Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Deacon travels to India for L’arche General Assembly; ‘so blessed by God’ to have participated
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Deacon Mike Miller stands in front of a small temple located in the backyard of L’Arche Kolkata. The L’Arche community there includes individuals with and without developmental disabilities who worship as Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Catholic Christians, and other Christian denominations. Deacon Miller was in India in October for the international general assembly for L’Arche, representing the Spokane L’Arche community. (IR photo courtesy of Deacon Mike Miller)
Deacon Michael Miller, Secretary for Diocesan Business Affairs and a member of the board of L’Arche Spokane, traveled to India in October to attend a week-long international gathering of representatives of L’Arche communities worldwide.
L’Arche offers Christian community living for developmentally disabled adults, and has three homes in the Logan neighborhood near Gonzaga University.
Every three years, L’Arche has an International General Assembly. This year’s assembly brought over 135 L’Arche community representatives to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, he said.
“I was ambivalent about attending because I had a Diocesan Fiscal Managers Conference almost at the same time,” he said. “Nobody else on the (Spokane) board volunteered, however, so I volunteered because Dean Burri, our new diocesan insurance rep, had offered to give me some of the ton of frequent flyer miles he had and never uses. That way it wouldn’t cost the L’Arche community anything for me to go.”
Deacon Miller first flew to Miami, Fla., to attend the Diocesan Fiscal Managers Conference, then on to India. He left Miami Oct. 2, transferred in Paris, and arrived in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) around midnight Oct. 3, then caught a two-and-a-half hour flight on to Kolkata at 6:30 the next morning.
The L’Arche gathering was held at Loretto School in Kolkata, which is the school where Blessed Mother Teresa was a teaching Sister of Loretto when she was inspired to found her own Religious order and begin working among the poorest of the poor. The school is now owned by her community, the Missionaries of Charity. “We were right downtown, about a mile from the Missionaries of Charity motherhouse,” Deacon Miller said. “We went to Mass there on Sunday morning in the chapel where Mother Teresa is buried. That was very profound.”
The first session of the L’Arche meeting didn’t take place until the evening of Sunday, Oct. 5. “We had a welcoming ceremony Sunday night, which was beautiful, and every morning, Monday through Thursday, 9-11, was the general session. Eleven-11:30 was a break, 11:30 a.m.-12:45-ish was small group discussions where we talked about what was presented during the general session. There were about 300 people, and they broke us down into 8-person groups. Lunch was at 1 p.m., and then we had a break until 3:30. At 3:30 p.m. we had a plenary session where we heard a summary from all the team leaders of the small groups.
“Bear in mind that nothing is air conditioned,” he said. “All our general sessions were in an auditorium with just ceiling fans. It was stifling. It took the energy out of you.”
The various sessions were held in either English or French. “Translation services were available,” Deacon Miller said, “so if someone was speaking in French I’d put the headsets on and listen to it in English. They also had a lady translating from French and English into Spanish.”
Deacon Miller confessed, however, that somehow he lucked out and got an air-conditioned bedroom which he shared with one other man. “I think it was sheer chance. “But thank God. I’d bet that out of 300 people, maybe 20” had air-conditioned bedrooms. “Everybody else slept in school dormitories with ceiling fans and mosquito nets over the beds.”
His first night in India, he took a three-hour nap. “When I got up, I heard this scratching in my bathroom. So I went in there and I found two rats in my toilet, each one about six inches long. I flushed once and one went away. I flushed two or three more times, and the other one wouldn’t go away, so I went and got the maintenance guy. I don’t know what he did, but he made it go away. I was glad to have a western toilet, though.”
The journey was “a trip of extremes,” he said. “It was extremely hot, 97 degrees, extremely humid, 100 percent. It’s polluted, so when you’re out near the roadways you can smell sewage, you can smell rotting garbage, it’s awful. There is no sanitation whatsoever. Half the people bathe in the street. They have these public fountains every 500 meters or so, and you’ll see a whole family gathered around there doing their laundry, taking their bath, and all that water runs down into the river.”
Meals at the L’Arche meeting were almost all vegetarian. “I think we had meat three times in the course of the week,” Deacon Miller said. “All the food was curried – curried cauliflower, curried lentils, curried chickpeas, curried potatoes, curried corn. You name it, it was curried. It was mild and not overly spicy. They didn’t have coffee but they did have plenty of Indian tea. It’s like tea with your warm milk and sugar.”
Each of the four days of the main conference, later in the afternoon a worship service was held. “The first day was Protestant,” Deacon Miller said, “Tuesday was Roman Catholic, at which a French archbishop presided. Wednesday was Hindu, and Thursday was Anglican.”
The meeting had several outcomes. “Since the last meeting three years ago in Assisi, Italy, we have been discerning a new mission and identity statement, and that was approved the first day,” he said. The second day was devoted to business, with reports from the president, vice-president, and treasurer. Voting to approve the reports was done by ballot. “You would have to ink your thumb and press it on your ballot to prove that you had voted,” he said.
Wednesday included a discussion of religious and cultural diversity, an issue of particular concern for European L’Arche communities, but also elsewhere. “In the L’Arche community in Kolkata there are people who worship as Hindus, there are people who worship as Muslims, there are people who worship as Buddhists, and there are people who worship as Christians,” including Catholics. “So you have five different religious traditions in one community.
Friday was devoted to a pilgrimage – 300 people walking for 90 minutes single-file through the streets of Kolkota to the site where Gandhi fasted “for his life for peace. Then we were bused to the home of Rabindranath Tagore, the famous Indian poet. His home is a museum, and we toured the buildings. We ate lunch there, and later on in the afternoon Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, gave a talk on Gandhi’s methods of peace. Jean Vanier was there for the whole meeting, but this was the only time he spoke.”
Returning to the Loretto School, the participants broke into their small groups again for the L’Arche foot washing ritual.
“L’Arche uses foot washing as a universal sign of Eucharist,” Deacon Miller said, a sign of unity that everyone can accept, regardless of religious tradition. The ritual originates with St. John’s Gospel account of the last Supper. “That was a very profound moment for me because a local man, maybe in his late 20s, by the name of Numar, joined our group. He was homeless, living kind of on the edge of the L’Arche community there, but not a member of the L’Arche community. He’s somewhat developmentally disabled. He just showed up. Well, he was the one who ended up washing my feet.
“All I could think about at the time was Peter’s response, in John’s Gospel, when Jesus said that he would wash Peter’s feet. He says, ‘Lord, it is I who should wash your feet.’ I had this strong sense that I should be the one washing Numar’s feet. He has nothing, and by his standards I have everything. Yet he had a sense of joy that I wish I had. He became my symbol of the presence of Jesus. I thought of Mother Teresa’s saying that you can see Jesus in the eyes of the poor. That was a really profound moment for me.”
Saturday was the last official day of the meeting. “That day was about ‘thank you’ and ‘celebration.’ They had a big thank-you celebration where they thanked everybody who was involved, from the cooks to the planners, to the leaders, to the people who danced and played – every session opened with a prayer based on play acting. Developmentally disabled people receive things better when they’re visual and when they’re active. Each one was 15 or 20 minutes, and the message was always profound.”
Vanier’s 80th birthday was celebrated later that day. Gifts included a very gaudy necktie – well, he never wears a tie. At the end, they gave him a real gift. Every L’Arche community in the world sent a photograph of their community, and they put them all in several albums and gave then to Jean.”
On Sunday, Deacon Miller and a few others took a long walk. “We walked for four hours, and everywhere you walk there are people coming up to you, begging.”
The return trip to Spokane the next day “was like leaving Sunday night at 8 Pacific Time and getting home Tuesday afternoon at 4. I had a 14-hour layover in Mumbai. At first, they didn’t even want to let me into the airport until a couple of hours before my flight, so I had to kind of beg them to let me in. So I sat there and read, and my flight left at 2:15 Tuesday morning.
“Overall, it was a profound experience; one of extremely adverse conditions, including diet, to one of profound prayer and spirituality, with the business of L’Arche sandwiched in-between,” he said. “It was like being on a week-long retreat with an intense service component to it. I am so grateful for being able to attend. I came back with a renewed spirit and energy and feel so blessed by God to have been a part of such an event.”