When I moved to Los Angeles to attend LMU — about 60 miles north on the 405 — it was the farthest I had ever been from my family. So, about two years ago when I hit send on an e-mail to accept a position with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Mobile, Alabama, I burst into tears. I was sitting at a computer in the Hannon Library, feeling overwhelmingly excited but also terrified for what this meant to the comfort and security I felt at home.
During my sophomore year, I read “Tattoos on the Heart” by Greg Boyle, S.J., and I felt a deep connection between my faith and a call to practice “kinship” as he describes it—“not serving the other, but being with them.” I wanted deeply, as Father Greg puts it, to move closer to the margins, so that the margins could be erased. I felt a persistent call to live among the poor, and passionate about accompanying people who live with disabilities. I knew my pull toward this ministry came from the challenges I faced with my own health. I empathized with what it was like to lose control over a part of you, over your own body, and with the loneliness that sometimes comes with it, because I lived it.
I was diagnosed with Lupus shortly before entering my junior year. I struggled to gain control of life with chronic illness. I relied on family and friends, who were learning alongside me. It was one of the hardest, most trying times of my life. But I grew stronger, I adapted, and while Lupus was still a big part of me, a daily challenge, I created a life that worked for me.
So, when my call, in the form of JVC, became a reality, I was filled with anxiety. I had to decide: follow my heart and risk leaving the comfort that home offered me as I struggled with my health, or stay safe but be haunted by a feeling that there was more out there that I was ignoring. My health had stopped me from pursuing things before, and that stung deeply. I pushed myself into the unknown.
I accepted a position with L’Arche, in Mobile. French for “the ark,” L’Arche is a place of refuge, where one can come to find safekeeping in the midst of life’s storms, a place of belonging. Founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier, L’Arche provides homes and workplaces for people with disabilities. But its broader mission is to create inclusive communities of companionship of those with and without disabilities. It seeks to reveal the gifts of others — their value, worth and right to belong — and to transform society through relationships that look beyond society’s definitions.
L’Arche felt like the perfect fit, an extraordinary model of recognizing common human dignity, honoring every person’s word of God that they speak through their life. Its mission spoke to me, showing me a place where I could live out God’s compassion. My year was a journey filled with love and light as I bonded with our core members. The community became a refuge in the midst of my own raging storms.
“My L’Arche family got me through this last year of my life. I saw how deeply the core members loved and how strongly they rejoiced. I saw God in each of their faces.”
Elmore became my best friend, praying for me at our weekly prayer service and greeting me joyfully each day. He taught me about celebrating small daily victories. In the morning, he would excitedly tell me about how he successfully shaved without cutting himself. Annie Pearl would tell me that I was special, reminding me of my own sacredness even when I didn’t believe it myself. Peggy became a mother figure, always checking about my health. Marcell kept me laughing with bathroom dance parties and karate moves, showing me the value of a little silliness each day. Lilliebelle loved to ask about my nieces and talk about her cats. Mark loved to say there would “never be another Kimmy like me,” and Lucy’s laugh could make a room burst into laughter with her.
I came into the year expecting to be moved by the joy and love I would encounter. I was moved, more than I can say. But, I never foresaw the weight of pain that would accompany me on the journey, too.
About half way through the year, I discovered that in addition to experiencing complex medical conditions, many core members also had histories of abuse. Their stories shook me. How could something so horrible happen to people so vulnerable? My fellow JVC community members also brought home cries of pain from people they worked with — the incarcerated, immigrants, domestic abuse survivors, and those living beneath the poverty line. The brokenness in the world was like a weight on my heart.
I also was in a lot of pain myself, as my health was suffering. I struggled to manage my chronic illness. The stress of moving and transitioning to new conditions took a toll on me, and I was in the midst of aggressive treatment to stop Lupus from affecting my kidney function. I began to develop severe anxiety and depression. I went days at a time without sleeping and suffered panic attacks. My fatigue increased. Losing control of my body in every way, I felt completely robbed of who I was.
Toward the end of my year, I took a trip with my JVC community to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to celebrate my 23rd birthday. By then, I had been limiting high impact activities, but my friends were planning a hike to the park’s Rainbow Falls. I was nervous: What if my body couldn’t handle it? I decided to go for it.
The hike was a steep climb, with back and forth switches in mountain fog. I was nauseous from pain. My ankles and knees throbbed. And I felt shame for the pain I was feeling and anger about struggling through something I so deeply wanted to just bring joy. I wanted it to be over.
As we reached the end of the hike, a glistening waterfall came crashing down in front of me. I collapsed on a rock, caught my breath and rested. A cool breeze rushed by, and a light mist came through the air. I took a moment to let the pain move through me. When I did that, I was able to see beyond my pain and realize that there was a shining beauty waiting for me at the end, but it had also been there all along the climb. I let all of it soak in: the mountain fog, the support from friends who hiked at my side, the green trees surrounding me. I was in absolute amazement at everything around me.
In my journey to Rainbow Falls, I saw pieces of my life. My L’Arche family got me through this last year of my life. I saw how deeply the core members loved and how strongly they rejoiced. I saw God in each of their faces. I saw them accepting themselves as they were created and overcoming some of the most painful parts of life that lived in their hearts. They allowed God to penetrate their pain and brokenness. Letting God touch their pain didn’t make it go away. But by allowing blessing to touch the broken parts within their heart they saw beyond the pain. And that allowed them reflect their light so brightly.
My L’Arche family, full of love for who they are and the world around them, knows what it means to rest in view of the waterfall. And as they poured this into my heart, I began to gain peace and understanding in my own pain, and healing, too. The incredible beauty I witnessed with my L’Arche family will always remind me of how loved I am, of how to seek joy and celebration in all circumstances, and of how to accept our brokenness and turn it into healing. To let God enter into our brokenness and find ourselves whole again is never easy. When I feel overwhelmed, I imagine myself sitting among them all, resting in the view of a beautiful waterfall as it pours down before us, out of breath but smiling as the mist blows across our faces. I’ve learned how to rest in front of the waterfall peacefully beside them.
Kimmy Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology as a student in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. After graduation, she joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, taking an assignment in Mobile, Alabama, with the L’Arche Community. Smith currently is a live-in assistant at L’Arche Wavecrest in Orange, California.
To learn more about L’Arche USA, go here. To learn more about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, go here. To learn more about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, which specifically serves communities in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, go here.