‘In L’Arche Kenya I was welcomed as mtu wa furaha- man of joy. I am not so sure I deserve that name, but I was proud to be given it.’

Teachers of joy

By Léon van Ommen

Léon van Ommen, a theology lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, wanted to know what we mean when we — as L’Arche — talk about joy. Last summer he spent time with the L’Arche Communities in Highland, Manchester, Trosly-Breuil in France and Kenya to explore a theology of joy.

I’m on a train, on my way to L’Arche Highland in Inverness, and I’m thinking about the next four days that I will spend with the Community. I’m researching joy in the context of L’Arche and I’m conscious that I haven’t spent a lot of time with people with learning disabilities, so I am a little nervous.

At the University of Aberdeen I work as a theologian and I have read the books and teachings of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen. I am conscious that my knowledge of L’Arche and learning disabilities is through books, rather than lived experience. On the train I find myself wondering who I will meet, whether I will get along with the core members and assistants, and how to communicate with people who are non-verbal.

When I finally ring the bell at Braerannoch — the oldest of three L’Arche Highland houses — it is with a mix of excitement and anxiety, and an abiding expectation of joy.

Why would a theologian want to study joy? Joy is one of those experiences or emotions that most of us experience at points in our lives, but on which we do not often reflect. Joy is very much present in our world, but what is joy? Is it the same as happiness, or something else? And why study joy when our world is so full of suffering?

I have spent the last decade trying to understand suffering in a theological context, but never joy. Through the interviews with core members and assistants and staff in L’Arche, and from what I experienced, it seems that joy and suffering go hand in hand. Some would even say that joy is not possible without suffering and my research on joy often confronted me with suffering as well. Focusing on joy does not, I will learn, mean you bypass suffering.

As a regular bible reader I am interested in and struck by how often joy is mentioned in the bible. As a theologian, I am interested to find out what a biblical understanding of joy would be, what the Christian tradition has said about it and, most of all, as a practical theologian, I am interested in how people today think about joy. What makes us joyful? What do we think joy is? How can we find joy? Why joy in the context of L’Arche?

One thing that strikes me when I read books by Vanier and Nouwen, and when I see documentaries, or the #AsIAm films, is that there seems to be so much joy in L’Arche communities.

Moreover, I find it fascinating to hear assistants talk about core members as their teachers, as Vanier and Nouwen also do in their books. Working as a lecturer at a university, the paradox of learning from people with learning disabilities was not lost on me. However, while L’Arche communities may centre on core members, they are also made up of assistants who have committed a period of their lives to live in community with people with learning disabilities. So here was my proposal: to visit four L’Arche communities and to participate in each community to explore with core members, assistants and community leaders what joy looks like.

Between April and June I was able to visit the Communities in Highland, Manchester, Trosly-Breuil and Kenya. In each community the welcome I received was overwhelming. Time and again I was shown that everyone is a gift and is welcome. I received much from the communities. People were interested to hear what I was doing and they gifted me with their stories, informally at the dinner table or when sitting down together in conversation.

I was welcomed into workshops (testing my baking skills), invited to take part in activities (testing my yoga skills) and welcomed with dancing (testing my dancing skills — the welcome ritual in Kenya meant that it was me doing the dancing!)

In some ways I don’t think sitting down to ask somebody about joy was the best way to find out what a person feels about joy or experiences as joy. Yet each core member I interviewed expressed in one way or another the importance of being asked about their lives and experiences. In our societies, far too many people with learning disabilities are not listened to. In L’Arche, each core member finds a home, a place where they can belong and where they are appreciated for who they are.

During my time at L’Arche the core members became my teachers of joy, helping me to remember as a researcher how important it is to listen to the voices of those least listened to.

I learnt a lot about joy from L’Arche. I learnt that joy is in the welcome extended to everyone who walks through the door, as was immediately shown to me on that first day at Braerannoch. I learnt that joy is in relationships, in being vulnerable and honest with each other and oneself. I learnt that such vulnerability means that sometimes you find yourself at the bottom of the pit, holding someone’s hand — and still this is joy, strangely enough. I learnt that joy is in the opportunities that L’Arche offers to learn new skills, new songs and new people. I learnt that joy is shared. I learnt that joy comes most of all from being valued for who you are. In L’Arche this is not a theory, rather it is a daily practice.

In L’Arche Kenya I was welcomed as mtu wa furaha- man of joy. I am not so sure I deserve that name, but I was proud to be given it. If I am indeed mtu wa furaha, it is in no small part through the joy I saw and experienced in the communities I stayed in.

This article was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

Léon van Ommen is Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen. This article is based on a research project titled “Teachers of Joy: Learning from L’Arche.” Léon is involved in Friendship House, a L’Arche-inspired community within the University of Aberdeen, seeking to build an intentional community of friendship with people with learning disabilities. Léon can be contacted at leon.vanommen@abdn.ac.uk.