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The Ark
How the comfortable life of Rod Isaacs came to be discarded.

Joseph is a nuisance, it’s true. He sleeps on the street, half-a-dozen cans of lager hidden in his overcoat. He pesters people for money. He steals. But people love him. They cannot resist his charm, his shameless begging, his capacity to weep and rejoice. With unerring regularity he is brought clothes, Walkmans and Bibles (he generally loses one a week) plus the occasional can of beer.

His Christianity is a blend of childhood Catholicism and street preaching learnt from the local Pentecostal church. In fact, Joseph preaches to the people from whom he is begging: ‘All your money and all your fancy clothes won’t get you into the Kingdom of Heaven!’ He’s right of course, but coming from a chronic alcoholic whose flies are undone, it’s a bit hard to take.

People like Joseph have always somehow ‘spoken’ to me. It was not just a matter of their obvious need but also the challenge they posed. It seemed to tie in with my becoming a Christian – which I finally did at the age of 23 after years of anxious questioning. Whatever else I believed about Christ, he was not just a nice bloke who had a few useful ideas. As a priest once commented in a sermon I heard: ‘Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’

When I first moved to London I was certainly comfortable, materially speaking. I was working as a sub-editor for South, a monthly current-affairs magazine focused on the countries of the southern hemisphere. We had offices in Piccadilly. I owned my own flat and a car.

All of this was enjoyable and worthwhile, but I was not entirely at ease. I had to recognize that, however much I enjoyed writing, discussing, gathering information, I had another, deeper need – to be in contact with people directly, and that meant sacrificing a certain distance which is essential to good journalism.

I latched on to teaching as a possible answer and found myself a job. I think I felt pleased with myself; teaching was a ‘worthy’ job that really changed people’s lives, and I was full of boundless enthusiasm. But schools are run on boundaries – they have to be – and for me the boundary between pupil and teacher was an uncomfortable one.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN

What was I to do? I had no idea, except that I wanted to face my fellow human beings. I think it was this rather crude desire that led me to visit L’Arche –‘The Ark’. The community is comprised of over 100 homes worldwide where people with mental handicaps and helpers share their lives and work. These homes are not like residential communities but like any family home where people eat, work, struggle, relax and celebrate together. It was this above all that attracted me; I wanted to be alongside people, not confronting them or working on their behalf.

In the village in northern France where L’Arche was first founded there are a dozen houses. One of these is for people who need considerable support. Many are in wheelchairs and cannot feed or clothe themselves. I sat, one meal-time, next to a man called Loic. He was striking himself in the face with his fist and crying out. The intensity of anguish was unbearable. When anyone tried to stop him, he started again. I felt an anger and panic rising in me. I wanted to grab him and make him stop. I was horrified at the violence I felt towards him. I did not want to share his anguish but to eradicate it, to stamp it out.

Faced with this, I realized things would have to change within me. I could not conceive of living this kind of life. It took a month-long spell in a hermit community in Scotland before I was able to commit myself – and even then it came about by an entirely unorthodox process. I had seven ideas written on bits of paper. I prayed like mad and picked one. It read ‘L’Arche’ – and I knew in my bones it was what I most wanted and needed to do.

So, five years ago I was an eager young journalist, wanting to engage in development issues and play my part in ‘saving the world’. Now I am going to mop floors, feed people who cannot feed themselves and learn to love them. I know I am disinclined to do this. I might like the idea of doing good for people with a mental handicap, but to enter into solidarity with them, to share their daily life, is something else. Their anguish and anger scares me, their needs overwhelm me, their uncluttered approach to the human heart shames me.

On that same visit to the L’Arche community, I met Christophe. When I entered the living room he got up from the floor where he was sitting and without saying a word (he cannot speak) came towards me, took me by both hands, led me to an armchair and sat me down. Then he sat cross-legged on the floor, put his arms across my knees and his head on top and grinned up at me with a smile of total acceptance. It was wonderful – and I had done nothing.

[image, unknown] Issue 281 Contents

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 281 magazine cover This article is from the July 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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