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Eat, pray, celebrate

October 2021 – Founder of L’Arche Preston (UK) and former leader of L’Arche UK,
John Sargent is now leading the “Charter Process” for L’Arche International.
John tells us here about an encounter that transformed him.

When I was 21, I lived in a L’Arche Community for a year. I went to live in a new household that had opened just six months before and I became part of the house team welcoming people from the local hospital. I helped to welcome Brian as he initially visited for weekends and then came to live with us fulltime. Brian was 19 years old and had lived in the hospital since he was about 4. I helped him to get up in the morning, to have his bath and to get dressed. I helped him with his meals and I pushed his wheelchair for him to get to his day activities. All this was new to me and a steep learning curve! I’d spent my life in school and college working with books and concepts. I was valued by the exams I had passed.

After three months in the community, I was returning from my first week away and walking up from the bus station, across a park, near to my L’Arche house. In the distance, I saw Brian coming towards me, another assistant pushing his chair. As he came closer, I called out a greeting and he recognised my voice. He flung his arms and legs out in bouncing excitement and shouted my name at the top of his voice. His ecstatic welcome was a real revelation to me. It was an encounter of welcome, of being valued and affirmed, simply for being ‘John’.

Daily life continued, revolving mostly around personal care and meals. On my 22nd birthday we had a celebratory meal in the house followed by a time of prayer. During the prayer, an assistant began to read from St John’s Gospel the passage about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, while Brian crawled across the floor with a bowl of water and began to wash my feet. He did it so gently and so intentionally! Here was the man to whom I gave a bath each day, giving my feet a bath. I had a strong sense that we were brothers. It was a deep encounter of mutuality.

And these experiences, these encounters, of unconditional welcome and of mutuality transformed me. A sense of deep connection between us enabled me to see the world, just a little bit, as if through Brian’s eyes. This empathic bridge changed me and continues to change me.

Sharing life with Brian, even for only a year, opened up the spaces where we could encounter each other, across all our differences, as equals. These spaces often centred around eating together, praying together and celebrating together. Spaces where we didn’t encounter each other as care-giver and care-receiver, but simply as equal human persons, as friends.

After my year living with Brian, I went back as planned to study. But I wasn’t the same. And a few years later I returned. If I am still in L’Arche today, it is because of Brian and those encounters 35 years ago, and I am full of gratitude.

I often remember these foundational experiences when we share a meal; when we gather in a circle to pray; when celebrate together, and especially, each time that we ritually wash each other’s feet. These regular ritual spaces make present again the foundational encounters that so changed me – and so they continue to transform me. They nourish me.

Thank you Brian!

John Sargent

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