Life in the Ark

 by Judy Horton 

From commentary in the May reading of the Rule of St. Benedict: 

“Why do you need teachers?” the visitor asked a disciple. “Because,” the disciple answered, “if water must be heated it needs a vessel between the fire and itself.”  

Jean Vanier received the call to take Phillipe and Thomas, two mentally handicapped men he met while visiting a large French asylum, into his home and into his life.  Doctor of Philosophy, learned man of letters, distinguished Naval officer…he laid it all aside to live with and care for two men of no earthly prospect whatever.  Vanier died May 7, 2019 at the age of 90.

I’ve no doubt that L’Arche, the international model of life-sharing community that Vanier founded, was the vessel needed between the baptismal waters and the fire of Christ’s call to give up our lives and follow Him in caring for the forgotten and neglected of the world.

In the larger sense, of course, it is the Church universal that functions as the vessel.  Born of the Church, L’Arche sprang forth to give the world a new vision of people with intellectual disabilities.  It woke the world up with the surprising news that these people not only have needs, they have gifts that the world both desperately needs and needs to recognize.

L’Arche means “the ark,” another vessel in which all of humanity, accompanied by our fellow creatures, would survive the destruction of the world and begin anew.  The name is a stroke of genius, its implications perhaps not even recognized at first.  We may see it only as a happy little metaphor of “we’re all in this together.” 


At its heart, however, we see its meaning as we consider life on the Ark, which could not have been comfortable—crowded, noisy, smelly, with a relentless workload.  Caring for other people and other creatures doesn’t make for a lot of free time in which to contemplate the mysteries of life.  Any mother and any farmer can tell us that.  The romance wears off quickly in the face of the day-to-day, and we’ve got to trust our call to keep on keeping on.

L’Arche recognizes that very few are candidates for a permanent life shared with a mentally handicapped person.  Wisely, its founders set up a system whereby those who become paid “Assistants” become the anchors of the community.  At the same time, it recruits volunteers—usually young, but not always—who come for 6-12 month stints.  They bring fresh ideas, openness of heart, and joy to their task of walking part-way through their lives’ journey with people who have many fewer options.

Deacon Mark, our permanent deacon at St. Louis says, “Wherever Jesus says ‘love,’ you can safely substitute the word ‘sacrifice.’”   I tried it for a day.  When I said “I love you,” to Jerry, I said in my mind “I’m willing to sacrifice for you.”  It puts a different spin on things and I like it.  It takes a word—love—that we feel we have to drum up a feeling about, and substitutes one that describes something we are expected to do.  It immediately calls the question: “What am I willing to sacrifice for you today?”

The community we created in 1989 was conceived in the spirit of L’Arche.  Now that we’ve “retired,” we still work to continue that spirit.  We don’t have to build another 400 acre ranch, but through Point Rider we still continue embrace our mission to extend the spirit of L’Arche—and the good news that our children, friends, brothers and sisters with mental handicaps have equal claim to respect and friendship, and are worthy of the love and sacrifice it takes.

Judy Horton and her husband Jerry are co-founders of Down Home Ranch and the Point Rider Foundation.  She is in the third year of working with a community dedicated to bringing L’Arche to Austin.

To Be or Not To Be (Cool that is)

by Judy Horton Sept. 2002

Recently we received an E-mail from a friend who has a son, J.P. J.P. is a little older than our daughter Kelly, and like her has Down syndrome. Both young people are still in high school. J.P. has been a regular at Ranch Camp, so we've been able to see him grow up and become a fine, well-behaved young man. Martha, his mom, wrote out of the sadness and anger she felt with  the youth group at her  church.

During church and church activities J.P. makes it a point to sit with the youth group, despite the fact the group members largely ignore him. One evening recently, Martha observed as the young people were deciding what to do after church. As J.P. hopefully listened, they made plans among themselves to go to a local restaurant to eat, and soon they were on their way.  But  J.P. wasn't invited.  He was ignored again. Left out.

"Oh, how he would have loved to go with them!" grieved Martha.

 We, too, know these moments, and they are the times that tear out the hearts of parents of handicapped children.

So Judy E-mailed Martha back and told her about a similar experience she'd had in June.

Kelly was due to be confirmed on a Monday, so the Sunday night before Judy and she were at the church to rehearse for this important event. All the kids to be confirmed were assembled out front as the directors and sponsors worked things out inside. Judy could look through the front glass doors and see the kids, about 40 in all, grouped together in three's and four's-talking,laughing, making plans.

Except for Kelly. Kelly stood alone and apart. No one paid attention to her or included her in their animated conversations. Granted, her limitations make it hard for her to initiate social interaction, but after all, this was a group that had just spent an entire year together in Christian formation. Judy had to wonder: What on earth do these young people think they have been studying all year? What in God's Holy Name do they think the purpose of all this is?

Certainly, they were told. They were told over and over, because we know their teacher, and we know what she taught: the need—nay, the requirement—to seek justice, to be compassionate, to reach out to the lonely, the forgotten. These things were taught. It is the essence of the gospel. How was it they did not hear?

Well, probably because, as Martha said, it's a matter of being "cool."

It isn't hang out with odd people who don't fit in, who don't look the same as other kids, who might say or do weird things. (And, alas, "ree-tard" is still a popular epithet to hang on someone who just isn't cool.) A friend said of his son (who also has Down syndrome), "No one in high school got more high-fives walking down the hall than Don, Jr., but he never once was invited to go out with the gang to a football game or to go have pizza." Not once, in four years.

The other day Kelly asked Judy if Elvis was still "cool" in heaven. Judy told her she didn't think "cool" was a heavenly concept. For, as Martha eloquently pointed out, Jesus didn't minister to the "cool"-the in-group, the power brokers. He threw in his lot with the outcast, the brokenhearted, the pariahs. Decidedly un-cool.

 But lack of cool can be so refreshing! Last Sunday Kelly and her friend Sterling (who also has Down syndrome) were serving as greeters for the 11:00 AM service. As such, they were stationed way in the back of the church.

During the service we "pass the peace," extending a handshake or a hug to those around us as a sign of peace and reconciliation. After the peace was passed, Judy (in the front of the church) began to play the Lamb of God on the keyboard. As people began settling back into their pews, she became aware of Kelly galloping down the aisle toward the front of the church.

Bless her heart, Kelly couldn't bear the thought of not passing the peace with her family. She bobbed her own unique version of a genuflection, and then dashed over to Judy—still playing  away  on the keyboard—and  gave her a hug and a big smack on the cheek before hurrying  back  to her station beside Sterling.

Very un-cool, for sure, but-perhaps-of such is the kingdom  of heaven.

As it happened, Kelly's confirmation was scheduled during the fourth week of Ranch Camp. Two of our counselors-old Ranch Camp hands-asked if they could come to the ceremony. Of course we were delighted to have them, although not as delighted as Kelly as she sat with them in the parish hall before the festivities began.

Kelly was in heaven, all dressed up to meet the Bishop, not sitting alone, but surrounded by family and friends-real college students and Aggies to boot. (How cool is that!) Her confirmation was all that she dreamed it would be, complete with her "handsome godfather," her much-loved sponsor, and her special friends.

 Judy wrote back to Martha that, sadly, “we will never change the world.”

But she said that it occurred to her that maybe we could change just our little comers. And she went on to say that, although our campers have a wonderful time at camp, the greater ministry might really be the 40-50 young counse­lors we "graduate" each summer with a new worldview concerning people with special needs.

For these young people have not only given the great gift of their hard work over a week or more of camp,they have received the great gift of getting to know our campers. The result is that now they are much more comfortable approaching and talking to our kids. They aren't afraid of them and real friendships have even blossomed between some campers and counselors. We saw that the evening of Kelly's confirmation.

And somehow-soon we suspect-the young people of J.P.'s youth group are going to undergo a similar change of heart. We know this because we know Martha, and one way or another, the message of the gospel will be brought to their attention! The process may be a little bit uncomfortable, but if they enter it with open hearts and minds, they will reap a great reward. They will come to know J.P. as the interesting, unpredictable, and funny young man that he is.

Meanwhile, at our church, we plan to talk to the Sunday School class teacher about trying to educate everyone just a little more about our kids and their lives. We know our kids are a blessing, and we'll work to help the young people of our church know this, too. We'll try to help them become a bit more aware of the needs of others, and a little less concerned about being cool.

And in doing so, maybe we'll all step just a little closer to the kingdom. And wouldn't that be cool?!