Through an unexpected change of circumstance, Matthew spent his final year of college living with people with learning disabilities. It was the meaningful, mutual relationships that he developed with his roommates that led him to discover L’Arche. He has since left the US and joined the L’Arche Community in Bognor Regis.  In this piece, he reflects on how a year spent living with his friends with learning disabilities led him to join L’Arche in the UK.

‘I was in my senior year of college in the US when I was asked to be the male resident assistant for a pilot programme for students with learning disabilities to attend college. Having originally intended to move into a dormitory with friends from my hockey team, my plans changed and I ended up spending a year with seven young men and women with learning disabilities.

I got to know the three guys quite well over the course of the year, and it changed my life in ways that I had never expected. I was constantly amazed at how much I was growing through these friendships. I had thought I was coming to this programme to do a good thing and help people but actually it was me who was being cared for. I learned that I can experience meaningful, mutual friendship with people who, whether it’s perceived or not, are different from myself.

I remember in my first few months of senior year I was feeling sick and burned out. I was working really hard as a student athlete, whilst trying to get my homework done and help out new students. I remember lying in bed when Alec, my roommate, came into the room, tucked me in from head to toe, placed a box of tissues next to me along with an empty garbage bag and his favourite stuffed animal. Another time I had come back from a disappointing hockey game and I walked into my room to find a box of cookies with a note: 'I’m sorry you lost your game. We love you.' At a time when I felt like I wasn’t enough, I realised that my new friends with learning disabilities valued and cared about me. It made me feel so much better.

After the year was over, someone who had seen me with my friends with learning disabilities sent me a podcast where Krista Tippett interviewed Jean Vanier. Everything he said resonated so much with my experience living with people with learning disabilities. I immediately bought a few books by Jean Vanier. I was fascinated by these communities where people lived what I had experienced – being together with people with learning disabilities and fostering loving relationships that were more than just doing things for other people who needed help. That’s what I had experienced and what I felt that L’Arche would be like.

A few years later, after completing coursework for my master’s degree, I finally decided to move into a L’Arche Community and I ended up with L’Arche in Bognor Regis. I’ve only been here for a short time but I have gotten to know people and the core members who have let me into their daily routines. It’s been amazing for them to be so receptive of me and to let me into their lives. I don’t have much experience in care giving, but I can already see what a privilege it is.

What is really special about L’Arche is that people of all faiths and no faith, people with and without disabilities, can all gather around the table and eat together and be in such a place of peace. That doesn’t mean it can’t be chaotic at times. But there’s a sense of peace about everyone being together. I think that’s an amazing thing. I don’t know where else things like this are happening.’