From failure to community: College dropouts find new direction in L’Arche

Note: This is the first story in a series titled Where are they now? Life after L’Arche, which features the impact L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C., had on former assistants’ careers, faith, relationships, and lifestyles.

It was Lent, and Michael Carlisle was depressed. His plan to study philosophy and become a professor of Catholic sacred theology had fizzled out three years earlier. He was holding steady with a maintenance job at Cabela’s, an outdoor sports equipment retailer, but he was struggling to care much about life.

It was Lent, and L’Arche Heartland in Overland Park, Kan., was full of life. When Michael arrived at prayer night there was joyful shouting and a lot of laughter. The community had decided to forgo their usual dinner and eat only rice and beans so they could be in solidarity with L’Arche in Argentina, sending the dollars they saved on their meal to support those who had less.

Michael was there at the invitation of Fred Kaffenberger, a friend he’d met through involvement in a Catholic lay group called Communion and Liberation.

Twenty-five years earlier, Fred was in a position similar to Michael’s. His lack of motivation for studying computer science landed him on academic probation, and eventually he dropped out of college completely.

“I realized I couldn’t get the discipline and skills I needed by myself,” Fred said. “I figured if someone else was dependent on me I could do it. I could learn.”

He wrote to three different organizations inquiring about volunteer work. L’Arche was the only one that wrote back. So, knowing nothing of L’Arche’s founder Jean Vanier and with no particular knowledge or interest in disability services, he set off to be part of the community in Washington, D.C.

The year was 1988, and L’Arche’s home on Ontario Road in Adams Morgan was just five years old. In December of that year, Fred became one of the founding members of Euclid House, along with Dottie Bockstiegel, Wendy Moore, Gene Sampson, Glenn Houser, and Barbara Palmer. *

Fred celebrated his 21st birthday in L’Arche, and the trajectory of his life quickly began to change. He read voraciously during his spare time, consuming the works of such authors as Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. He and his housemates volunteered at the Potter’s House, a coffee shop with a service and social justice bent. They worked, prayed, and played together.

Early in 1989, Fred and other assistants traveled to Quebec for a retreat with Jean Vanier where L’Arche’s founder impressed upon him the underlying spirit of the organization.

“I didn’t have a lot of emotional intelligence,” Fred confessed. “I learned a lot about how to be with other people.” This wasn’t always easy. His housemates Gene and Glenn had spent their childhoods and their adult lives prior to L’Arche in Forest Haven, an institution with a notorious reputation where they’d had to keep their wits sharp and look out for themselves. At times, the housemates’ rougher edges caused conflict. But it was authentic, and it got Fred out of bed each day.

Growing up, Fred’s family was part of the Christian Family Movement, a Catholic network focused on family relationships and living out their faith through action. It was a strong foundation, but reflecting back Fred muses that his faith was perhaps a bit rigid.

In L’Arche, he took a closer took at the Beatitudes, eight blessings recorded as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He’s quick to admit that many of L’Arche’s lessons took a long time to sink in (or, in the case of chore skills that would make him a better husband, never really stuck); but in L’Arche his faith was softened and deepened.

“The Beatitudes stayed with me because faith is about the love that Christ has for us that makes us free and allows us to grow,” he said. “It isn’t so much about what I do for other people, or the accomplishments that I have, but remembering that gaze on me.

After a year in L’Arche, Fred was ready to take on college again. This time, he focused on English. He completed a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and then a certificate in teaching. Lessons from L’Arche stuck with him when he taught at an all-girls Catholic school in the South Bronx after graduate school and in every job he’s had since.

“When someone is doing something to me or is against me, it’s because they have a great wound,” Fred said.

Now, L’Arche is back in his life in a way he never expected.

In the spring of 2014, Fred and his wife, Karen, lost their home on a short sale. Plus, Fred was looking for a better job. To say the least, it was a challenging time for their family.

Fred had visited the fledgling L’Arche Heartland community once soon after leaving D.C., but hadn’t connected since. While looking for work Fred discovered that the community was accepting applications for assistants. He thought Michael might be a good fit.

It turned out Fred was right. Michael moved in to Mercy House, one of Heartland’s five homes, in June 2014. At first, Michael thought it would just be a better job than working retail. He now sees that it’s a whole life—“a really beautiful life”—that he can imagine living for several years or more.

“I’ve learned to really care about life again,” Michael said. “Living here has forced me to live outside of myself and to enjoy life, to see the value in it, in myself, and in the people around me.”

Fred and Karen now live in the L’Arche Heartland neighborhood and are being drawn in to the community through their friendship with Michael. Fred reflects that it’s taken him a long time to see the value of community and the value of people more than accomplishments.

“But you know,” he said, “If it weren’t for failure, a lot of good stuff would never have opened up like it has.”

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