by Kimberly Pinnix

During his college spring break in 2007, Matthew Rhodes (M.Div., 2011) was introduced to his calling—he just didn’t know it at the time. “It is a story of God’s providence leading us to places and calling us to work before we understand the larger picture,” says Rhodes of how he discovered his call. Unlike most college students’ spring break trips, Rhodes’s retreat was a “reverse mission” to Nicaragua, which included visiting a home for children and young adults with disabilities. Although Rhodes was apprehensive as it was his first experience working closely with people with disabilities, he immediately felt at ease when he was greeted by a 17-year-old boy with a developmental disability. During Rhodes’s visit, the boy didn’t say a word, but his actions spoke louder than words. The boy simply approached Rhodes, grabbed his hand like a long-lost friend, and led him around the home. The boy’s uninhibited affection and openness led Rhodes to instantly connect with the community.

Rhodes’s experience in Nicaragua sparked his interest and later led him to live and work (as an assistant) with the developmentally disabled at L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C. for one year. Currently, in the United States, there are only sixteen L’Arche Communities, family-like homes where individuals with and without disabilities share their lives together. The assistants and core members live in communities of faith and friendship where they reside, work, pray, and play together. Rhodes credits his time at L’Arche with giving him “the freedom to accept life as a gift and rejoice amidst the challenges we face.” Rhodes says, “Living and working at L’Arche with individuals who have developmental disabilities revealed an openness and tenderness in me. I knew that somehow my call would involve working with people with disabilities.” 

Following his time in Washington, D.C., Rhodes moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to attend Princeton Theological Seminary. While at the Seminary, Rhodes found love and married Rachel Achtemeier, a fellow student. Her call as an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Haddonfield, New Jersey, led the couple to relocate (for his senior year). Just eight weeks after settling in Haddonfield, Rhodes received a phone call “out of the blue.” The call was from a group that was working to establish an L’Arche Community in Haddonfield, which would serve as the seventeenth location in the United States and the only site in the Delaware Valley. The local L’Arche Community was beginning a search for a founding community leader, and the board wanted to know if Rhodes would be interested in applying. Unbeknownst to Rhodes, L’Arche of New Jersey had been a work in progress for eight years prior to his involvement and relocation to Haddonfield. This unlikely coincidence led Rhodes to consider that God just might be calling him back to work with individuals with developmental disabilities.

After a period of discernment, the board invited Rhodes to serve as the community leader. In this role, Rhodes is charged with overseeing the health of the community—spiritually, administratively, and financially, as well as facilitating the growth of its members. Hopeful that their first home will open later this year, Rhodes commented, “Just as in baptism, my family is expanding. As those who are baptized are given a gift and a responsibility, so are those who come to work at L'Arche.” He continued, “The heart of our mission is to reveal to the core members their gifts, that they are loved, and that our lives are richer because we are in a relationship with them. The mystery is how they reveal that to us.”

For further information, visit www.friendsoflarchenj.org.