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L’Arche member lives with ‘humble gestures of love’

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Just out of college, James Schreiner was serving at a soup kitchen in Chicago when he overheard a homeless man talking about his artistic skills. Schreiner asked the man, named Robert, if he would draw him a picture. Surprised but visibly delighted at the request, Robert came back a half-hour later with an intricate sketch of an infant cradled in a pair of hands.

We often hear that love is action; love is placing food or money into the outstretched hands of the poor. But, as Schreiner recognized at that moment, love also is the humility and openness to receive the gifts of others.

The fruits of shared time

Both of Schreiner's parents were active in the Catholic faith and spent their lives serving people with intellectual disabilities. His father taught special education, and his mother taught special education majors at Alvernia, a Franciscan university in Reading, Pa., near the family's home in Lancaster County.

"My parents taught me to appreciate people of all abilities and to have a great value for diversity," said Schreiner, who at just 30 years old has a gentle, sage-like presence and ever-present smile. "They always talked about respecting people of different cultures and with all kinds of traits."

As a 14-year-old, Schreiner volunteered with his dad at a day camp for individuals with intellectual disabilities. It was an experience that stuck with the teenager. He still remembers two of the campers, Johnny and Tim, "who found such delight in simple things, like going swimming," he said.

It helped him recognize something he would come to understand more deeply later: "The only way you can really grow in awareness of people who are different from you is to spend time with them. It doesn't come through reading. True gratitude for people comes through sharing days, sharing moments."

Though moved by his time at the camp, Schreiner initially felt called to minister to the poor, and he volunteered regularly at a soup kitchen while earning a dual bachelor's degree in psychology and theology at Alvernia University.

For a while, he thought he might have a vocation to the religious life. "But God makes a vocation clear eventually," said Schreiner, and he realized that path was not for him.

Instead, after graduation he participated in the Franciscan Outreach Volunteer Program in Chicago. Based on the values of service, spirituality and simple living, volunteers live together and work with the homeless, poor and marginalized.

About halfway through his one-year commitment, Schreiner met religious sisters who spoke to him about L'Arche. Founded by French Catholic Jean Vanier, L'Arche is an interdenominational Christian community where people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives together. The more he learned, the more he was drawn to the simplicity, communal living and sense of mutuality among members.

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However, after four months at a L'Arche home in Clinton, Iowa, Schreiner knew it wasn't the right fit. "Although it was a wonderful experience, I felt I couldn't sustain the number of hours required there," he said.

Moving back to Pennsylvania, Schreiner lived with the Servants of Charity for about 10 months while volunteering with the Bernadine Franciscan Sisters. One of the charisms of the Servants of Charity is supporting men with intellectual disabilities, and he soon felt pulled back to L'Arche.

Submitting his application to L'Arche for the second time, he expressed his need for balance so he could sustain a long-term commitment to the program.

In July 2011, he joined the L'Arche Greater Washington, D.C., program, which has two homes in Arlington and two in Adams Morgan.

Not a servant but a brother

In his Arlington residence, where he lives with seven other people, Schreiner has found not only balance and the fruits of living in community, but also the opportunity to fulfill "a calling to be not so much a servant but a brother," he said.

The term "brother" captures what authentic community means, said Schreiner. "A family is so much more than who you are related to."

Members commit to a home for one year at a time, but Schreiner has no plans to leave soon. "I'm very much open to whatever God's will is."

The days at the home are simple. "We just live life together, share meals," he said. "Mother Teresa has expressed it, Jean Vanier has expressed it - this idea that we offer humble gestures of love, not anything elaborate, and that love is revealed through a commitment to relationships."

The residence is composed of men and women from different faiths and includes core members - those with intellectual disabilities - and assistants, like Schreiner, who have backgrounds in everything from social work to economics.

Assistants work full-time for L'Arche. They distribute medications, transport core members to their day programs and help oversee core members' finances. In their role as community members, they buy groceries, cook dinner, cut the grass and lead regular prayers. There's also time to pursue personal interests and nourishment outside the community, and Schreiner attends daily Mass at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington.

Schreiner hesitates to make a distinction between assistant and core member, preferring to call all "members of community."

"Living in community has taught me that we are much more united than divided," he said. "Our common humanity and the things that we long for become very evident when you live together."

While all residents support one another, each core member is paired with an assistant. The two "accompaniers" have a special bond, said Schreiner, whose accompanier's name is Fritz Schloss.

"I support Fritz with finances and medical needs — and he teaches me how to live one day at a time and to marvel at the beauty of creation, especially flowers."

All of his housemates have taught him lessons, including the importance of silence and solitude, of sitting together without cramming the quiet with words.

Like with most new endeavors, Schreiner encountered some difficulties when he first came to Arlington. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to learn things quickly, and I was intimidated by driving in the area and by cooking," he said.

But the community supported him and cheered him on, and he soon could tackle the often-frenzied D.C. traffic and cook meals without anxiety.

There's also been the challenges inherent in communal life. "There are times we have to sacrifice preferences for the sake of another," said Schreiner. "It's just like living in a family."

Yet all of his experiences the past four years have been blessings.

"L'Arche is not just a group home with compassionate assistance," said Schreiner. "Our core members really have the gifts that are teaching us what it means to live life."

His prayer is that more people will come to know these gifts.

"It seems that most people are very kind toward those with intellectual disabilities; they say, 'Hi,' and hold a door for them," Schreiner said. "But what if they said, 'Wow, this person can actually teach me what it means to be present or what it means to forgive or what it means to be generous or thoughtful or creative."

"They've taught me so much about the beauty of life and God's love. I would hope that more people can experience that."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015