Tom Cullimore is a live-out assistant in the L’Arche Edinburgh Community. His journey with L’Arche began several years ago when he lived in the Agapè Community in Quebec, Canada. There he met a man with a learning disability called Bernard. While the two of them shared no common language, Tom came to understand something of the essence of L’Arche: that to know somebody, and share in life together, has little to do with language and everything to do with a willingness to be present. 

I didn’t say very much when I first came to l’Arche. It wasn’t a question of being shy – rather I couldn’t speak the language. I was nineteen and had just arrived at the Agapè Community in Quebec, Canada. Within a few hours it was clear that the French I had learnt at school wasn’t going to be particularly useful.

Not that it mattered at all to Bernard. All he needed to know was my name and whether I would be willing to watch the hockey on TV that coming Saturday. I said that I would (or, a very obliging bilingual assistant told him I would on my behalf) and we were set.

His team, the Montreal Canadians, won 5-3. At full time, Bernard turned and said something to me. I didn’t have a clue what he had said. Smiling, he called somebody over to translate and I learnt that he had offered to buy me breakfast the next morning to say thank you for watching the game with him.

That was Bernard in a nutshell. Overwhelmingly generous and warm, choosing not to dwell on what I couldn't do – instead on what I could, and giving me credit for it. 

In 2015 I moved to L’Arche Edinburgh, initially as a live-in assistant and later as a live-out assistant. I have very different relationships with the core members in my current house to those that I formed with Bernard and others in the Agapè Community, each one reflecting a quality unique to that individual. Among countless examples, Jonathan rattles off impressions that have me howling with laughter, while David produces works of art that I could spend all day looking at.

The range of personalities and needs can be a little disorientating at times. One minute you might be dazzled by a straight-talking, no-nonsense core member and the next moment you might be required to switch gears to engage with someone who communicates non-verbally. 

L’Arche houses are brilliantly eclectic and that is a large part of what makes working in them so much fun. At the same time, accepting difference doesn’t mean living in denial of the fact that it can be tiring and challenging.

It is, of course, entirely worth it. Supporting people with learning disabilities to express themselves, learn and develop new skills, or meet an aspiration they have set – all of these are immensely engaging and fulfilling ways to spend your time.

It’s continually surprising, too - as much now as it was then. On the day I met Bernard I didn’t think he would be buying me breakfast four days later, but come Sunday morning there we were and that worked out pretty well. Surprising is good.

Find out more about becoming a L'Arche assistant yourself here.