Wednesday, October 17, 2012

31/21: Unreasonable Canadians—Jean Vanier

As part of the 31 for 21 challenge, every Wednesday during October I am celebrating an unreasonable Canadian who has inspired me with their courage and vision—through their writing or their advocacy— for a world where all are welcome. Today I celebrate Jean Vanier.

Jean Vanier  was so unreasonable, in 1964 he dared to welcome two men from an institution for people with intellectual disabilities to live with him in a little home he called “L'Arche,” after Noah's ark, in Trosly France. This small act of faith and daring was the beginning of L’Arche, a movement that grew quickly as this new way of sharing life together in community with people who would otherwise be shut away in institutions attracted many young people. And Vanier himself began traveling and speaking about his own life-changing experience of coming to know people with developmental disabilities. Today, there are 130 L'Arche communities in 30 countries on six continents.

Born in 1928 in Switzerland, where his father was serving as a Canadian diplomat, he is the son of Governor-General Georges Vanier and Pauline Vanier, hence he is a Canadian and we are proud to claim him! Maclean’s magazine (September 4, 2000, p. 33) writes about Vanier: For nearly four decades, Jean Vanier has travelled the world fashioning a network of homes where people with developmental disabilities, volunteers and a sprinkling of staff live together in community. “Those we lock away and think worthless,” he says, “have the power to teach and even to heal us. We are all ‘broken’ in some way,” he believes. . . . “When you start living with people with disabilities,” he says, “you begin to discover a whole lot of things about yourself.” He learned that to “be human is to be bonded together, each with our own weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other.” Tall and stooped, Vanier radiates the strength of a man who has fought his own inner battles and surfaced with peace.

Vanier has written many books, including Becoming Human, Finding Peace, Made for Happiness, Encountering the Other, and Befriending the Stranger, and a wonderful refection that is pure poetry, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John. He has won many awards, but is mostly a kind, humble man filled with a gentle spirit and great insight into what it means to be fully human. His faith certainly unpins and drives his life, and yet there is something so open and inviting that even those without any named faith are drawn to him. His teeth are crooked, his eyebrows now wild, but his heart, I think, is as straight and true as God makes them.

In his introduction to Our Life Together: A Memoir in Letters, he writes:
People have described L’Arche as a radical movement. It was born in the mid-1960s when many young people, including myself, were looking for something different, searching for something to follow other than the ladder of material success and individual accomplishment. Choosing community life and a life among the poor may have seemed strange or radical, but to my mind it was radical only in the sense of the word that means “touching the roots,” the roots of our humanity.

L’Arche is rooted in love. We live in community with those with intellectual disabilities because as human beings we seek naturally to love and be loved: each of us wants relationships where our value as a person—with our frailties and poverty—is recognized, affirmed and celebrated. Each person, whatever his or her abilities or disabilities, strengths or weaknesses, is important and sacred. This idea is not unique to L’Arche, and it’s not new or revolutionary! It is the Gospel message. It is the essence of what it means to be human and to be Christian. We discover how we can be healed by those who are the most vulnerable. It’s not a question of going out and doing good to them; rather, receiving the gift of their presence transforms us.

I’ve never really considered myself a radical. I’m trying to live the Gospel message as best I can, and I hope always to be touching the roots. One of the strengths of L’Arche is that on the whole we are loved by many people. We are seen as being with the poor and the downtrodden. We are seen as a place of mutual trust. In L’Arche we trust each other: people with disabilities feel trusted and allowed to be and to grow, and feel that they can do things and work things out; and assistants, those who come to L’Arche to live with the disabled, learn to accept and to trust themselves in all that they are. Trust is founded on the belief that you are important, that you are precious.   

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