An Interview with Christine McGrievy, the International Vice-Coordinator of L’Arche—a community of persons with and without disabilities.
There are two images of Christine McGrievy which coincide perfectly: The Christine in her office who tells us about her thirteen years as International Vice-Coordinator of L’Arche and the Christine with whom we eat lunch at the Cuise-la-Motte house where the disabled live. There is no distress among these two Christines, a rarity among people who have roles of responsibility. Christine is from an Anglican family who heard of L’Arche for the first time at the University of Warwick from a friend who told her about Trosly. Having just graduated she decided to go to Trosly for one year.
My life was programmed: degree, work, marriage, children, but in that first year here all of my certainties flew out the door. It was thanks to many people especially Edith, who had just joined l’Arche from a psychiatric hospital. We spent a lot of time together. We were two girls of the same age having come from two completely different worlds and yet we were sitting there together. Edith showed me things unknown to me before. Her violence awakened the violence in me: my anger to not be able to stop her anger; anger towards her because I wanted to be the perfect assistant, but she wouldn't allow it; anger for not responding to my kindness; anger towards myself because I felt guilty about the anger I had towards her. But while Edith brought me to the dark places in myself, she loved me just the same. And while she could be very violent, she could also be exceedingly joyful, when she laughed her entire body laughed. Edith opened many doors in me, in my relationships with others and with God. Only God was able to enter into her profound pain, and through her I also discovered a new intimacy with Him, a trinitarian relationship: Edith, God and me.
After that year finished.
I returned home and began teaching history. I liked it, but there was a distance between me and the students, I wasn’t Christine, I was the teacher. It felt like play-acting, it wasn’t what I felt called to. Actually, I realized afterwards, the experience of that year was so complete and a precious gift that it was almost too much, I didn’t know what to do. Between the easy road and the narrow road, I chose the former.
Later, however, she returned for a second time.
Two years later I returned. In 1983 I was asked to start a new home. I went to the psychiatric hospital of Clermont, and in the wing where the most grave patients were, the ones that the hospital does not know what to do with, I met Philippe, a vegetable with oversize clothes on, attached with a sheet to his wheelchair (and this time also attached to the radiator). When I saw him, I immediately decided to take him. In his eyes was all the life that he wasn’t able to live with his body. Speaking with the nurses, we discovered that no one knew what he liked to eat, what were his favorite colors. Nobody was interested, nobody thought it was important to know something about him. I come from a family full of activists for social justice, at University I was a member of Amnesty, I fought for women’s rights, so to see Philipe in that condition was terribly unjust. I had said that I would stay at l’Arche for two years, then I decided another two years, and in the end, here I am. I had found happiness in a place where I could cultivate my relationship with God, with myself, with my neighbor and where I could grow intellectually. It took me ten years to understand that this was the place.
Then she made a career!
The first twenty years here was a profound journey inside myself. Whereas, in the last thirteen years as International Vice-Coordinator, I discovered how creative the Spirit can be. At L’Arche we speak about the common human matrix. When I go to Japan everything is completely different than here. When I go to Haiti or Uganda the same enormous differences exist. Even though I am a stranger going into the different communities, I still feel at home because the way that people grow with one another, the way community is created, is exactly the same everywhere. L’Arche is not just a theory, it is skin, bones, experience.
What is the face of L’Arche today?
We have 137 communities in 37 countries from each continent. There are three different categories: countries like France, United States and Great Britain with many communities and a national centralized structure; eight intermediate countries with 4-5 communities which are developing an international network; and lastly, about twenty countries that have one community, maximum two, like Italy, Ukraine, the Latin American countries and African countries. Having at least three communities is crucial in order to help each other, but sometimes it’s not possible. So, we try to at least create a network of countries which are close together like Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. But we don’t go after quantity, the most important thing is to reveal the gift of vulnerable people, give voice to the disabled, the old, and to those without a home. Today we are more aware of helping where we can be a sign of hope. There are countries whose society has been destroyed, and where we can really be of service for its reconstruction. We can also be this here, in the last three years six new communities have been founded in France.
Is the internationality of the care-givers in L’Arche at risk?
It’s terrible. The laws today make it much more difficult for people to move around and for us to receive them. It’s complicated to take people from North America and very complicated if you come from Africa or Asia. We are all becoming protectionists, it’s an enormous impoverishment. It impoverishes us who receive others, because living with different people helps us understand that the world isn’t just virtual but a concrete body to be known. But it also impoverishes the communities that are founded; it’s important people come from the country that has requested to open a house, it is the only way to know each other, to have a cultural and integrated understanding of each other.
Does the United States impose limits?
Yes. And they don’t want to finance the model that we’re proposing. They say that it’s not good for 4-5 disabled people to live together, it’s too many. But people that are alone are not integrated into society, they just have someone who is paid to go check on them for a few hours. They don’t have friends.
And on the economic side?
It depends. In France we are sustained well by the government and by donations, but that’s obvious Jean Vanier is here! In Great Britain we were but now things are more difficult. In the United States it depends on each single State, but almost every community has to find funds in order to integrate them with how much it receives from the government (an amount that wavers between 20%-50%). In Africa we don’t receive anything, we depend completely on donations. Obviously there is solidarity in l’Arche, pairing together between countries and single communities. But finding funds is becoming more and more difficult.
Do the care-givers receive a salary?
Yes, however if differs from country to country. We want each person to have a dignified salary, for all the people that work for the community to receive a formation and the opportunity to chose whether they want to be elsewhere. And in the countries that don’t have a political system for pensions, we want them to be able to secure a future for themselves (but life isn’t just money, living here a future is assured also thanks to the relationships built during the years). It is crucial to always have the liberty to be free to leave.
What is the criteria used to receive the disabled?
Things have changed. Today there are external structures in l’Arche that decide who to send where, involving not only us, but the whole system that welcomes the disabled. Individuals are welcomed for a trial period, after which they can choose to stay and l’Arche can decide if it works. The oldest in age come from psychiatric hospitals, the new ones are young people who have grown up in families but, like all youth, once grown up want to make a life of their own. Whereas in the poorest countries, for the most part we primarily still deal with people who have been abandoned.
In the past was there an interaction with families?
There were families, but it was different. In the past, they were relieved if their children had a good place to go to, today they ask for a lot more.
Life at l’Arche is like a woman’s life—constant change!
Yes, absolutely! Our identity doesn’t change, but what changes is the way in which we live! And this evolution is wonderful. If we don’t change, it’s the end. Now that we are a more mature organization we are starting to be able to think in the long term, and be more open to the Holy Spirit that moves. We must do all that we can, but at the same time we know that we can’t do it all—we are ready for surprises!
Born and raised in the Lake District, Christine McGrievy has been the International Vice-Coordinator of l’Arche for thirteen years until June 2012 (a term lasts six years and is extendible; she was asked to stay in the position). Founded by Jean Vanier in 1964, l’Arche “works in direct contact with persons affected by mental disabilities for as long as one is able to fully carry out their role in society. Transforming dreams into reality, each of the 137 communities of l’Arche is a springboard where members with and without disabilities receive personal support in order to discover, develop and share their often hidden talents”.
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