photo prayer at Asha NiketanMagical Mystery Tour

by Sarah Thomson, Sarah was L'Arche Tahoma Hope's delegate to the International General Assembly in Kolkata, India in the Fall of 2008. She shares her experience in this article published in our Christmas, 2008 Newsletter.

As Western US Regional delegates to the International General Assembly (IGA) of L’Arche, we arrived in Kolkata, India, in the midst of a torrential downpour. Careening through the flooded streets in a rickety old school bus, painted green, and decked out with beads and pictures of Hindu deity, I wondered if this was what the Beatles had in mind when they wrote “the magical mystery tour is coming to take you away, coming to take you away”? My week at the IGA, lived in the environs of Kolkata, was truly a magical and mysterious experience on many levels.

photo Jean VanierKolkata, the City of Joy, home to thirteen million, a third of whom live in absolute poverty, was an intense, but hospitable locale for our week of meetings. It is the most vibrant, bewildering city I have ever been in; heaving with people, oppressively humid and very warm in it’s welcome. The IGA took place during the week of Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in West Bengal. The city swells in size during this time, as people from all over the world pour into the streets to celebrate the beloved goddess Durga. So we were in the city at a time of festivities on a scale unlike anything else I’ve seen. My accommodation was in the girls’ dormitory at the first boarding school Mother Teresa built in Kolkata. In the company of fifty roommates from all over the world, we slept under the watchful eye of a life-size statue of Mary. Falling asleep in the heat of the tropical night, I often thought about Dicko and how he would have loved the honor of sleeping under a mega Mary!

photo Sarah ThomsonWhile participating in the opening ceremony of the IGA, (yes it was quite like a real-life L’Arche Olympics!) I was struck by the immense beauty that L’Arche brings to the world. The members of L’Arche Asha Niketan greeted us joyously in song and dance and showered us with flower petals. As delegates from the nine zones of L’Arche worldwide, we greeted one another in joyful chaos. Here we were, in a slum neighborhood of Kolkata, gathering each day for prayer, reflection and dialog, believing that in our diversity, we were offering ourselves as a sign of unity and hope for the world. Indeed, each day, listening to the sessions in many languages and hearing communities’ stories of struggle, grace and courage, was to witness to the gift and beauty that is L’Arche in Cote d’Ivoire, and Haiti, Sydney and Mobile. Our small groups were a wonderful swatch of religion, culture, opinions and experiences. I learned so much from being in the rich company of the L’Arche faithful, particularly the core member delegates. They brought candor, creativity and passion to each day. True to form, they were quick to offer their impressions of the spicy food and squat toilets!

Towards the end of the IGA, Jean-Christophe Pascal, International Coordinator, spoke about the concept of L’Arche as our “landscape”; the ground from which we, as long-term members of L’Arche, move and grow in our lives. Ten years along in my journey with L’Arche Tahoma Hope, this resonated with me. I think about my relationships, my joys and losses, my commitments and dreams. The faces, values and spirituality of L’Arche have forever influenced my life. I am less judgmental, a little less ashamed of my challenges and daily grateful for knowing I am loved and gifted. I am thankful for the privilege of representing my community at the IGA. Six weeks later, I am still sifting through all that I experienced in Kolkata, for it was indeed a magical, mystery tour.