Jean Vanier truly appreciated friends with disabilities
Rather than discuss an aspect of special needs planning, my blog this week will pay homage to a man named Jean Vanier (1928-2019), who has taught and inspired not only me but thousands of others to appreciate the gifts of people with disabilities.
Each person is sacred, no matter what his or her culture, religion, handicap [sic], or fragility. Each person is created in God’s image; each one has a heart, a capacity to love and to be loved.
--The Heart of L’Arche
Few people have embodied this truth more than Jean Vanier, one of the co-founders of L’Arche, a spiritual and practical community of people with and without disabilities who share life. Vanier died May 7, 2019 at age 90. L’Arche also is a French word for “The Ark”, indicating many people happily living and working together as if on an actual ark, a place of safety. I, myself, had lived at the L’Arche community near Boston for a year before I first had the chance to Jean Vanier in person at a retreat in Nova Scotia. The first evening of the retreat, he came to the front of the crowd—and there was a crowd—not to preach or to teach, but to tell stories that recounted two things. The first was the value of his very real relationships with people of all kinds, most especially people with disabilities; and second was the challenge of his very real struggle to live in community. His stories were honest and simple. He drew no conclusions, made no profound points, extracted no morals. He simply shared his experiences—how he came to respect and treasure all people, but particularly those with disabilities.
After a successful career in the British and Canadian Navies and then as a professor of Catholic theology and after briefly but seriously considering a vocation to the Catholic priesthood, Vanier responded in 1964 to a simple but profound question: “Will you be my friend?” put to him by a man with intellectual disabilities, who was warehoused in an institution near Trosly-Breuil, France. In response, Jean bought a small house and invited two men, named Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux and both had disabilities and who were both previously institutionalized, to join him and live community. As the story continues, Jean began the project with the mindset that it was his responsibility to take care of these men and to teach them how to create a home and live typical lives in the larger neighborhood community. He soon came to an epiphany. Raphael and Phillipe, whom the world had labelled “disabled,” became teachers to Jean, who had a doctorate. It was they who taught him the importance of relationships and the true meaning of love:
To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.
--Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community
Those we most often exclude from the normal life of society, people with disabilities, have profound lessons to teach us.
--Jean Vanier, Becoming Human
Vanier also began L’Arche from a very Roman Catholic spiritual perspective, but his friends and those inspired by his example soon took the charism of L’Arche and shared this among other cultures and faiths. From the first small, shared home then grew a movement that now spans 38 countries, and which brings into real community more than 10,000 people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. In its own words, L’Arche is:
…people, with and without intellectual disabilities, sharing life in communities belonging to an International Federation. Mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our journey together. We celebrate the unique value of every person and recognize our need of one another.
--L’Arche International: Identity
And the mission of L’Arche is to:
Make known the gifts of people who have intellectual disabilities, revealed through mutually transforming relationships;
Foster an environment in community that responds to the changing needs of our members while being faithful to the core values of our founding story; and
Engage in our diverse cultures, working together toward a more human society.
As idealistic as this sounds, I can verify from my own lived experience in L’Arche that all this actually happens. L’Arche does not just support people with disabilities, L’Arche is created, nurtured and developed by people with disabilities working together with family, friends and assistants who have come to appreciate that people with disabilities have the capacity to contribute and even lead. At L’Arche, the people with disabilities are not “customers”, “clients” or “consumers” but “core members”. This term originated from the French word “coeur” because they are the “heart” of the communities. But it works well in English, too, because the core of an individual or an organization represents its strength.
Not only does the mission of L’Arche bring together people with and without disabilities, it also brings together people of many nationalities, cultures and racial, ethnic, and religious identities. At L’Arche, people work, play, pray and celebrate (a lot) together, emphasizing that what we have in common as human beings is much greater and more real than our differences. In the fall of 2009, I was privileged to attend the once-every-five-years-or-so L’Arche international meeting. That year, it was held in Kolkata, India. At a school founded by Mother Theresa, 300 or so people of differing abilities and backgrounds came together to share and plan. Our working sessions were translated into at least three languages, and we took turns praying in the manner of Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. Each person participated as far as she or he was comfortable. And it worked. At the same gathering, Jean made a very public apology for any times that he had made things a bit difficult for the leadership team that worked with him and he took steps toward transferring primary leadership to the next generation.
Jean lived into a breadth of understanding and vision that, despite his humility, brought him international acclaim and many awards. I remember the time he came to Chicago to receive the very appropriate “Blessed are the Peacemakers” award from Catholic Theological Union. The award was presented at a black-tie dinner. All the lay people were dressed to the nines in tuxedos and evening gowns, and the clerics had on their formal garb and insignia of their offices. But Jean, the guest of honor, showed up in his everyday uniform: slightly worn navy blue trousers, a light blue button-up shirt (with no tie), and his trademark dark windbreaker jacket. His white hair was just a bit unkempt, and he stooped a bit as if to keep his height from making him stand out. (He was also quite a tall guy.) When he stood up to go to the stage to receive the award, Elbert Lott, the founding core member of the Chicago L’Arche community, got up and joined him. Jean was very happy to have Elbert onstage with him. After receiving the award, Jean said very little but rather stood back to let Elbert tell his story to the crowd, instead.
The world has lost a wonderful example of how to value the most vulnerable people and how to truly live in peace, acceptance of the self and others, and collaboration. Happily, though, the work of Jean Vanier lives on in those who continue to live the charism of L’Arche and its sister organization, Faith and Light. For more information, please see www.larche.org, www.larcheusa.org, www.larchechicago.org, www.faithandlight.org and https://www.jean-vanier.org/en. Jean Vanier will always be a great man, who valued the greatness in everyone else too.