The Rev. Liska Stefko serves as pastoral minister to the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill and associate priest at St. Timothy, North Toronto.
L’Arche is a worldwide network of communities in which people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. The best part of my bivocational reality? I get to be part of two wonderful communities. The worst part? I can’t be in two places at once!
Karl Rahner talks about the task of ministry as “drawing faith out of people rather than pumping it into them… The Holy Spirit is in people. The art is to help them become who they are.” I delight in listening for the experience of the Spirit in people’s lives and encouraging them to articulate it in creative ways. Children have a wonderful way of doing this. For example, at St. Timothy’s we have Messy Church once a month. This is a worship gathering for families with young children. We explore Bible stories through drama, story and crafts. I love watching the faces of children and parents alike as they are drawn into a moment of deep reflection or joy. At our parish Good Friday family service, I was deeply moved as the crowd of young children caught onto the idea of kneeling down and washing one another’s feet, exclaiming “That feels nice!” and “I want to try that too!”
In my role at L’Arche, I am working on an educational initiative with the Faith and Culture Inclusion Network to help agencies that support people with disabilities better understand the spiritual dimension of the lives of the people they serve. Persons with intellectual disabilities, particularly those living in group settings, often find it very challenging to form an ongoing, meaningful relationship with a church community. We want to help support staff find ways of doing this well.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, the fourth of seven children. You don’t often hear of families of that size these days, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. You learn to share and compromise and look out for one another from the get-go. My siblings are incredibly gifted, generous and funny.
In our family, our faith education was embedded in our schooling. My siblings and I all went to the parish school a few blocks from our house. We walked to and from school together and home for lunch each day. We never, ever missed Mass on a Sunday or a holy day. My brothers were altar servers for daily Mass at 7:30 a.m., and I was a lector.
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, where I first heard about Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen. Henri had once taught there, and Jean came to visit during my time there. It was through a summer service experience that I came to hear about L’Arche. I decided to spend a year at L’Arche in Italy after graduation. That one year turned into two years, and then a two-month visit to L’Arche Daybreak turned into an 18-year stay.
My faith life has been profoundly shaped by the people I’ve encountered at L’Arche. There’s Silvia, a 12-year-old with Down syndrome, who drew me into my first experience of communion with someone who did not speak with words. There was Tracy, who neither walked nor spoke but could laugh with her whole body. She was always up for a practical joke or a road trip. She wanted to go everywhere, and usually succeeded in convincing her friends to get her there. There was Rosie, a tiny woman who grew up in an institution, confined to a cage. She learned to walk when she was 22 years old, when she came to L’Arche. When Rosie took your hand with her iron grip and wanted you to go someplace, you just went. She had a wisdom, an authority that you just couldn’t argue with. And the list goes on. When you’re in front of people, day in and day out, who embody God’s love and wisdom in such remarkable ways, it changes you. You start seeing grace everywhere you look, most especially as it is revealed to the world through “unlikely” characters.
After a number of years of living in L’Arche, I started studying theology at Regis College. It wasn’t long before the question of ordained ministry came up. A good friend of mine, now a Jesuit priest himself, encouraged me to consider how I might discern this vocational context in an Anglican setting. At the time, that idea seemed pretty far-fetched, but he persisted. In fact, it was he who first accompanied me to Church of the Redeemer on a Sunday morning.
Another key person for me was Archbishop Roger Herft, from Western Australia, whom I met at a L’Arche international gathering in Italy. Over several years, and at quite a distance, he encouraged me, through prayer and listening, to hear a bivocational call to both L’Arche and church.
Sometimes people will say to me, “Oh, so you became Anglican and got ordained.” And I’ll say, yes, that’s true, but that little sentence took me 10 years! It felt important to me to first discern if I could find a church home in the Anglican Communion, and that took a few years. And then it took a few more years to discern the question of priesthood with the diocese. You don’t become a priest in a vacuum. I’ve been enormously privileged to have been part of beloved communities that have called, encouraged and nurtured me.
In L’Arche there is a palpable mutuality to the sacramental life. When I offer the Eucharist to someone, it is not unusual to receive a word of blessing or thanks in return… or even a compliment! You give and you receive. It was Elisabeth, and then John, with whom I have lived and travelled and given talks over the years, who presented me at my ordinations. In our community worship, it is our core members who take the lead, welcoming people, voicing heartfelt prayers and gracefully serving at table.
In 1 Corinthians 12:20-23 Paul writes, “There are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honour.”
Where are people with special needs in our church communities? Are they present? Welcomed? Included? Called to leadership? I’ve heard it said that inclusion means, “If you show up, we’ll make room for you.” But belonging is different. Belonging means, “If you’re not there, we’ll go looking for you.” We are part of a body. We need each other.