By Christopher Christwell
On February 28, 2013, 18 Fresno Pacific University psychology students packed their bags for a 12-day trip to Europe. Their destinations were Paris and London, but they weren't there just to see the Eiffel Tower and Westminster Abbey—they were there to eat dinner in the homes of people with physical, intellectual and mental disabilities. They were on their way to visit the communities of L'Arche.
"Psychology students are trained to treat psychological illness primarily by the medical model. They are governed by trying to find the most effective treatments for that which is pathological," said Jay Pope, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and trip organizer. Referring to the patients at L'Arche, known as "core members," Pope said, "They are not assumed to need treatment. They are treated like full members of a community." Words like patient, treatment, diagnosis and pathology are not employed in these communities.
The first L'Arche community began on August 4, 1964, when the Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier invited two men who were being held at a mental institution, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, into his house in Trosly-Breuil, France. Vanier named their new home "L'Arche," which is French for "The Ark." Vanier believes that people with disabilities, like every person, have the capacity to mature into adulthood and make contributions to society, which is best nurtured in a community. With the help of Dominican priest Father Thomas Philippe, Vanier expanded his Ark. There are now L'Arche communities in over 40 countries.
"The trip was envisioned for students who are interested in having a career in clinical psychology…to equip and prepare them to be the best clinicians and therapists they could be," says Kevin Reimer, Ph.D., Dean of the FPU School of Humanities, Religion and Social Sciences. The students were exposed to care for the disabled that is done in a way very different from the medical model; namely, care that assumes full personhood on the part of the disabled person, that the disabled person is not a patient, but a person in need, that all people are people in need, and that living together in intentional community perhaps communicates this best.
"They [The core members] had no need of the students' help. Their honest friendship was offered and that is a blessing, being accepted for who you are and not what you have to offer," Pope said. "We were guests treated with Shalom."
The students who participated in the trip received college credit and met with Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche.