The Legacy of Jean Vanier’s Ministry to People With Disabilities

Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together, gestures as he talks during a news conference in London on March 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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.

Jean Vanier shaking hands with
one of the core members of L
’Arche Daybreak, John Smeltzer,
in October 2009. Photo by Warren
Pot/Creative Commons

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.

Click here to read more.
Source: Religion News Service