Ark of Wonders

At L’Arche, Matt Rawlins sees beyond disabilities to the person within

January 8, 2010 by Ken Ramstead

Matt1“I’m blessed to be where I am,” says Matt Rawlins, a staff member at L’Arche, a home for people with intellectual disabilities in Toronto. “I went to L’Arche to help people but

I’ve been the one who has been helped. I’ve learned to be gracious and grateful—to be humble, slow down and appreciate God all around me. And by doing so, I’ve come to appreciate the clear links between my Salvation Army roots and L’Arche.”

Journey to L’Arche
A sixth-generation Salvation Army member, Matt grew up in Richmond Hill, Ont., north of Toronto. When he wasn’t attending school or his local Salvation Army church, his waking hours were devoted to sports. “I played on up to four teams at any given time,” Matt recalls. “Almost every evening, you’d find me playing rugby or hockey.”

Dreams of pursuing higher-level sports at the University of Waterloo were cut short, however, by a series of concussions. Neurologists warned Matt in no uncertain terms that he could not continue playing without risking permanent injury.

“That was a wake-up call from God,” smiles Matt. “I’m pretty sure I could hear Him telling me, ‘There’s more than hockey out there for you.’ ”

But what? Matt was in his third year of university when a friend loaned him Becoming Human, by Jean Vanier. Vanier, the son of a prominent Canadian family—his father was a governor-general—had traded in his powerful social and political connections to start a home for people with intellectual and physical disabilities in Trosly-Breueil, France. From there, Vanier’s vision spread to 135 member communities around the world, including Canada.

While working at Salvation Army summer camps, Matt had come into contact with people who had intellectual disabilities. “At first, I didn’t understand their differences very well,” Matt recounts, “but as I spent more time with them, I realized they had different expectations, and no hidden agendas. They wanted you for you.”

Vanier’s book touched a chord in Matt. “I felt God calling me,” he says. I thought, “I don’t know where this is going to take me, but I need to experience it for myself.”

At first, Matt considered journeying to France to join Vanier himself, but soon realized his heart belonged at home. So in 2007, the year after he graduated from Waterloo, he applied to L’Arche Toronto. To his surprise, they offered him a position as a live-in assistant in one of their homes.

Celebrating Joy
Matt’s first weeks on the job were humbling.

“I learned it wasn’t a question of me being patient with people but people being patient with me, learning to use signs to communicate, while I fumbled through a routine,” Matt explains. “I was of the mindset of ‘doing for’ rather than ‘doing with,’ but I had to accept that other people knew exactly what they needed to be well—and were waiting for me to do it.”

Matt3Eventually, Matt grew into L’Arche’s daily routine. “It’s about bringing what you have and making life happen together,” Matt sums up.

Bright and early, Matt assists the occupants of the house prepare for the day, helping them shave, wash and dress. After breakfast, while they head to their various places of employment or other activities, Matt tidies up, runs errands and attends community meetings.

After some free time set apart for himself, Matt welcomes people home in the afternoon.

The highlight of the day is the communal evening meal, followed by washing up, crafts, prayer and quiet
time to give people a chance to unwind.

A typical day for Matt can last up to 15 hours but despite the gruelling pace and the physical and emotional demands, Matt is thriving. “I think life is richer than if I was living by myself,” Matt reflects. “Instead of having my own joy and my own problems for the day, I get to celebrate 10 people’s joys and share the load of 10 sets of problems.”

Home at Last
Matt was quickly promoted from live-in assistant to house leader. In that capacity, he was in charge of staff, medical appointments and budgets.

This past fall, Matt was asked to help start a creative-arts program for both L’Arche residents and developmentally challenged people in the community. This meant training a new house leader to take his place and becoming a live-in assistant again. He’s not complaining. “I don’t like paperwork, to be honest,” he admits. “I didn’t come here because I wanted to sit behind a desk. I came here to live.”

Matt desired to continue living in the home, despite the natural inclination to shift out as the new house leader moved in. He wanted to stay with his friends. “That definitely keeps me grounded and my priorities straight,” he says. “It’s important for me to maintain my relationships.”

It was these relationships that helped Matt get through a difficult period soon after he arrived at L’Arche.
Matt had been on a silent retreat, praying about whether this was the right step for him. Just prior to that, he sprained his ankle and was hobbling back to L’Arche on crutches.

Here I am supposed to be helping people, he reflected ruefully, when I can’t even help myself.

It was in that state that Matt went to help his friend, Michael, prepare for bedtime. “Instead, Michael bent and started unlacing my shoes,” Matt recollects. “Michael uses a wheelchair to get around and I’m the one that usually laces up his shoes every morning and removes them at night. To have someone I was supposed to be ‘serving’ do that for me was a touching affirmation. I was the one being served. Michael doesn’t use words to communicate but in his own clearly-thought-out way, he was telling me that this was my home, this was where I was supposed to be.”

Matt2Here and Now
Matt is quick to point out that his Salvation Army background prepared him for his role at L’Arche. “I’ve learned here that nothing’s perfect and that there’s a lot of brokenness in the world, but the Army has always known this to be so. Their work with those who live on the margins of society prepared me for L’Arche.”

Matt’s experience there has deepened his sense of God. “I believe that the church isn’t just Sunday, and here at L’Arche I’ve managed to integrate my spirituality into my everyday life. God is present everywhere, whether it’s helping Michael shave, preparing pasta for supper, gardening in the quiet of the afternoon or listening to residents recite the 23rd Psalm in the evening. I feel privileged to be a part of this as well as a member of The Salvation Army.

“L’Arche is about revealing gifts,” Matt concludes. “I don’t know if this is where I’m supposed to be for the rest of my life. But I definitely feel that it is right for me now.”

Top photo: Matt Rawlins; middle: Michael and Matt laugh at the antics of some dogs in a local park; bottom: Matt Rawlins and Michael pore over a photo album and listen to a favourite CD


  1. Patty Morzi says:

    It is so inspiring and beautiful, and to see God’s work so vivid in people’s in Matt’s…and all people of L’Arche…May God Bless them All!!

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