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Kevin S. Reimer argues that hope contributes to the development of maturity in moral identity. The context for this discussion is a research project on compassionate love in L’Arche communities. Best known through the writings of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen, L’Arche is a network of Christian homes for disabled individuals and their caregiver assistants. Narrative accounts from L’Arche caregivers illustrate the relational, spiritual, and goal-oriented features of moral identity formation. The article anticipates a forthcoming book entitled Living L’Arche (Continuum, 2009). Mr. Reimer is Professor of Psychology at Azusa Pacific University.

These are words but they have a very deep meaning. I like getting to the deep meanings of words. Trust, hope, but even deeper than these things. Deep to all your surroundings and relationship with God. You know, it’s a big circle. You try to put each word in your daily life and live everything during the day around that word.—Refugio, 42 year-old L’Arche caregiver assistant.1

Hope is the gift of disability to moral maturity. Extolled through the history of Christian theology and scholarship, hope anticipates reconciliation and healing beyond present suffering.2 The disabled know suffering through rejection, marginalization, and misunderstanding. Yet these individuals are capable of manifesting hope which, in one particular residential setting, is profoundly instructive to others. Armed with hope, the disabled perceive better things for themselves and others. Hope recognizes the best in relationship; acting upon human worth and potential as a matter of everyday affirmation.3 Hope changes ethical goals, priorities, and sensitivities in association with developing moral maturity.

My purpose in this essay is to consider hope in communities for the developmentally disabled known as L’Arche.4 The narratives of L’Arche caregiver assistants provide vivid illustrations of hope instantiated through moral identity, or those aspects of self that support the flourishing of others consistent with personal goals and beliefs.5 The unique context of L’Arche celebrates life in the midst of disability. In L’Arche, caregivers come to recognize their own disabilities even as these maybe hidden from external view. With this knowledge comes hope of reconciliation and healing in the context of Christian community. L’Arche is a poster child for the redemption of difficult hope, where communal affirmation of disability unexpectedly promotes moral identity.

What is L’Arche? Founded by Jean Vanier and Father Thomas Philippe in the early 1960s, L’Arche is an international movement of residential communities in nearly 30 countries worldwide. In L’Arche homes, the developmentally disabled (also known as core people or core members) live in community with their caregivers. L’Arche honors the essential human worth of its members as a sign of hope and mutual respect. In the United States, L’Arche communities exist on a financial shoestring with scant support from governmental sources. Besides room and board, caregivers live on a few hundred dollars per month. The earthy reality of life together is punctuated by deep spiritual commitments. L’Arche is a Christian movement that embraces other traditions but lives within its Roman Catholic origins. The mandate of each L’Arche community reflects the convictions of its founders and leadership:

Our mission is to create homes where faithful relationships based on forgiveness and celebration are nurtured. We want to reveal the unique value and vocation of each person, and to live relationships in community as a sign of hope and love.6

This lofty objective is firmly planted in everyday reality. L’Arche communities are noisy, often chaotic places. Interpersonal conflicts are common. Life is sometimes frantic with caregivers readying core members for work, shopping, cooking, and cleaning the home. At a basic level, life in L’Arche is about laundry and personal hygiene. Yet L’Arche is also a place of surprising beauty and transcendence. A non-verbal core member is a master of intricate puzzles. The walls of his home are filled with framed masterworks. Candle prayers and worship songs are bookends to the evening meal. Personal expressions of affection abound, even when people are fatigued after a difficult day. Care flows freely, with core members initiating acts of kindness and love to others. Birthdays are wide-open celebrations, lavishing affirmation and appreciation on the honored community member. Guests are treated to extraordinary, if simple hospitality.

The great lesson of L’Arche is that everyone is disabled but nevertheless worthy of dignity and unrestrained respect. Core members provide instruction regarding how to live with disability. They must contend with the rejection that comes inevitably when others perceive their disabilities. From these experiences, coremembers know suffering in profundity. Many have histories involving cruelty and abuse through institutionalization. L’Arche core members are afforded better options through participation in community where reconciliation and healing are real possibilities. For some the transition comes easily. For others it takes time to rehabilitate trust necessary to function within community. Core members exemplify a hope of acceptance, completion, and wholeness against the background of disability. They may struggle to find words to describe the meaning of hope. But this is offset by the sincerity and depth of their anticipation. The disabled hope for the best in others and themselves. In my interviews with eighty L’Arche caregiver assistants, the communal example of hope modeled by core members was revolutionary.7 Dozens of caregivers pointed to the resiliency of core member hope—a willingness to expect the best when circumstances would least affirm it. In their reflections, caregivers commonly observed that they too carried “disabilities” in the form of personal grievances, broken relationships, and interpersonal short-comings. Core members unable to dress themselves or control bodily functions insisted that life was a gift, altering the moral landscape of those who care for them.

How does hope sustain moral identity? The L’Arche caregivers interviewed for this study are considered widely to be moral exemplars in their willingness to give on behalf of the disabled. A sizeable minority of caregivers have lived in L’Arche for decades. We assume these individuals to have moral identities that fundamentally characterize the self as given to the needs of others. Moral identity was detailed famously in the work of Anne Colby and William Damon.8 These authors spent time with nominated exemplars known for exceptional caring and advocacy. Exemplars were found to be relatively ordinary in terms of intelligence, yet effected great change in their chosen domain of service. Exemplars reported experiences of transformation where social influences changed their goals and values intrinsic to self-understanding. The most powerful social influences came from close relationships where exemplars were challenged to grow and change. These relationships may have involved mentor figures, family members, or religious leaders. Concerned individuals galvanized exemplars to confront moral issues associated with a given cause.

Colby and Damon’s work altered the landscape of moral psychology. By focusing on exemplars known for remarkable caring, the book challenged the prevailing notion that morality is principally a function of justice-based reasoning. Exemplars in the study were given Kohlberg’s moral judgment interview (MJI), amoral reasoning metric. Despite their remarkable humanitarian achievements, exemplars scored no differently from the general adult population on the MJI. This finding added weight to the contention that moral identity captures aspects of maturity living beyond ability to reason through intractable dilemmas. The work affirmed the importance of “bottom-up” methods for behavioral abstractions such as morality. Because researcher notions of morality might differ markedly from the experiences of real people, it may be appropriate to begin with everyday conceptions that are psychologically realistic, or embedded within the narrative experience of people who behave in ways recognized to be moral.9

It is more than likely that L’Arche shapes the moral identity of caregivers at a relational level. What is perhaps startling about this conclusion is that disabled core members, some with the cognitive capacities of a young child, influence caregivers in a manner similar to the mentor figures identified by Colby and Damon’s fabled exemplars. That is, core members provide inspiration and modeling that promotes moral maturity in the people who care for them. Prior publications on the L’Arche project suggest the influence of such relationships is considerable.10 Caregivers commonly refer to core members as spiritual “prophets” or moral “teachers.” Through the life example furnished by disabled core members, caregivers are confronted with their own limitations along with the hope of restitution upheld by community experience. Caregiver self-understanding is changed in the encounter. For some the experience is sufficiently transformational that, in the pattern of Colby and Damon’s exemplars, they develop moral identities of mature and durable character.

One way of considering how this process develops is to reflect on the stories of L’Arche caregivers. In the tradition of Some Do Care, I have focused on narrative for L’Arche caregivers who served for a minimum of five years. Given the lengthy tenure of their commitments, these individuals are exemplary even by L’Arche standards. My decision to focus on long-term caregivers is based on two considerations. First, it is likely that moral self-understanding for caregivers is developing in a manner typical of exemplars. As case studies, these individuals offer rich insights into moral identity and character. Second, long-term caregivers understand the philosophy of L’Arche at its fullest. At the time of the interviews, many were serving in leadership. Through years of service, caregivers had opportunity to form close relationships with core members who shared their lives in ways potentially influential of moral identity. While the narrative excerpts shared in this essay do not implicate core members directly, the influence of the disabled is constantly in the background. Hope sustained in caregiver-core member relationships is evident throughout L’Arche interview narratives. It is my contention that this hope, illustrated in different shapes and colors, provides a stable psychological substrate for persistent moral functioning typical of exemplars.

The L’Arche research project incorporated several methods, including participant-observation, clinical interview, discourse analysis, and self-report survey from eight residential communities across the United States.11 Respecting the diverse audience of Christian Scholar’s Review, this essay highlights project findings from several previous publications in the interest of fostering interdisciplinary dialogue. Narrative vignettes are offered as illustrations of convergence between hope and moral identity. No claim is made regarding the efficacy of these narratives as universal depictions of hope and moral identity. Rather, they are presented as examples of moral identity representative of a particular community context known as L’Arche—a place with its own language of religious experience, relationship, and virtue.12 Narratives are presented within a hermeneutical vision for social scientific research, reflecting notions of reconciliation and healing animated through core member relationships with L’Arche caregivers.13 Through the everyday narratives of L’Arche caregivers, abstractions such as hope and moral maturity are made tangible in a manner that is psychologically realistic.

The moral implication of hope is central to the narratives selected for this essay. Each contains its own anecdotes and account of moral growth. All narratives arise from responses to Dan McAdams’ life narrative interview. In particular, I used an interview section that elicits episodes potentially associated with transformational experiences. Questions in this section ask participants to reflect on their life in terms of a high point, a low point, and a turning point.14 It is important to remember that while the example of core member hope is not always explicit in these accounts, it invokes the wider community context in which each story is recounted. Thus, narratives are imbued with reference to L’Arche community and relationships. Narratives are provided verbatim, followed by brief reflection on particular aspects of hope and their relation to the moral identity of interviewed caregivers.

Natalie is 49 years old, with hazel eyes and skin wizened by long exposure to the sun. The corners of her mouth are perpetually curled up, intimating a keen sense of irony. She is impeccably dressed in a dark wool suit and pumps. Natalie explains that she was asked to make a presentation on behalf of the regional L’Arche network to a private foundation for grant funding. Her presentation barely preceded our interview and she is awash in adrenaline. Natalie is former director of the network. I sense that she is relieved to have handed the baton to others. I soon find out why.

Natalie’s narrative: I was director and we had a process we were going through to come up with a new mandate. I’ve been through these processes before. Now it was my turn to lead the discernment process to choose a new coordinator [in L’Arche, mandates and discernment relate to the development of community vision statements, and at times, selection of key staff]. That was intimidating but great. I knew in my gut how to do it and how it should look. Anyway, the process for our community was to come up with a mandate and then the next month we’d go through a discernment. We’d had a rough year with one of the homes and the team there. They had gotten separated from the rest of the community. It was kind of like the cancer that you can’t name but you know there’s a lot of confusion. It’s hard to articulate—it’s that dark part that’s in our world. When you feel a lot of confusion and can’t articulate things, you know it’s not right.

I and the rest of the coordinating team got pummeled in it. The board didn’t stand up and say, “this isn’t right.” I think it was because people weren’t able to articulate it and they’re like, “oh really?” I felt so betrayed by the community and people on the board. We were starting on Friday night and it didn’t feel right. I could see what was happening. I said to the discernment team this isn’t right. What we’ve been told to do needed to stop. This processisn’t a discernment process. It was so bad that it was almost funny. Except my soul was exposed. It was horrid. It was the hardest thing I’d ever lived through. At least that’s how I took it. I cried for three days straight. It was like someone died. My heart was broken. There was a part of me that was dead. But I stayed with it in the sense of the next few days I thought about whether to resign as director.

The discernment team finished that weekend, and after they left the coordinating team, had no authority. It was so ugly and hard and yucky. After those people left a few months later things were better. But I stayed with it; it was really painful. At one point I met with my spiritual director and laid everything out on the table. I thought, how can I kill myself? That’s not me. Whoa. I stayed with it for ten or twelve months. What I’m living now is the grace from all that difficult time. It’s been great that I stayed another year. Then I ended up leaving really well. What I’m learning, it’s the mystery… is to look at what is the light of God. You’re going through the tunnel of darkness but there’s light that will come from that. The whole mystery of what will come from that. It’s the faith that keeps deepening in me. You’ve got to stay with it. Don’t run from it. Don’t run to substances. I was grateful to the community.

At one point I said to Christopher Price [board member], ‘it doesn’t feel like you’re supporting me.’ There were issues there. Christopher said, ‘you’re like the daughter I never had.’[eyes misty] It was really joyous, it was great being with the core members, with Daniela. She lived with us for three years and then she had to go into the institution because she was psychotic. She had a mental illness and a developmental disability. Huge psychotic break and it was really hard. She died a couple of years ago. What I’m trying to articulate is the contentment. Up until my time as director, life was so encompassed in L’Arche. We have a life outside of L’Arche but the essence of our life is in L’Arche. The fruit of the struggle was contentment.

Natalie recounts a difficult time in her L’Arche experience. Her front-line efforts as leader in a particular L’Arche venue suggests that community is hardly perfect, sometimes becoming the source of added hurt and misunderstanding. Her story recounts hope in terms of faith, incorporating images of the journey, darkness, and light associated with God. Dan McAdams notes that stories such as Natalie’s illustrate a redemptive experience where hope forges ahead through a bleak landscape toward greater understanding of one’s place in relationships and the world.15 Natalie’s story is deeply emotional, not just in content but also in real life. During the interview she wept, most intensely during this segment. Primary emotions during this period included shame, hurt, and joy at the realization of one board member ’s special affirmation of her work as director. Shame and hurt are abundantly evident in Natalie’s reference to soul “exposure” along with feelings of betrayal and isolation. Joy arises through the board member comment regarding her valued status as the “daughter I never had.” On the heels of this account Natalie suddenly mentions Daniela, a previously unknown core member who exemplifies the good that came out of the situation, particularly as Natalie tries to make sense of what happened and what it means for the future. Her life is caught up inexorably within the L’Arche movement, finding contentment in community that casts a hopeful vision for God’s greater purposes in human affairs.

Natalie’s moral process is deeply relational, where key attachments potentially unify deliberative reasoning and self-understanding in moral identity.16 Briefly, attachment theory argues that humans are born with the ability to regulate proximity in relation to others. In an adaptive sense, attachment helps individuals avoid threatening situations. Conversely, from infancy, humans require close attachments with caregivers for nurture, support, and emotional regulation. Inconsistent care can lead to an insecure understanding of self in relation to others, predicated on anxiety and avoidance. Attachment may help organize moral self-understanding on the basis of experiences with close relationships. For securely attached children, positive shame in the parent-child relationship frames moral circumstances in away that preserves attachment security. Children learn that the consequences of moral transgressions include a relational component in parental disapproval, but not rejection. Shame activates anxiety and avoidance aspects of attachment such that the child is encouraged to make restitution to preserve relationship trust. For insecurely attached children, shame becomes an emotional complement of abandonment or excessive punishment. Restitution becomes less feasible or even impossible in these situations.

On the basis of attachment theory, shame comes to define the moral space between self and other. Natalie’s story reflects acute anxiety associated with difficult experiences in the leadership discernment process. Shame language is evident in her narrative and in her emotional state during the interview. While Natalie’s attachment history is an open question, it does seem that her past experiences of shame were negative. Natalie is uncertain of what the future may hold in the wake of her leadership crisis. Anxiety and avoidance are amplified. This difficult situation is redeemed on the basis of three hope-related factors. First, Natalie’s hope for change is affirmed through a revised understanding of grace in her relationship with God. This is the “mystery” that alters her understanding of God’s consistency and presence. Second, Natalie is confronted by the steadfast commitment of a board member (Christopher Price) even when she feels abandoned and mistrustful of others through the episode. The hope of deeper healing is underlined by Christopher’s affirmation of Natalie as the daughter he never had, reflecting primary attachment intimacy. Finally, Natalie remembers her relationship with a core member who exemplifies hope in the midst of disability. Despite the acutely painful nature of the experience, hope anticipates that God, surrogate parental figures, and core members offer Natalie a different kind of community than anticipated from her prior relational experiences.

This vignette offers several hints regarding the development of moral identity. As a result of the experience, Natalie is able to articulate a more stable, consistent sense of self aligned with the moral vision of L’Arche. There can be little doubt that much of the reason for this change is based upon reordered understanding of relationships and the moral force of those who modeled hope. The weld points on Natalie’s self-understanding are deeply emotional, reflecting shame, hurt, and joy that together made the experience unforgettable. Moral identity in this instance reflects the influence of intimate relationships, where reasoning and self are potetially integrated around secure attachments.

Andrew is 30 years old. Raised in a small town on the Great Plains, he delights in telling me about the wonders of city life. Like many L’Arche communities, Andrew’s home is located in an older neighborhood where housing is comparatively affordable. The area around this home is avant-garde, a source of perpetual interest for Andrew who loves coffee houses. He is single and once studied for the priesthood. In his words L’Arche is “the right fit.” We are talking in Andrew’s bedroom, a sometimes-quiet place. In the distance, we can hear the vocalizations of a core member resident.

Andrew’s narrative: I was at a L’Arche renewal in Ireland and part of that was an eight-day directed retreat. During the retreat they asked us to be silent the whole time. I had my retreatplanned out before it started. I was going to read all through my notes; it was at the end ofthe six-week renewal. So I was going to read my renewal notes and I mapped out how I wasgoing to use my time. The first night we were gathered around; one person from the retreat team issued the invitation to enter this week with no books. Everything in me just screamed, no, no, no—my controlling part. There was something deep inside of me that wanted to accept that invitation although I knew it was going to be hard. I made a deep interior choice to say yes to that and when I did there was a peace that came over. That moment was the letting go of control.

So each morning after breakfast I would go sit in the library with my cup of coffee and I didn’t have anything to do. I mean we were supposed to pray and stuff. So I would just sit there and say, “okay God, what is new for today?” Each day of that retreat was walks in nature, times of prayer, each day was full. At one point during the retreat, they had this table with art materials and stuff and I went over and picked up some crayons and started drawing and was making lines on the page and everything. Then there were some watercolors so I kind of did this little watercolor. After they dried I put them up in my bedroom on the closet door. I had started to scribble with a red spiral in the middle and then I had taken some dark colors and went all over everything, but the gift of it was to see my life with the eyes of faith. We were asked a question at the beginning about seeing chaos and change as positive, that God is in the midst of what seems awful on the outside. The high point of that retreat was seeing, experiencing, letting go of control. When I do that, I really experience the gifts of life that are available. So now I try to start every day with, “God, what is today holding?” I still read every morning, but it is that desire to be open to what God has in store instead of what I think. Living in L’Arche, there all kinds of challenges and shortages of assistants, and crises with core members. So it is seeing all of that, being able to see that with the eyes of faith and knowing that God is in it and seeing the gift in it.

Andrew’s narrative suggests a nexus between spirituality and moral commitment as part of hope-directed faith. A caregiver with more than five years of experience, he struggles to resolve issues of control and personal accountability with God in the process of reaffirming his commitment to L’Arche. One way of considering Andrew’s maturation process is through personal goals. Goals are constructed and sustained by hope. Andrew’s narrative is littered with goal-oriented thinking regarding the retreat experience. His goal of deepening commitment to L’Arche is framed in terms of spiritual practices such as reading, meditation, and intercessory prayer. Robert Emmons argues that wellbeing is enhanced on the basis of spirituality integrated into individual goal systems.17 By extension, spiritual goals can influence the manner in which people come to understand their own moral commitments. One aspect of the L’Arche project sheds light on the developmental contours of spiritual goals and moral identity formation. The research is worthy of review in our effort to understand better the nature of hope in Andrew’s development.18

The discourse analysis portion of the project explored change related to goals associated with spiritual and moral commitment in L’Arche. It was assumed that change was related to the number of years spent in the L’Arche community. As a consequence, the caregiver sample was separated into two categories on the basis of time spent in service. Long-term caregivers served for five or more years in L’Arche. Newly arrived caregivers lived in the community for a year or less. Forty long-term and forty newly arrived L’Arche caregivers were interviewed with questions directed to who they perceived themselves to be with God (for example, “What kind of person are you with God?”) and what God expects of them (for example, “What kind of person does God expect you to be?”). Responses were analyzed with the use of a word counting program for (a) personal pronoun usage (I, we, you), (b) emotions, and (c) thought processes.19 Scores for each category were thencompared between long-term and newly arrived L’Arche caregivers. Considered on the basis of how caregivers perceived themselves to be with God (“What kind of person are you with God?”), there were no differences between caregiver groups. But on the second question (“What kind of person does God expect you to be?”), several differences were noted. Positive emotion words were elevated significantly in responses of long-term caregivers regarding expectations from God. Long-term caregivers also used more first person singular (“I”) language than newly arrived caregivers. For their part, newly arrived caregivers used more first person plural (“we”) language when thinking about expectations from God. New caregivers also used language that was tentative in nature.

What might this mean? The findings raise issues regarding developing spiritual influence and moral goals in the L’Arche community. Newly arrived caregivers are somewhat uncertain in referencing God’s expectations. This makes sense given that these caregivers are working out their own identities in the context of L’Arche where powerful spiritual priorities are at work. In the early days of the L’Arche experience, hope is prominent in granting newly arrived caregivers a sense of purpose and identification within the community. Moral purposes become increasingly refined and clarified. Interestingly, collective “we” language gives way to more “I” language, along with greater emotional expressiveness in long-term caregivers such as Andrew. It is possible that long-term caregivers undergo a process of goal alteration around spiritual and moral concepts directed by emotion. This notion is documented in the work of famed neurologist Antonio Damasio and more recently through consideration of developmental change associated with moral identity.20 The re-ordering of goals around spiritual concerns may only be sustainable where the long-term caregiver is able to carve out a measure of autonomy within the community context.

This last conclusion is especially pertinent to redemption of hope in places such as L’Arche. Marilynn Brewer and Sonia Roccas outline a theory of community dynamics known as optimal distinctiveness, where individuals form social identities based on the push and pull of opposing drives to be separate from and included within the group.21 In strongly collectivist environments such as L’Arche, relational intimacy is of paramount importance, activating a need for individual autonomy. Newly arrived caregivers come with individualistic perspectives that yield eventually to the collective goals of the L’Arche community and its moral imperatives. During this period of “negotiation,” caregiver obligations to the group are not consolidated yet. New caregivers hedge their bets with regard to embracing membership within the L’Arche community. By contrast, long-term caregivers have already bought into the ethos of L’Arche. Community inclusion was achieved long ago. One cost of goal alignment with the community is a heightened need for autonomy, making the range of “optimal identity” a narrow one. Caregivers such as Andrew may experience spiritual struggle in balancing goal obligations to community and to self. Optimal distinctiveness comprises a narrow range of comfort in relation to the L’Arche community. Andrew’s narrative indicates that finding the optimal range requires personal honesty and thoughtful recognition of God’s sovereign purposes. In the narrative, hope drives Andrew deeper into an understanding of his own moral commitments and goals that support optimal distinctiveness within the L’Arche context.

Lana is 53 years old—a firecracker personality not five feet tall. We are sitting on a sofa in a L’Arche community in the American West. Lana is full of life and energy. She is a great friend of core members, caregivers, and the mission of L’Arche. I am told by several others that Lana is the L’Arche “mother” who first convinced them to become involved. Her enthusiasm is everywhere. As we talk, the business phone incessantly rings and the fax machine periodically chatters, causing me hidden annoyance. Lana is impervious. She merely becomes louder and more emphatic in her commentary.

Lana’s narrative: I went on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. We went with L’Arche members [core members and caregivers] from two different communities. Supposedly we were going to beg for food and lodging. That attracted me. I let my leader know that I was going. Just the experience of being free enough to do that was an important part of the experience and the other part was being with this group. We were supposed to sleep with migrant farm workers, but it didn’t work out. We had to find lodging unexpectedly. People were saying to me, “you are the one who wants to beg, so beg!” I saw a school with the lights on. We went over and knocked on the door. People answered and I told them who we were and asked them if it was possible for us to sleep on the gym floor. It was the janitor and he showed us to the principal. We told the principal that we were on a pilgrimage and we had people with us who had disabilities.

The janitor looked at the principal and said, “how can we not offer them shelter?” So they let us spend the night. They called the entire faculty who came and made breakfast for us. They signed our petition for Our Lady of Guadalupe. They gave us money for gas. All of this happened because we simply asked to be housed. For me that was the opening of someone Road to Guadalupe: Hope and Moral Identity in L’Arche Communities else’s heart to see the call. It was an incredible experience. We took that with us the whole time. It’s a good thing, too! We thought the train went all the way to Guadalupe. But it didn’t. We got off the train and had to bus it. There were five of us who wanted to walk the last 15 miles into the city of Guadalupe. By accident, the bus driver let us off 25 miles from town. We had only one poncho and blanket and we were freezing. The bus driver told us that if we needed help, to hail another bus. One person in our group had terrible blisters on her feet and we hailed many buses but no one stopped.

We walked and walked but we did not talk. Sometimes I prayed the rosary—this was a prayerful journey. When we finally got into Guadalupe it was a wonderful feeling; we’ve made it! We were staying in a convent there. It was all part of the experience. We spent sometime with the people. Even though I didn’t know Spanish there was great communication. We went back to the convent and asked if we could bring people from the barrio with us. They wouldn’t let us—they were adamant. So six of us said we won’t stay here either. We got some bread and cheese and wine and went to the barrio and shared it with the poor. Those three things were all a part of the same experience. When you talk about the call and compassion and the gospel you talk about L’Arche as a way of entering into people’s lives. That was all a part of that journey. It wasn’t the way it was planned to be. There was so much in the journey that you could never have planned—the kind of spontaneous trust that you take one step at a time. It certainly taught me that it’s OK to have that spontaneity. Instead of planning and saying what are we going to do, you just say “we’re going to do this.” It’s that whole sense of spontaneity, that sense of service. It’s not what you give, it’s what you are. How you are. To never lock the doors if someone comes knocking.

Lana recounts a remarkable journey. Hope in her narrative is spontaneous and open. Her goals are to deepen faith in the way of L’Arche, focused on the manner by which call, compassion, and gospel “enter into people’s lives.” Moral identity matures through recognition of self as impoverished, with commensurate obligation to feed and attend to the needs of the poor. Pilgrimage frames her development on the basis of new opportunities to weigh spiritual and moral priorities through time, place, and role. The road to Guadalupe is longer than expected, a route where suffering yields to spontaneous blessing. The juxtaposition of suffering and blessing runs through group experiences within the city, notably in the host convent. As with Andrew’s narrative, Lana’s process is inexorably spiritual and given to the requirements of godly discipleship. Begging figures prominently in her goal framework. For Lana, pilgrimage marked by begging invokes a greater degree of self-reflection. By acknowledging dependence upon others, she intentionally creates situations where cultural and social pretenses are kept at a minimum, permitting deeply authentic relational encounters. It is in this context of “raw community” that Lana hopes to uncover spiritual and moral predispositions.

Hope instantiates character through the development of goals that allow L’Arche caregivers to live consistently near their ideals. With this in mind, discourse analysis of L’Arche caregivers included an effort to create goal taxonomies. The objective was to find out how time spent in community changes the nature and organization of caregiver goals on spiritual grounds. To do this, forty long-term and forty newly arrived L’Arche caregivers were asked to write down twelve to fifteen personal goals in order of greatest importance. 172 goals were identified from each group of caregivers. Goals were then compared to 98 adjectives describing spiritual experience with the use of a computational language program known as latent semantic analysis (LSA). LSA is both a theory and mathematical method of evaluating meaning between words, sentences, or paragraphs. Best known as an “artificial teaching assistant” with the ability to grade undergraduate essays at a level comparable to humans, LSA is a regular in the literatures on computational linguistics, discourse analysis, and cognitive science. In this application, LSA was used to determine similarity or dissimilarity between L’Arche caregiver goals when the basis of comparison was adjectives describing spiritual experience. Data from the comparison were then subjected to cluster analysis in order to categorize caregiver goals.22

For newly arrived caregivers, goals were organized into five clusters of similar meaning. The first cluster was termed self-efficacy (for example, ensure I amtreated fairly, do my best, and do the right thing). The second cluster was identified as openness (for example, be open minded, make contact with others, and consider future directions). The third cluster was named differentiation (for example, seek new experiences, be financially independent, and seek new relationships). The fourth cluster was identified in terms of a theory of mind (for example,take care of people and be helpful in stressful situations). The fifth cluster was noted in terms of lifestyle (for example, live simply, waste few resources, and eat less). Five clusters were also derived for long-term caregivers. The first cluster was named balance (for example, find balance between work, prayer, and play and practice patience). The second cluster was understood in terms of groundedness (for example, make time to garden, keep in touch with friends, and find space to relax). The third cluster was framed in terms of self-care (for example, take a nap ,go for walks, and sit calmly for 20 minutes). The fourth cluster was identified as interpersonal responsibility (for example, forgive others who hurt me, maintain good relationship with my staff, and give love to those I serve). The fifth cluster was named transcendence and ethics (for example, look at stars, live in gratitude,and be a godly disciple).

The study yielded differences relevant to spiritual and moral development instantiated by hope. When considered on the basis of spiritual meaning, newly arrived L’Arche caregivers articulate goals related to identity formation and resolution. This is reminiscent of the word counting study, with caregivers attempting to find themselves while mapping the priorities of the community. Newly arrived caregivers must read the intentions of others quickly and correctly, a daunting task when working with developmentally disabled persons who may lack ability to communicate clearly. Caregivers must expand their capacity to understand the perspectives and feelings of other people, helping newly arrived caregivers cultivate an interpersonal ethic given to care. Goals in this instance are highly social. Consistent with the nature of newly arrived participants in community, goals are geared toward improving self-understanding amidst a range of diverse relationships. Caregivers must learn to get along with others. Intrinsic to their goals is a spirituality of action before contemplation, seasoned with a measure of idealism.

By contrast, long-term caregivers outline more introspective goal systems, demonstrating marked capacity for self-reflection. Caregiver idealism is tempered by recognition of personal limitations and the means by which spiritual insights emerge through difficult circumstances and situations. These are the mature goals of people with clearly defined boundaries relative to community. While L’Arche values are abundantly evident in the narratives of long-term caregivers, there is evidence of creative synthesis and revision. L’Arche’s emphasis on simple living is reframed around self-care, such as taking a nap. Goals for pilgrimage and begging do not come as a surprise given goal clusters outlined for long-term caregivers. Spiritual commitments are sprinkled throughout the clusters, with overtly moral implications. Long-term caregivers such as Lana are looking for concrete ways of integrating spirituality into the most mundane aspects of daily life. Responsibility, fidelity, love, and fairness are hallmark standards by which these caregivers attempt to live. The road to Guadalupe is characterized by weathered morality and spirituality. Hope reminds pilgrims that the highest ideals of community are realized in earthy and sometimes painful circumstances.

Dell is 29 years old, an African American from Georgia. He is a favorite with core members in this L’Arche community. On several occasions I observe Dell being hugged, kissed, or otherwise mobbed by the folk. Several of the core members refer to Dell by his nickname, “Teddy.” We are on the front porch of his L’Arche home, an idyllic Victorian on a street with enormous birch and maple trees. It’s an unusually warm day in late fall. Children are at recess in a nearby elementary school. Dell is completing his third year in L’Arche.

Dell’s narrative: I had a car accident a couple months ago which was completely my fault. Fortunately, nobody was injured. It was totally a misunderstanding with gravity and smashed up a couple cars pretty bad. That was a couple months ago. It still has to get sorted out. My car was history. And then there was a legal application. It was a huge mess. It still is, but not as much. I have had a lot of epiphanies since then, about L’Arche, about life.

Well, when it happened, I couldn’t have asked for better support. I was pretty shaken up, especially after that week. It could have been a lot worse. It really killed my confidence in myself. I was overwhelmed by the ramifications of it. A lot of people in L’Arche were praying for me. People who came by to make sure I was okay. I couldn’t ask for more support. I felt like my family came through in a way. It taught me a lot about what community is about. You get caught up in all the daily conflicts and tensions… it is amazing when something really bad happens or dies how quickly we come together. It astounds me how we put a lot of things into perspective. It seems like we’re so far away from everything which they say is living, but we come back to grace, what is important, to the priorities of why we are here.

L’Arche is a place for celebration. [smiling broadly] We love to celebrate. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. But that was not something that we did in my family when I was growing up. It took quite a few years for me to become comfortable with the idea. In the past I have tended to be quite introverted. In L’Arche there is a lot of extroverted energy. The last couple of birthdays where I was celebrated were very good for me. It gave me the opportunity to laugh and poke fun at myself and like myself and enjoy myself. It also gave me permission to say, “Dell, you are a good person.” People want to celebrate with you and you need to allow yourself to celebrate. I didn’t think I was good enough. Over time it has gotten better and the last couple of birthdays were a lot of fun for me, a lot of laughter and joking. A lot of silly things—games and skits. That was great because those are major life events for me. Each time that we celebrate an anniversary it is a further validation that I am a good person and that I am loved and people will allow themselves to love me. When it comes to celebrating it is a high point and I gave myself permission and say, “this is good; I can do this.” I don’t burn energy thinking that I don’t deserve it.

Hope in the lives of disabled persons powerfully influences the spiritual and moral development of L’Arche caregivers such as Dell. L’Arche communities are endowed with a unique vantage on human nature and purpose. Disability is known through the radical commitment of God to persons without qualification, effecting immanence and agency through weakness. Caregivers and disabled are encouraged to refashion their goals in the manner of Christ. Instead of efficiency and success, hope is given to deeper understanding of kenosis shared in community.23 Hope heals, encourages, and liberates. Caregivers fortunate enough to spend time under the tutelage of the disabled discover new priorities and capacities that shift self-understanding in moral identity. L’Arche is community that intentionally celebrates life as journey, a Guadalupe road marked by hope. Celebration emphasizes those elemental concerns that cannot be resolved through medical technology, wealth, or personal achievement. Hope turns tragedy into relationship, celebrating people for mere existence on earth and participation in community.

In summary, hope provides the developmental impetus to affirm the worth of others regardless of status or ability. Caregivers who stay in L’Arche for months and years grow to develop moral identities imbued with hope inspired through the example of core members, many of whom experience reconciliation and healing following abuse, suffering, and marginalization. Traditionally considered a theological precept, hope is equally relevant to the psychological flourishing of broken humanity. To the extent we are willing to embrace our own brokenness, hope promotes the consolidation of moral identity, and consequently, the potential for life well lived.

Cite this article
Kevin Reimer, “Road to Guadalupe: Hope and Moral Identity in L’Arche Communities for the Developmentally Disabled”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:3 , 359-373


  1. 1Identifying information is altered to safeguard the identities of L’Arche caregivers and coremembers.
  2. I have attempted to define “hope” in a manner bridging theological and psychological prin-ciples. My definition reflects particular (for example, Reformed & Anabaptist) anthropolo-gies in “reconciliation” and “healing.” For discussion from the Reformed perspective, seeJack O. Balswick, Pamela E. King, and Kevin S. Reimer, The Reciprocating Self: Human Devel-opment in Theological Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005). From theAnabaptist perspective, Kevin S. Reimer and Alvin C. Dueck, “Inviting Soheil: Narrativeand Embrace in Christian Caregiving,” Christian Scholars Review 35 (2006): 205-220, and AlvinC. Dueck and Kevin S. Reimer, A Peaceable Psychology (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2009).
  3. Perception anticipates behavior via enaction.
  4. L’Arche is French for “the Ark.” Many readers will recognize L’Arche from the spiritualwritings of Henri Nouwen, who spent the last fifteen years of his life as priest to the L’ArcheDaybreak community in Toronto, Canada. I thank the John Fetzer Institute for a generousgrant which supported the study.

  5. See The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective, 251. Other defini-tions of moral identity emphasize self-understanding to the exclusion of personal goals andbeliefs. See Karl Aquino and Americus Reed, “The Self-Importance of Moral Identity,” Jour-nal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2002): 1423-1440, and Daniel Hart, Robert Atkins,and Debra Ford, “Urban America as a Context for the Development of Moral Identity inAdolescence,” Journal of Social Issues 54 (1998): 513-530.
  6. From the L’Arche Charter.
  7. Caregiver assistants were the primary focus of research interviews given the wide range ofcognitive diversity among disabled core members.
  8. See Anne Colby and William Damon, Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment(New York: Free Press, 1992).
  9. See Owen Flanagan, Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism (New York:Harvard University Press, 1991).

  10. I am not implying that core members are the only people that inspire and sustain moralcommitment in L’Arche. However, I do believe that they are a powerful force in the consoli-dation of caregiver moral identity. See Kevin S. Reimer, “Natural Character: PsychologicalRealism for the Downwardly Mobile,” Theology & Science 2 (2004): 35-54, and Kevin S. Reimer,“Agape, Brokenness, and Theological Realism in L’Arche” in Visions of Agape, ed. Craig A.Boyd (Aldershot, United Kingdom: Ashgate, 2008): 85-101.

  11. An excellent overview of participant-observation is provided in Corrine Glesne, BecomingQualitative Researchers (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2006). Pertinent reviews of clinical interviewand discourse analysis are found in David Silverman, ed., Qualitative Research: Theory, Method,and Practice (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004). For reasons of space, editorialdecisions were made regarding narratives chosen for inclusion in the present essay. A com-prehensive review of the entire L’Arche caregiver sample is found in Kevin S. Reimer, LivingL’Arche (London: 2009).
  12. See Alvin C. Dueck and Kevin S. Reimer, “Retrieving the Virtues in Psychotherapy: Thickand Thin Discourse,” American Behavioral Scientist 47 (2003): 427-441.
  13. The topic of narrative in the social sciences engenders lively debate. This essay assumes ahermeneutical perspective based on the principle of distanciation outlined in the philosophyof Paul Ricoeur. For a detailed discussion, see Steven J. Sandage, Kaye V. Cook, Peter C. Hill,Brad D. Strawn, and Kevin S. Reimer, “Hermeneutics and Psychology: A Review and Dialec-tical Model,” Review of General Psychology 12 (2008): 344-364.
  14. See Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997).
  15. Ibid.
  16. See Kevin S. Reimer, “Revisioning Moral Attachment: Comment on Identity and Motiva-tion,” Human Development 296 (2005): 262-265.
  17. See Robert A. Emmons, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns (New York: The Guilford Press,1999).
  18. See Lawrence J. Walker and Kevin S. Reimer, “The Relationship Between Moral and Spiri-tual Development,” in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence,eds. P. Benson, P. King, L. Wagener, and E. Roehlkepartain (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publi-cations, 2005), 265-301. This chapter offers a brief history of moral and spiritual issues indevelopmental research with L’Arche caregivers as an example.
  19. 9See J. Pennebaker, M. Francis, and R. Booth, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC)(Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001). LIWC counts words for comparison between lexi-cal domains such as emotion, cognition, or pronoun usage through proportions.
  20. See Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens (New York: Harcourt, 1999). Also, KevinS. Reimer, “Committed to Caring: Transformation in Adolescent Moral Identity,” AppliedDevelopmental Science 7 (2003): 129-137.
  21. See Marilynn Brewer and Sonia Roccas, “Individual Values, Social identity, and OptimalDistinctiveness,” in Individual Self, Relational Self, Collective Self, eds. C. Sedikides and M.Brewer (London: Psychology Press, 2001), 219-240.
  22. See “The Relationship Between Moral and Spiritual Development,” 265-301. Cluster analy-sis is a statistical technique used to explore relations between variables. In this instance, themethod was intended to create goal taxonomies on the basis of shared meaning in LSA.Additional information on LSA can be obtained at <>.
  23. Kenosis refers to the emptying of Christ, notably in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (chap-ter 2).

Kevin Reimer

Azusa Pacific University
Mr. Reimer is Professor of Psychology at Azusa Pacific University.