James was one of many who welcomed me to the recent central regional gathering. His allegiance to his local college football team featured prominently on his hat. Football was thus our first topic, not unusual for the American South. Soon after, the conversation moved to his language skills. A German assistant had taught him: “Good morning”, “Good evening” and, more surprisingly, “You stink!” James’ unorthodox language skills were pretty refreshing and so we giggled for a while. James then proceeded to hug me, telling me that he liked Germans. Eventually, our ways parted. All of this lasted less than 10 minutes.
One day later, 150 L’Arche members from across the country joined many more people from Mobile, Alabama, mostly African-Americans, to commemorate Martin Luther King Day. On that day, we were united to rally, march and pray for social justice, plurality and inclusion. As I was taking in the Interfaith Prayer Service, looking at the faces around me, I thought about my exchange with James and wondered: what football team does this woman root for? How does this man wish his children good morning? Does this elderly lady crack eccentric jokes when she is at home with her loved ones? Who were these people? And maybe more importantly, what would happen if we all followed James’ lead to spend 10 minutes welcoming and engaging with each other, hugging it out at the end?
James’ welcome and hug initiative is an example of what keeps me at L’Arche. This year alone, L’Arche in the U.S. will offer an experience of encounter, engagement and commitment to hundreds of people, crossing the lines of football, language and ability, to name just a few. Barriers, prejudices and assumptions will fall, one encounter at a time. Ultimately, our society will be better off when we meet! Social psychologists say it! L’Arche members experience it. And James has probably known it all along!