On Monday June 11th, I packed my car with a suitcase of clothes, a plastic bin with a few dozen books (I was overly ambitious about how much I could read), my laptop, my guitar, and a jug of maple syrup as a gift for Serenity House. I left behind my clergy collar, having been ordained as an Episcopal priest in January, and the parish where I served as an assistant priest. I arrived at Serenity House nine hours later to work at L’Arche Erie as an assistant for two months.
Why did you go to L’Arche Erie in the first place?
Ever since I spent two years in Ireland right after college in a Camphill Community, an organization similar to L’Arche, I’ve had some sense that the working with people with disabilities in Christian community is part of my vocation. In Ireland the community was on a farm. Sitting down to eat three meals a day and saying grace beforehand; milking a cow and learning to garden; belting out Irish ballads with a man with Down Syndrome after only ever having played guitar alone in my room – all these experiences helped me to believe that, after many years of competing for grades and sports and losing track of my own identity along the way, that I was more fully myself and who God intended me to be in this type of community. But I also had a sense that I was called to ordained ministry, and so I turned from the calling and headed to divinity school.
Throughout my years at Harvard Divinity School and leading community organizing trainings with the Episcopal Church there were moments where I felt like God was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, don’t forget about this work I planted on your heart.” There was no Camphill in the Boston area but I had read about L’Arche and visited one community in Ireland and so I reached out to L’Arche Boston North about visiting. They welcomed me on a night that was also a baby shower for two assistants. There was cake and dancing and people of all abilities singing together. I remember thinking, “If I ever marry and have a child, this is how I want to celebrate.” A major element to my conversion to the Episcopal Church was visiting a parish in Watertown, MA, hearing the prayers of an intellectually disabled blind man, Dean, who spoke the prayers and sang the hymns a few seconds behind the congregation. I loved hearing him and I loved watching others wheel him to the altar for communion. I was sold on that parish. At my seminarian internship at the Cathedral in Springfield MA one of the most joyful moments was the music of Manny, a man with cerebral palsy who joyfully played the tambourine with the church choir. On Christmas Eve someone recruited him to be a Wise Man for the pageant. My favorite photo from that year is Manny in his wheelchair before the altar in a gold-speckled crown, purple robe, hands folded on his lap, looking solemn and dignified between the two other smiling wise men.
In the summer of 2016 I moved to southern Vermont where I came as a child to visit my grandmother and my aunts and uncles. During the summers in divinity school I worked on my uncle’s dairy farm there with the hopes of figuring out someday how to put down roots there and belong fully both to my biological family and to the church, the family of God. Work and school always pulled me back down to Boston until that summer of 2016 when the bishop allowed me to spend the year studying for ordination exams in Vermont while also working at a nearby retreat center and part-time for a local special needs agency doing homecare. That year the taps on my shoulder from God didn’t stop about working with people with special needs as I loved Wii bowling and making music with an autistic man at his home, but as I was in the midst of studying, I kept turning back to God and saying, “I don’t have time for this. If you want me to be a priest you’ll have to wait.” In Advent this past winter, shortly after being called to a parish here in Vermont, I was preparing for confession and realized that my argument no longer worked about postponing the call to work with people with special needs. After talking with my supervisor, the senior priest at my church, about the possibility of being away for the summer, I reached out to Steve Washek as L’Arche’s National Director about spending a summer at L’Arche to learn more about the organization and reconnect to the work with an openness to exploring starting a community in southern Vermont. He invited me to Erie for the summer.
What stood out from your time there?
Although I lived in Serenity House, I spent most of my time as an assistant with Journey House. Some of my favorite moments were of that community in worship – Sarah getting up and shimmying during the Lord’s Prayer in front of a circle of people; Bob greeting strangers after Mass at St Jude’s with an embrace so wide that you’d think the strangers were long-lost friends; all of Journey House gathering around Richard as he worked through “Old Rugged Cross” on piano and singing along. Each night Linda soaked her feet in the living room in a basin of warm water with mineral oils. One of my jobs was to fill her basin. Even more than having her feet soaked, she seemed to enjoy checking in with me throughout the day in her own unique idiom that I learned to translate as, “Will you soak my feet?” I answered, “Yup, I’ll soak your feet,” multiple times a day and her delight never seemed to diminish.
Parts of the work were harder than I remembered from my time in Camphill fifteen years ago. Discussing what I ate for lunch the sixth time could be tedious. In my life as a single 38 year-old priest I don’t have to think through questions like, “What do you do when someone starts to yank the table cloth off the table with everything on it?” Facing new types of challenges was tiring. For better and for worse I ate more Arby’s roast beef and Pop Eye’s chicken in two months than I have in a lifetime. I watched more “Mr. Rogers” and “The Price is Right” than I have in decades.
How will you stay connected to L’Arche and working with people with disabilities going forward?
It no longer feels like turning to God to answer his insistent invitations about working with people with disabilities conflicts with being a priest. Father George said to me that being a priest in L’Arche is a “vocation within a vocation.” Through all his years at L’Arche he continued to teach and work at Gannon, the local Catholic university, and preside at masses at local parishes. In fact, given that the majority of church positions in Vermont are part-time, having vocational interests beyond parish priesthood seems more practical than problematic. I know more clearly than ever that the heart of my priesthood is worship with those on the margins, even if the music is out of tune or the prayers a few seconds off-beat. That’s the type of community that opened my heart and converted me. If part of being a Christian is being able to share the faith with others, that’s the part of the faith that I can share most authentically.
Being away from Vermont made me realize how much it is my home – the geography of mountains and rivers, the proximity of family and friends, the memories of people I’ve loved who have lived and died here. I feel more committed to this corner of the world than ever. At the end of my time in Erie I spoke with Steve Washek again about steps for exploring starting a L’Arche community in Vermont. The next step, he said, is to find other people interested in L’Arche – people of differing abilities and backgrounds - and begin learning more about L’Arche through books and connecting with local communities. “It takes a community to start a community.” And it takes years. I feel open to talking with people at my local parish and beyond to see if there is energy for that locally. I’m excited to share what I learned at L’Arche Erie and then discern in community what God’s next step may be. Thank you to L’Arche Ere for helping me to take the first step. I’ll keep you posted what unfolds!
Duncan Hilton was ordained as an Episcopal priest in January 2018. He currently works in Brattleboro, Vermont as a PT associate priest and PT community college instructor.