We need to obliterate the fear of difference

Representatives from Cork L’Arche will join 500 people from all over the world at an event in Belfast this week, writes Chris Dunne
We need to obliterate the fear of difference
Therese Hayes and Colm O'Donovan, Core Members in L'Arche Cork

THE four people in the candle room at L’Arche Cork symbolise and celebrate the gift of global friendship and unity.

Therese Hayes, core member, who lives in one of the new houses at L’Arche, in Togher, is in fine voice when we meet, ahead of her trip to the L’Arche Federation Assembly which got underway today in Queen’s University, Belfast, and continues until June 27.

Esther Mwaub, care assistant from Kenya, Paul Dennehy, close neighbour, and local committee member, Diana Walsh, from Columbia, communications and fundraiser, and myself, are treated to a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace from Therese.

“I like shopping and cooking too,” says Therese. “Spaghetti bolognaise is my signature dish.”

No doubt she will do a spot of shopping in the Titanic city?

“I sure will,” she says. “I love writing and I want to get some red pads.”

The week-long Federation Assembly is welcoming 500 people from 37 countries, with and without intellectual disabilities, to provide an opportunity for people of all faiths and none to embrace each other and their differences.

Esther Mwuara, International Live-in Assistant, and Therese Hayes.
Esther Mwuara, International Live-in Assistant, and Therese Hayes.

L’Arche Cork will join with their 138 sister organisations at the momentous event.

“It is a wonderful honour for Ireland,” says Diana, who is attending the event with Therese, Esther, and Paul.

“Past Assemblies have been in Atlanta, Kolata, India, and Assisi. We are delighted that the Assembly is coming to Belfast.

“And it is a global opportunity to obliterate the fear around difference,” says Diana.

“It is a symbol of hope to renew the energy around L’Arche and our 200,000 members worldwide. It is an opportunity to help obliterate the stigma of difference and help to promote harmony, not discord, among our community,” says Diana.

“Our main message is that everybody, regardless of their conditions or limitations, has a gift to offer others and society.”

Across the world, L’Arche fosters residential communities, work projects and friendships that create places of belonging for some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. These spaces enable each person to live as a full citizen and to contribute their gift to society.

“I love living in my new house,” says Therese proudly, who has many creative talents.

“I often make candles here and offer them for sale,” she adds.

Therese is a warm-hearted host.

Therese Hayes, Core Member in L'Arche Cork.
Therese Hayes, Core Member in L'Arche Cork.

Paul says he loves being a neighbour.

“The houses are always full of fun and laughter,” he says. “It’s a great place to live. We all love it here. L’Arche doesn’t just provide a service. It is the life of the community. It offers benefits to its core members, to its neighbours and to the whole community as well. The places at L’Arche are in great demand. People love living here. It is a solid base.”

Esther agrees.

“L’Arche is an open, friendly community. We are all friends.”

Is the L’Arche community similar in Kenya?

“Yes, it is,” says Esther. “The people there are very creative also. They love to express themselves and they get up and dance at every opportunity. Even in the middle of the night!”

L’Arche is all-inclusive. It welcomes everybody to its home. The ethos is in keeping with that of founder, Jean Vanier.

When a young Canadian man who lived in France invited two men to come and live with him, Raphael Simi and Phillipe Seux; he had a vision. His mission was to make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities revealed through mutually transformed and interdependence relationships.

Living as a family and sharing daily tasks and relaxation times, assistants travelled to their home countries where they carried Jean Vanier’s vision. Some 50 years ago L’Arche, the French name for Ark, was born. Soon homes sprang up in more than 35 countries.

“The Global meeting will help open people’s hearts to reunite the whole world,” says Diana. “It will help change perception around difference and help understand each person’s gift. We will hear and share other people’s stories.

“I know our planned day trip to Downpatrick that includes visits to local congregations and parishes will encourage the forging of friendships.”

Diana shares one story.

“Two people met up with each other at the Federal Assembly held in Atlanta,” she says. “They came from different parts of the world. They made friends and they spent time together. They do not speak each other’s language; but yet they remain firm friends. These are the kind of connections that are made. The stories must be told.”

L’arche has a vision.

“In a world where people who are weaker are so often kept on the margins, L’Arche is a voice of unity,” says Diana.

“We firmly believe a different kind of society is possible. We hope that this meeting, and events leading up to it, will be a wake-up call for people to re-think their approach to disabilities. It will enable us to work and develop together and to strive forward.”

L’Arche holds Assembly meetings every five years as a way to propel its mission forward. It is a first for Ireland.

Esther Mwuara, International Live-in Assistant, Therese Hayes and Angela Burchill, Core Members in L'Arche Cork.
Esther Mwuara, International Live-in Assistant, Therese Hayes and Angela Burchill, Core Members in L'Arche Cork.

“We are thrilled the federation is coming here to Ireland,” says Diana. “Our mission of peace and justice is rooted in developing mutual relationships between people with and without disabilities.

“In L’Arche, people with intellectual disabilities are equals. They are involved in the fundamental decision making about their lives and about our mission to help change the way people with disabilities are seen and treated in all cultures.”

L’Arche has a powerful message.

“Everyone has a gift to offer. To others and to society,” says Diana. “We learned that from L’Arche. And we will be celebrating that in Belfast.”

To prepare for the upcoming event, in recent weeks L’Arche Cork hosted an audio-visual display and welcomed visitors from L’Arche New Zealand.

Paul says the event in Belfast will help raise the profile of L’Ache, not only in Cork, but around the world.

“Our aim is to help us achieve our own objectives by listening and learning.”

The communities in Ireland, Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Kilkenny will all join the international federation in this historic assembly in Belfast this week. The unique week-long meeting is one of the few large scale events world-wide where people with intellectual disabilities come together as equal partners with other members of society.

“We will all gather in Belfast to send a message of unity,” says Diana. “It is a very important message.”

Speakers at the event include Rev Dr Ruth Patterson, OBE, Director of Charity Restoration Ministries, Padraig O’Tuama, Leader of Corrymeela Community of Northern Ireland, and Michael McDonald, film-maker.


L’ARCHE fosters a sharing environment for people with and without intellectual disabilities in community.

It celebrates the unique value of each and every person in those communities and recognises our need for one another.

At an international level, L’Arche works to provide support for people with developmental disabilities so that they take their rightful place in our societies.

As an international organisation, the Federation seeks to promote diversity and solidarity across geographical and psychological borders.

On January 18, 1985, L’Arche Cork was founded and now has four residential homes, as well as a day programme.

For more information see http://www.larcheireland.org/cork or call Le Chéile, Togher Road, Cork Phone; 021-4318880.

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