For the last three years, a group of Great Books students at my university has spent Spring Break at L’Arche Seattle, where I lived between undergrad and grad school. A few days ago, a university writer looking into their experience asked me about how I connected Great Books to L’Arche. I gave a short answer that notes the role played by meals in the making of this connection. Today is Holy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper, the most important meal in the New Testament. (Passover, of course, is the most important in the Old Testament.) This coincidence motivates me to describe the connection in more details.
The year before Pepperdine, I worked at L’Arche Wavecrest in Orange County, which is newer and smaller than L’Arche Seattle. I was in frequent contact with Ellen, then in charge of recruitment for L’Arche USA, to which all communities in America are members. Ellen and I had two things in common. First, she was living in Minnesota at the time, in the same city where I went to high school. Second, both of us were long-term assistants at L’Arche Seattle: myself in the 1990s and Ellen in the 2000s. I’d met Ellen before during a visit to Seattle in 2008. I hadn’t been back to the Northwest for six years, and she showed me all the renovations of the house where I’d lived for a long time.
During one of those conversations, Ellen mentioned that a group of Stanford students had come to L’Arche Seattle for an immersion experience. The trip was sponsored by Campus Ministry as part of Stanford’s “Alternative Spring Break.” It was a very good experience for the students, and it was typically generous of our old community to have hosted them.
Forward to the following spring, I was hired by Pepperdine for a visiting position. Shortly after my hiring, the Great Books program director talked to me about service learning opportunities for students. Naturally, I thought of L’Arche and what Ellen said about Stanford Campus Ministry. Jane, the program director and an old friend, knew enough about my L’Arche experience and asked me to look into this possibility.
As it was, Jane has lived for many years in the same city where I went to high school and, again, where Ellen was living. She spends the summer there, and it just so happens that I was back to Minnesota in early summer, not long after she asked me to look into L’Arche. I took upon the opportunity to arrange dinner for the three of us, and it took place at Jane’s house. I don’t recall what she cooked that evening, but remember it was a very nice and relaxing meal. At one point she turned on the sound system for some Bach that I initially mistook for Mozart. (Funny how we remember these little details! I put the blame on travel weariness or the good wine we had.) Ellen filled us in about the Stanford experience. She described the structure for the week-long experience as a mix of activities, retreat-like meetings, and, not unimportant, dividing up students among three houses to have nightly dinner with the core members and assistants.
Back to California, I contacted Gerry, the community leader at L’Arche Seattle. He welcomed the idea and wanted to explore it further. Two months later, in mid-August, and his wife Jennifer spent two or three days in Southern California to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. Jennifer was community leader when I began at L’Arche, so we went way back. Although it was a lightning trip, I asked them to come over my house for an anniversary meal. By a coincidence, Jane was back to Malibu by this time, and I invited her and her husband as well.
I am happy to say that I put together a nice four-course lunch for ten or eleven that afternoon. Just about everything on the table, including wine, came from local small businesses. My wife contributed the soup course, two friends brought a special champagne, and two others brought the cake. There were, in fact, two cakes because it was Jane’s birthday that week. It is amazing how things come together sometimes.
Although we didn’t talk about Great Books and L’Arche that afternoon, the fact that the L’Arche community leader and the Great Books program director were at the same table was potently symbolic of the potential Spring Break experience. It wasn’t the first time they were in the same room, as both had been at my wedding. But they were at the same table this time, dishing out food from the same serving plates and pouring out drinks from the same bottles.
The seeds planted separately by Ellen and Jane were growing into a distinct possibility by this time, and, not long later, into a reality. Were these meals essential to the eventual connection between the Great Books and L’Arche? I’d have to say no. Conversations about Spring Break would have continued without them, and plans would have been made anyway. Yet, how much did those meals ease the wheels of social intercourse, which in turn helped to put common goals in motion! Even people of good will need easing at times.
The wheels were indeed in motion a couple of months later. In Seattle, Gerry worked with one of the assistants, Holland, to prepare for hosting the students. He also asked Jennifer, who had oriented and given talks to the Stanford students, to replicate those roles. In the meantime, Jane and I worked on organizing a student group in Malibu and getting them ready. (Of course, both Seattle and Malibu had to do plenty of that necessary evil called paperwork, ha!) Along with eight students, I spent Spring Break 2014 in Seattle. It was terrific, and complete with a day trip to the Farms and Gardens in L’Arche Tacoma. Thanks to an initiative from the Volunteer Center, the next year the Great Books experience formally became a part of Project Serve, the student-run alternative Spring Break program at Pepperdine. Another group traveled to Seattle last year; the third group did the same three weeks ago. (In the meantime, Campus Ministry at Stanford has continued to organize its own group.)
The word “accompaniment,” writes Jean Vanier in Community and Growth, “has its root in the Latin cum pane [meaning] eating bread together.” The Last Supper is a perfect example of this ideal, and L’Arche core members and assistants aspire towards it in their daily life, including meals. The lunch and dinner described above belong to a different category because the people involved did not break bread together on a regular basis. But they played a role in facilitating connections that led to the witnessing of this ideal on the part of the students. Many people, including students, took part to bring about the first immersion trip. For my part, I am still glad to have seized upon the opportunities and coincidences to get the lunch and dinner going because they did smooth the wheels.