Q & A with Sr. Sue Mosteller, on the 'school of life' at L'Arche Daybreak

by Dan Morris-Young

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When Sue Mosteller graduated from high school in 19­­52 and entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto, Canada, little could she have realized that 20 years later her life path would merge with that of the then nascent L'Arche Movement.

Founded in 1964 when college professor Jean Vanier welcomed two men with disabilities into his home in Trosly-Breuil, France, L'Arche today is an international federation of homes and programs to support persons with intellectual disabilities. It operates 154 communities in 38 countries.  

Now 85, Mosteller began her work with L'Arche in 1972 at L'Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, which will mark its 50th anniversary this year, including a March 5 premiere of an original play at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts near Toronto, "Journey to the Greatest Gift." The stage production portrays how persons of differing intellectual, social, religious and cultural backgrounds can live and learn together.

Working closely with Vanier, the Ohio native would hold several top leadership positions in the worldwide federation over four decades. She would become a friend and confidante of the late Fr. Henri Nouwen, well-known Dutch theologian, spiritual writer and educator who lived the last 10 years of his life at Daybreak. Only after his death did Mosteller learn that Nouwen had named her executrix of his literary estate. 

In 2012 she returned to the Sisters of St. Joseph convent in Toronto where she now volunteers with the Henri Nouwen Legacy and with Nouwen's archival collection at the University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. Mosteller, a sought-after speaker and retreat leader, has published three books, the most recent: Light Through the Crack: Life After Loss. She spoke recently with Global Sisters Report.

GSRYou have been involved in L'Arche since its earliest days. Please share core observations on what you have learned and experienced.

Mosteller: I would say I couldn't have asked for more with respect to the kind of life that I chose and wanted. It has been wonderful, difficult, fantastic and amazing. I wanted to become as fully human as I could, and I wanted to grow in my humanity and in my spirituality. L'Arche really was an answer to that, although of course I didn't know that early on. It has been a place of deepening and expanding my insights and my sense of the gospel, as well as transformational for my heart. I really had a lot to learn about loving more broadly. I had to keep growing, and learning to work with conflict, new growth, and resistance, and all kinds of things. Thankfully, I had tremendous mentors along the way, with a lot of support both from my congregation and the wise people in L'Arche. I have been very fortunate.

How has L'Arche made you who you are?

I guess I don't exactly know who I am. But I know that who I am is filled with the experiences I have had with the amazing people with disability and with those who were helping and with those who supported L'Arche along the way. I've been so blessed.

Are there common misconceptions about L'Arche?

A strong misconception might be that L'Arche is just any old group home. It's really not, because those who assist actually "live with" those who are disabled, and together create the home. It's a place of growth and transformation, not just for the people with disabilities but for everyone. 

When persons tell you they are attracted to L'Arche, but they are not sure if they can actually live in this kind of community, what do you say?

I say, "Just come and see." We can't tell ahead of time. None of us can. A L'Arche community has certainly been a good place for a large number of people, but it has not been for some. So, L'Arche is not a salvation at all. It's just a very human place, like a school of life.

What is the greatest challenge in living in a L'Arche community? 

We all have to learn to live together, and try to be loving, and try to get along because we are so different. We need to try to respect our differences and call forth the best of each other. It's a challenge. We are frightened of differences and frightened to reveal our vulnerabilities. In L'Arche, it's a much more open book because people with intellectual disabilities aren't necessarily trying to hide anything. They are who they are. We get the beautiful and the difficult in the same breath. And so it teaches us something about it being okay not to have everything together, because we can support one another in those places where we aren't very strong. It's not as though those of us who are strong today have all the answers. We're all in the same boat, with our gifts and our vulnerabilities.  

The late and much-followed Fr. Henri Nouwen referred to you as someone who shared "indispensable support" with him and inspired him to "struggle through whatever needed to be suffered to reach true inner freedom." On his death in 1996, you learned to your surprise he had named you executrix of his literary estate.  

Yes, I didn't know. We had encouraged him to make a will because he was flying all over the world and doing all kinds of things. We said, "You need to leave something so we know what to do. You have a lot of things — papers and assets and so on. What are we supposed to do with it?" So, he went to a lawyer and made out a will. We knew because he told us, but none of us considered asking, "Did you leave me something?" 

How has he influenced you? How did L'Arche influence him?

Henri and his books certainly declare that he was not hiding his own vulnerabilities and struggles. I think L'Arche helped him in that. It was a home for him. Prior to coming to L'Arche, he was teaching at quite prestigious universities such as Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. I don't think they are places where vulnerability is welcomed too much. There is competitiveness and the desire to succeed and so on. Henri was lonely, and his heart was yearning for care and love. He was looking for a home that welcomed him as he was, and not as he would have had to pretend to be all the time. That was what happened at Daybreak. We were just so grateful to have him. He had beautiful gifts. He was an amazing man and so pastoral. The things I received from him were gifts that were very important for me. He was a good listener, very welcoming and accepting. At the same time, he was a man who asked a lot of questions, who did not always feel safe, and who had needs. The community seemed to respond to that, holding on and carrying him through difficult times.  

How would you describe your friendship with Fr. Nouwen?

It was a good relationship. It was helpful both ways, and it was challenging both ways. Henri had a rare combination of great intelligence and very sensitive heart. He didn't apologize for the fact he was sensitive, that he was easily wounded. He gave me a sense of ease and acceptance of my own vulnerabilities. I love the way he ministered. He was very open, listening and compassionate.  

So, Fr. Nouwen was a leavening presence in the Daybreak L'Arche community?

Yes. He took us on a journey certainly with respect to the spirituality of our community. The people who started L'Arche were of the Episcopalian tradition, but they had lived with Jean Vanier in France for a year in a very Catholic atmosphere. They were practicing Christians and that's how our community started. We welcomed people with disabilities, not because they were one religion or another, but because they were disabled. We welcomed people from the Jewish tradition, from the Muslim tradition, and from many Christian traditions. That brought us questions about spirituality: how we could all be faithful to the traditions we had been given, but still worship together. 

Prior to Henri's coming, we assistants who were living at Daybreak were not able to find a way to make people happy. For example, if we had a celebration in the Anglican or the Episcopalian tradition, people were upset because it wasn't theirs. And if we had a Roman Catholic one, then it wasn't theirs. Then if we tried to do something on one of the Jewish feasts, people just felt out of it. They didn't accept it. That was the reason we had invited Henri. We needed pastoral help. We knew we were not here to convert anybody or make them change. If people belong to a tradition, we wanted to help them grow in that tradition. But we didn't know how to do it.  

I love telling the story of Henri's very first meeting with us as we went around the table describing our big problem. He listened for a long time. At the end, he just paused. We all were waiting. What he said basically changed everything. He said, "Maybe if we change the word 'problem' and use the word 'gift,' we could look at this as something God, having invited us to live together, gave us as a treasure. And if God is happy that we're together and wants to be known among us, then let's look at that as a gift. And, yes, if we worship in a certain tradition, it's going to be hard, but that's okay. We don't have to get upset. We can just be there. Let's not look for how it's different. Let's look for how it's beautiful." That changed everything. We began this journey of welcoming the differences, and seeing each of our traditions as something to be cherished.

That's the gift Henri gave us, and you can still see it today in that community of L'Arche Daybreak.  

Let us ask the same kind of questions about Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche. What was it like to work with him? What might surprise readers about him?  

Jean started L'Arche by just welcoming two people from an institution, feeling called to do that, and knowing that it was a lifelong commitment. He had no vision at all about anything growing.  He said, "I am happy and I will not make this much bigger than a car. That means we can travel and do things together." But pretty quickly some of his students from the university came to see him in the summer and then they wanted to stay. People who had means became involved, and so on. So, within the first four or five years, it was one house, and then another house, and then people came from France back to Canada and they started here, and so on. Jean said, "I wasn't a giraffe looking ahead with a long vision.  I was more like a rabbit. I was limping along just sniffing for 'signs.' Was this going to be stable and is this what God wanted? So, we trusted people and moved ahead."  

Jean Vanier's great gift was his amazing trust in people. He trusted others to be responsible. Jean emphasized that when new projects were started, the organizers all have options. But if it fails, people with disabilities don't have options, and that's why we have to work hard to make sure we have a stable foundation.  

Jean traveled and visited the communities. He accepted our ideas for committees and structures. We were always changing structures and trying to adapt to new situations. There were so many challenges along the way about what L'Arche is, its definition. We had to keep expanding the definition. Jean was very open to conversation and new ideas. He didn't need to control anything. It was a place of tremendous working together to try to find the better options. That doesn't mean we always made good decisions. That doesn't mean we didn't fail, because we did. But that was his gift.

He's given tons of conferences and retreats and courses and so on. He has so much wisdom and depth and humility. Now he's 90 years old. I have a beautiful letter from him that just came from his 90th birthday. It reiterates who he is. I would say it is teaching me how to grow old, not that I'm not already old, because I am! He is so accepting of his diminishment. Again, I think he learned this through the years living with people who were diminished in one way or another, and not just people with disabilities. It's all of us.

You've been retired now for several years, but you've been a primary leader in the L'Arche movement for a long time. What is the impact on you?

Well, I think the impact of it on me is that I couldn't do it, so I had to reach out beyond myself and find people who could support and help me along the way. The amazing gift is that they were there — boards of directors that were just solid and beautiful and well versed who could help. I didn't know anything. I went to the convent when I was 19, just out of high school, and I taught school for 15 years. I had no idea of organization. However, I had a lot of leadership roles and I didn't know how to do any of them when I started. It was sort of grow on the job. 

I had wonderful support from my congregation, the Sisters of St Joseph. In those days it was unheard of when I went to L'Arche. We lived in convents. We didn't go and live with men and women, and we didn't go to these places by ourselves and do something. 

After the teachings of Vatican II were just getting across the ocean in the early 1970s, my congregational leader said, "Yes, I think you should go [to the L'Arche community]." I could always come back, she told me. I always realized that my first vocation was as a religious. My second vocation is L'Arche. People have helped me keep those priorities straight. I was very fortunate.  

Is there anything that came to mind while we have been talking that you would like to add?

There's just one thing maybe — a growing insight for me over the years. So many times I interpreted the scripture that says "Blessed are the poor" to mean, "Okay, I'm strong. I should go help those poor people." The continuous learning from being at L'Arche has been that the blessedness of the poor is that they have a gift for us. I might have certain strengths today that mean I can help them to grow, but I can tell you a hundred stories about what people with disabilities have taught me about love and life, and about vulnerability and accepting that. It has been such a revelation to me that, rather than going with all my strengths to help the poor, I need to rather open myself to receive the gift of the poor — which is for my salvation! Vulnerable people know how to trust, and how to love, and how to help me. They're not shy to say what they feel.  

One example: One night I had an argument with one of the men, Paul, at the dinner table. I was really mad and he was really mad. Paul finally jumped up from the table, left the room and slammed the door. After the dishes, another resident, Frank, called me to his room. He said, "I can see you're having a little trouble with Paul." And I said, "You're right, Frank, and I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things. They were terrible. But please don't worry because Paul and I are friends. I know we will work it out." Frank was staring at me, and then kindly and quietly, he said, "You know, Sue, if you want to help him, you have to love him. That's all." Then he opened his door and let me out. 

There are so many stories like that, lessons I have learned from those we label "disabled." That incident happened 40 years ago and I'm still benefiting. It's just been a marvelous journey.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast correspondent and contributor to the Field Hospital series on parish life.]