never felt it with such intensity as I did in my first two months in India. I didn’t know how to do anything: toileting, cleaning, praying, dishwashing, communicating – everything was different. I was different. In the beginning, I felt so unhelpful. I felt like a baby again. I had to relearn everything. But for me it wasn’t hard to adjust to the food, toileting or bathing differences – it was hard to adjust to how differently the community lived L’Arche and how little control I had over anything. If Brother Roger (of Taizé) would have come to the community I would have screamed at him “I dared to give my life to others (or so I thought) but not only am I not finding meaning, I am sort of miserable!” But, then, in my loneliness, joy started to edge its way in.
I realized that my inability to be helpful or in control, allowed me to understand what it meant to “give my life for others”. It meant being grateful for each moment. It meant forgiving my own inadequacy and leaving it. It meant loving those around me, even if I could only show my love with a smile. Mostly it meant, “seeking first to understand and then to be understood.” My preconceived notions of L’Arche, disability and humanity did not matter. Instead of letting them control my experience, I had to let them go and accept who I was and what the community was in that moment.
Bangladesh: When I finally made it to the L’Arche Bangladesh community, I was welcomed so beautifully by all the members. I instantly felt loved and began my commitment with such determination to hold close those changes that had begun in me in Asansol. But, oh, how quickly I forget every lesson! It seems like I am always having to re-learn lessons over and over…It wasn’t long before I started fretting about my role and my purpose, getting discouraged because I still haven’t learned Bangla and began to withdraw into myself. But the members of community keep calling me back into the present moment.
Bappi, refuses to let me drift into myself, by asking me a million times “Mamma, Eta ki” (what’s that?) and then tilting his head and smiling in such an irresistible way I have to give up feeling down. Rohim runs to the door to greet me, catching my hand and swinging it as if he had known me his whole life. Shopno Nir (Dream House) makes me forget about language learning deficiencies by declaring an “English dinner” in my honor. Asha Nir (House of Hope), tells me to come over “immediately” any time I miss my family. Pushpo Nir (Blossom House) is letting me live with them instead of just being a “visitor.”
I am so grateful for this journey. It has taken many unexpected turns but I am learning how to “give my life” and, more importantly, how to just be.
Lessons for life
- All the members of Asansol and Mymensingh have taught me how to love better. They have challenged my views on culture, L’Arche and religion and helped me learn how to live in an interreligious community.
- The core members have let me in, accepted me as an equal, even though I am different. All of the members have experienced some really hard things and for many L’Arche is the first home they have ever had. As such, many carry deep wounds but still they love.
- The assistants have taught me how to be open, live in the moment and forgive. They have also opened up their hearts to me and have become good friends.
How has your presence helped the community?
I think much in the same way that I helped in Chicago and Jacksonville. I have gifts and weaknesses and I bring those to this community. But I am “extra” unique, in that I am from a different culture, this cross-culture exchange of ideas can be really cool and I “think” I have helped bring some good things from my culture and I have been able to pick up some good things about Bangladeshi/ Indian culture that someday I will bring home with me.
Advice to anyone thinking of becoming a solidarity assistant
- Start to learn the language before you leave. Many people, especially in India, speak English; however, no one could understand me! I talk very fast (I am learning to slow down) but I had forgotten how to speak directly. I had not realized how often I used idioms and unnecessary words. I had to clean up my English and learn to speak “International English.”
- I think there is a nonverbal language that we use in L’Arche and I have certainly entered into relationship with many people even though we can barely speak. BUT verbal communication is important! Oh how I long to speak Bengali!!
- Find people to accompany you. This could be another volunteer abroad. This could be the former community leader at home.
- Don’t worry about your time being short. Try to live as fully in the community as you can!
If you believe in the creative human potential of all people with an intellectual disability, that is exactly the right starting point for working at L’Arche. Be part of the unfolding story! Email us your question to firstname.lastname@example.org