Miracles and Rebellion with L’Arche UK

On 20th January 2024, if you had wandered into the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, you would have found yourself at a banquet. Hundreds of people with and without learning disabilities, crammed into the vaulted room, waving colourful flags, dancing to Abba, making a holy noise in that ancient building. This was the fiftieth birthday party of L’Arche Kent, the first of eleven L’Arche communities in Great Britain. In his speech, our National Leader asked: what do you do when a miracle happens? ‘You see it and you believe it,’ rang out a voice in the front row. 

L’Arche UK began in 1974 in a village outside Canterbury, when a group of people with and without learning disabilities moved into a house together inspired by the L’Arche communities they had visited in France, Canada, and India. At that time, people with learning disabilities were generally living with their parents or in large long-stay hospitals where abuse was rife. L’Arche began with a series of ‘what ifs’: what if people with and without learning disabilities were partners in community-building? What if sharing life was better than living alone? What if friendship is at the heart of the gospel?

That beginning was a miracle. It is even more miraculous that we are still here, fifty years later. L’Arche is now an international federation of communities of people with and without learning disabilities sharing life. We are based at eleven sites across the UK, from London, to Manchester, to Edinburgh. Friendship, faith, and celebration are at the core of our shared life. But when you live in L’Arche, you witness fragility and pain as well as friendship and joy. The last five years have been bruising. The pandemic, a social care funding crisis, Brexit, and revelations of historic abuse have hurt us. And yet, miraculously, we’re still here – see it and believe it. 

We are celebrating our jubilee under the theme of ‘joyful rebellion’, something urgently needed in 2024. Sharing life as people with and without learning disabilities is a rebellion against a care sector that doesn’t always care, and a society that too often sees disabled people as less capable of relationship or creativity. When we began, this was a rebellion against the institutionalisation of people with learning disabilities. Today, we have not come as far on as we would wish: the average life expectancy for a person with a learning disability is 23 years younger than the general population in the UK. 95% of people with a learning disability in England are unemployed. In 2022, 82% of people with a learning disability felt lonely. There has always been much to be angry about. But in L’Arche, throughout our history, we have rebelled with joy, rather than letting ourselves be deadened be anger. 

When I moved into a L’Arche community at eighteen, I was angry. Brexit, austerity, rising populism, a collapsing environment, commonplace homophobia in the Church, persistent misogyny – the UK felt broken. Life in L’Arche was often tiring, mundane, overwhelming. But I found myself invited into a different way of living, a community where miracles were to be expected and inclusion was the norm. Six years on, I am firmly convinced of the power of intentional community with people with learning disabilities to change the world. 2024 is a momentous year, as two billion people across the world vote in elections and the climate and geopolitical situation are fragile. Community might not directly fix the persistent problems of our time, but it is the antidote to that familiar poison: that voice in all of us that says, ‘you do not matter, you cannot make a difference’. Living in L’Arche is a masterclass on how to live together in a hurting and imperfect world: gently, joyfully, rebelliously, expecting miracles. 

Join our joyful rebellion and apply for our live-in programme, the Soulful Internship. You’ll live and work alongside people with learning disabilities whilst being guided through a programme all about mindfulness, embodiment, and L’Arche’s distinctive charism. Learn more at https://www.larche.org.uk/soulful-internship. Alternatively, you can sponsor an intern for a year. Get in touch with us at livein@larche.org.uk 


Mary Osborne