Mere Samaritans

by Kevin S. Reimer, Ph.D.
Illustration by Ashley Geiger '08

Thanks to a grant from the John Fetzer Institute, I had the opportunity to conduct a social scientific study of human altruism in American L’Arche communities. L’Arche, French for “the Ark,” was founded by Jean Vanier and Fr. Thomas Philippe in the early 1960s. It is an international movement of residential communities in nearly 30 countries worldwide. In L’Arche homes, the developmentally disabled (also known as core people or core members) live in community with their caregivers (also known as assistants). L’Arche honors individuals as a sign of agapé and mutual respect.

In the United States, L’Arche communities often exist on a financial shoestring. Besides room and board, assistants may live on a few hundred dollars per month. Deep spiritual commitments and experiences punctuate the earthy reality of life together. L’Arche is a Christian movement that embraces other traditions, but lives within its Roman Catholic origins. My research focused on the development of altruistic commitment in L’Arche caregiver assistants. Here, I share about how this project inspired my research, as well as my life. (Identifying information such as names and location have been changed to protect the identities of L’Arche caregivers, disabled core members, and their communities.)

Rain fell softly as I made my way up to the apartment door. A sharp knock was quickly answered, and I entered to find a small living room. My interviewee was a diminutive woman of middle-age with thick glasses perched low on her nose. In our pleasantries she was entirely ordinary, extending well-practiced courtesy. She reminded me of a librarian—warmly preoccupied in manner and business. Tea appeared from the kitchen, a long-haired cat curled up on the couch, and the rain quietly hissed against the windows. I moved through my standard interview checklist, dutifully reviewing research goals and informed consent.

We began with open-ended questions regarding her personality, relationships, and spirituality. Not five minutes into the encounter, it became clear that I was sitting with an individual of exemplary capacity for compassionate love.* Through her years of experience as a caregiver assistant to the disabled core members of L’Arche, Katherine came to possess an understanding of love in the broadest terms possible. There was no hint of the oversexed love caricature so prominent in popular culture. Her reflections were earthy and pragmatic, the result of many encounters with disabled individuals. Katherine’s was a kind of love-wisdom that emerged from years spent in L’Arche. Mostly, her narrative underlined the central idea that compassionate love is first about the disabled and their example:

I’ll tell you a turning point in terms of my understanding of God and L’Arche. I saw the gifts of the core members. When I got to Tampico, things were rough and I had to live in the house because we were so short of assistants. It was very difficult. One of the core members there was named Trent. He is blind and dual diagnosed. He was in an institution all his life, since he was one-year-old. I had this real love for Trent—a connection with him. I could calm him down, and I enjoyed him.

One night, after giving him his bath, he said, “You’re my friend, right?” I stopped for a minute. What occurred to me is how many people had bathed this man. Strangers. How many people didn’t see this sacred life in front of them, just wanted to get the job done. How many times he had to put up with that. What he’s really saying is, “Can I trust you? Are you safe? Are you my friend?” It occurred to me that this man probably lived through hell. Abuse. People being incredibly insensitive to him. And yet he can love. He can still trust.

I could never ask somebody to be my friend. I realized that I was in a transforming moment, knowing that I’m more broken than Trent. I could not be this vulnerable. I thought that I was being authentic, but realized he was teaching me something that I hadn’t learned. God was really present in that moment. That is when I could say that I didn’t choose L’Arche, but L’Arche chose me. That’s our spirituality.**

*An academic summary of compassionate love is found in Stephen Post’s “The Tradition of Agapé,” in Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue, eds. Stephen Post, Lynn Underwood, Jeffrey Schloss, and William Hurlbut (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 51-63.

**Additional portions of Katherine’s story are published in Jack O. Balswick, Pamela King, and Kevin S. Reimer, The Reciprocating Self (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005).

It occasionally happens that a research interview yields insights so profound that the encounter is disorienting. Walking back to the car, my organizing beliefs about compassionate love were rolling over like a great ship before a gale. I could hear the voices of scientific and theological mentors from the past. There was a favorite undergraduate ecology professor discussing the “problem” of altruism among bonobos and orangutans. I felt the disdain in her voice as she responded to a student who wondered whether primates loved without thought of receiving the same in kind. I remembered an esteemed seminary professor waving his hands wildly at the front of class, expounding on lofty ideals of love through Christian holy writings and Scriptures. For Katherine, compassionate love was neither cold exchange nor rank sentimentality. Her transforming moment was all about Trent, a person with simple needs and deep hurts, just like the rest of us.

Katherine’s view of compassionate love is unpretentious and everyday. It is a compassionate love of the evening bath, vomit in the living room, and badly soiled underwear. Not surprisingly, her reflections constantly reference weakness and insecurity. Brokenness is the common thread that joins Katherine with Trent. In their recognition of brokenness, caregiver assistant and disabled core member come together to find hope in love, experienced through relationship with God. What a countercultural idea. By contrast, Americans avoid brokenness and disability at every turn, favoring celebrity images of strength and intelligence. L’Arche is miles away from these values. For Katherine and Trent, trust grows where each comes clean regarding disfigurement and limitation. Such trust is rocket fuel for the flourishing of compassionate love.

The kind of love described in Katherine’s narrative does not call attention to itself. There is no attempt to interpret the encounter with Trent on the basis of moral calculus or self-righteousness. She does not bother to tell us why she found herself at Tampico, or why she chose to stay rather than leave the difficulties in the community. Neither does she appear too triumphal, inspiring notions of love in the writings of others. Despite her religious faith, Katherine makes no mention of Christian Scriptures. Her growing love points to God’s actions revealed in the context of relationship with Trent. Her message carries a subtle warning to those of us interested in the scientific study or theology of compassionate love. If we are serious about understanding love that is inclusive of human experience, we should temper our reflections with the vulnerability of a former mental hospital inmate who is cognitively about four years of age.

My encounter with Katherine was a personal watershed. Up until that moment, I had approached the topic of compassionate love in L’Arche with measured concern. I assumed that compassionate love smacks of reciprocal or “exchange” altruism, sprinkled with a desire to achieve inspired notions of caring as described in scriptures and poetry. To put it baldly, we care for others because we expect good things in return and feel good aspiring to our highest ideals.

As I walked back to the car, it was time to rethink the matter from scratch. Katherine’s version of love was very different from my educated prejudices. Her love requ­­ired little rational deliberation or planning to enact, seemed unconcerned with consequences, and was shockingly vulnerable. Far from the jungle or poet’s desk, compassionate love involved relationships characterized by raw and elemental honesty. Compassionate love was about the other person who makes relationship possible, about trust that liberates each participant to learn about the other more deeply and completely.

Kevin S. Reimer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Azusa Pacific University and research faculty in cognitive developmental psychology in the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He recently signed a book contract with the Continuum International Publishing Group of London to write Mere Samaritans: Compassionate Love and Disability in L’Arche.

Ashley Geiger ’08 is a graphic design intern in the Office of University Relations.</i