We talk about who God is and I give the answer: God is in the heart.’ It is Sunday afternoon and I am having the best kind of experience of church. I’m sat in the empty dining room of the L’Arche Asansol Community with Rahul, a young man with a learning disability, and I am enjoying what feels like a rallying, call to action, kind of sermon.

Rahul is a kind, thoughtful, young man. He is honest, searingly so at times. ‘I like to dance,’ he tells me. ‘Sometimes I cry when I dance because dancing makes me think [about] things.’

The following day I see him dance. He calls me into the room as he and several of the boys are learning the routine to a Bengali song with their dance teacher. He’s all joy, his arms moving up and down in rhythm with the music, and then he’s turning and spinning, and he’s calling out to me: ‘Come, come!’ ‘Dance!’ And so now I’m dancing, too. Looking to them for the moves, wanting to keep in step, yet knowing they don’t care if I am in step or not. They care that I’m here, alongside them, all joy too.

This is something to love about L’Arche. The unashamed expression of who one is and not who one thinks they ought to be. At first it’s disarming, like the invitation to dance without knowing the sequence. It is not until, and unless, you realise that you are in L’Arche where the usual constraints of social conformity don’t matter that you will be able to throw your arms in the air and dance unashamedly.

Rahul, Bupul and Som. Photo credit: L’Arche / GMB Akash.

In L’Arche Asansol the core members are all children and young people. For all except one of them, they were orphaned or abandoned. ‘L’Arche means we are one big family,’ Rahul tells me as he is helping to prepare the Sunday lunch, something he does each week when the cook takes her day off.

The Community was founded in 2008 in response to the number of orphaned children with learning disabilities in Asansol, a city in the Indian state of West Bengal. It began with the arrival of Riko, who was nine, and Jayanto who was eleven. Shortly afterwards, Barnabas arrived.

The first time I meet Barnabas he runs towards me, engulfs me with his wide arms and bends his knees slightly so that his head can find my shoulder. ‘He’s the one who welcomes,’ Sindhu, the Community Leader, tells me later. At dinner he draws his chair back suddenly and stands up. I think he’s getting up to leave but, no, he’s gone to get another chair. He drops it down next to his, as if to say ‘you’re welcome.’

On Sunday evening a family arrives. Their young son is celebrating his birthday and, as part of the Hindu practice of Dana (donating to charity during a time of celebration or bereavement), they have paid for, and are joining, that evening’s Community meal. At first the little boy is tentative. Rahul and Barnabas want to shake his hand, but he’s not sure. There’s cake and the core members are excited and loud, and the little boy doesn’t seem to know how to respond to the different ways of being that he is seeing. His parents coax him into greeting some of the core members and, in time, he softens. Later, I ask the boy’s father why they have chosen to give to L’Arche and why it feels important to them to bring their son to meet the Community. He tells me that his wife has epilepsy and, while it’s not the same of course, it has given them an insight into being treated differently. He feels that it is important that his children understand, and have compassion, for people who are seen as different by society.

Barnabas and Apurba. Photo credit: L’Arche / GMB Akash.

In India, as in most societies, people with learning disabilities frequently experience discrimination and stigma. It’s why the whole Community makes a point of going out into the city every Friday. It’s exciting for the core members who can take in new experiences, Sindhu tells me, but it’s also important that people in the local community see and interact with people with learning disabilities and understand their right to be a respected part of society, too.

A week earlier, in Kolkata, I join the Community’s outreach programme. Some ten or more families who live locally, and are supported by the L’Arche Kolkata Community, have been invited for a day out to Science City, the largest science centre in the Indian subcontinent. Some of the children have profound disabilities. Two brothers share the same wheelchair. As we walk through the park I see people looking, or averting their eyes. We find a place to lay down blankets for snacks, and to present garlands and sing to three of the young people who recently celebrated their birthdays. A few of the women close in together, allowing a mother to change her child privately, but publically. If the group is self-conscious, they don’t show it. Instead they claim their right to be at Science City with their children, eating ice creams, enjoying a new and different experience, and celebrating their children’s birthdays.

The outreach programme is one of the ways in which the L’Arche Kolkata and L’Arche Asansol Communities seek to support families of children and adults with learning disabilities. Govind and Raghubir are two brothers who attend the day programme in L’Arche Asansol. Their parents have died and they live with their ageing grandfather who works as a rickshaw rider in the city. When he arrives at the end of the day to collect them, they are both in high spirits and their grandfather gives a gentle, loving smile, his face illuminated by the light from the late afternoon sun.

Some fifty children and adults attend the daycare and workshop programme offered by L’Arche Asansol. They come from some of the poorest families in the city. For Govind and Raghubir’s grandfather, L’Arche Asansol is his lifeline.

Pintu with Sindhu, the Community Leader of L’Arche Asansol. Photo credit: L’Arche / GMB Akash.

The walls here are adorned with photographs of the core members and their assistants, as well as with extracts from the Bhagavad Gita. The walls chart a course that dates back to when the Community was founded and say something about what it means to belong to L’Arche in India. There are photographs from when Barnabas was little and an image of when Neelchand, a core member from L’Arche Kolkata, came to stay. There is the sense of each person’s place here, in this Community. It is a home in all of its ordinariness and imperfection. ‘Whose home is this?’ Sindhu asks Pintu, one of the core members. ‘My home,’ Pintu replies, without a flicker of a doubt.

After dinner, the night before I leave, Sindhu’s two-year-old daughter who lives in the Community tries to help with stacking the chairs, but she is little and they over face her. ‘Rahul,’ Sindhu calls out across the room: ‘Help her to stack the chairs.’ For a split second I see Rahul’s face change. He smiles and brings his chin down towards his chest. He is visibly proud to have been asked to help and to know that he can help. In a world that so routinely dismisses people with learning disabilities, this small act of empowering Rahul to recognise his gifts and abilities — and to know that he is needed — becomes profound.

The next morning, preparing to leave, Barnabas says his goodbye the same way he first greeted me. Arms wide, his head resting on my shoulder. ‘Come again soon,’ Rahul says. ‘We will miss you.’ I think back to that first conversation with him. ‘God is in the heart.’ And I know this to be true.

Amy Merone is a storyteller with L’Arche UK and is a part of the L’Arche Manchester Community. The photographs in this piece were taken by the photographer GMB Akash.