Jean Vanier’s ministry to people with developmental disabilities began with a simple gesture: He invited three men who had spent the majority of their lives in a large institution to come and live with him.
The four settled into a house in the small village of Trosly-Breuil in France in 1964. Soon more homes opened, and L’Arche, a worldwide network of homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers, was born.
Vanier, a Catholic who believed people with developmental disabilities were intrinsically worthy and had something to give and teach others, died Tuesday (May 7) at age 90 in France.
A winner of the Templeton Prize and numerous other honors, Vanier (pronounced Van-YAY), transformed the way people think of caring for the disabled.
But his impact was just as great on Christian ethics.
“He was a person of profound humility that was able to see into the heart of disabled people and know that they were fully human,” said Stanley Hauerwas, a Christian ethicist and Duke Divinity School professor emeritus.
Hauerwas, who co-authored a book with Vanier, “Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness,” said Vanier challenged people’s presumptions of self-importance and showed that the least presentable people are part of God’s plan and, indeed, its very core.
It was not a given that Vanier should devote his life to people at the margins. He was born into a prestigious, well-to-do Canadian family. His father was the British monarch’s representative in Canada, the governor general. Vanier trained for a career as a naval officer with the British and later Canadian navies but then resigned his commission and went to France, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. His appeared to be a life of upward mobility.
Butt in 1964, he decided to follow his mentor, a Dominican priest named Thomas Philippe who had become a chaplain to a small institution for people with disabilities. Wanting to be close to him, and horrified by the way disabled people were treated in institutions, Vanier bought a house nearby and took in people with profound developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“The cry of people with disabilities was a very simple cry: Do you love me? That’s what they were asking,” Vanier wrote. “And that awoke something deep within me because that was also my fundamental cry.”
While the L’Arche organization — the word means arch or bridge — was sometimes critiqued for not addressing policy concerning people with disabilities, it was also prized for offering homes where disabled and able-bodied could live side by side as equals. Daily rituals, such as meals, prayers and birthday celebrations, are shared.
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Source: Religion News Service