Theologian Jean Vanier Is Gone, but His Christian Model for Living Engaging the Disabled Lives on

A prayer gathering of Friendship House in Fayetteville, N.C. Scott Cameron sits on the floor beside his dog. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

At the evening prayer service at a new residential complex here, a dozen young people took turns reading a passage from the Gospel of Luke, reciting a Psalm and singing some prayers.

They paid no mind as one woman tripped over the words “rebuke,” “unrighteous” and “snare” that appeared in the liturgy. They congratulated another person who, at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, blurted out, “What does ‘amen’ mean?”

“Good question!” some exclaimed in unison. It means “truly,” offered one; “so be it,” offered another.

These kinds of moments are common at the weekly service where a mix of graduate students and a handful of adults with developmental disabilities share living quarters in three new buildings in the city’s Haymount neighborhood.

Jean Vanier. Photo courtesy of Templeton Prize,
John Morrison

Friendship House, as they call their co-housing space, is in many ways an outgrowth of the thinking of Jean Vanier, the Catholic theologian and humanitarian who died earlier this month and who changed the way many Christians view disability. Insisting on the humanity of all, Vanier worked to tear down the separation between the able and disabled and between those helping and those being helped.

His signature creation was L’Arche, a worldwide network of homes where people with and without disabilities live and work as peers. The influence of L’Arche can be found in Friendship Houses, which have adopted Vanier’s core principle of “Eat together, pray together, celebrate together.”

There are seven Friendship Houses in the U.S. and one in Scotland. The Fayetteville Friendship House, which opened late last year, is the newest and most novel. While other Friendship Houses are affiliated with seminaries or Christian universities, Fayetteville’s is intended to allow students in health care professions the opportunity to learn from disabled people.

It is the brainchild of Scott Cameron, a physician and a graduate of Duke Divinity School, who realized he needed to change his own attitude about some of the diagnoses he delivers to parents of babies he cares for in the neonatal intensive care unit at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center. With Friendship House, Cameron aims to extend that insight into a larger group of health care students.

“I think it will help them change the way they view disabilities, not as something that is broken, but something that can be celebrated,” he said.

Cameron and his family — his wife is a public school teacher — moved into a newly constructed house next to Friendship House last year. The Camerons often lead joint activities there.

Two of the three Friendship House buildings in Fayetteville, N.C. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

The campus, with three buildings, a barn and a garden, cost about $1.5 million to build. Much of that was raised through partnerships with businesses and nonprofits. The land was given by Highland Presbyterian Church, which is located across the street.

The house is meant to attract those studying to be nurses, doctors, physician assistants, physical therapists and occupational therapists at four nearby universities and a community college. At full capacity, it will house 18 students and six people with developmental disabilities.

Each resident pays a monthly rent of $450, including utilities, and is provided a bedroom on a single-sex unit. Each unit includes a disabled person and three students.

But the students are not caretakers or babysitters. They are there mostly to offer social support.

“My job is to be a friend,” said Victor Long, 30, who graduated from Campbell University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine this month and shares a Friendship House apartment with Michael Brown, a 24-year-old man with autism.

“I go about my daily living. If I go grocery shopping or out to eat with friends, I try to get Michael involved, to be social,” said Long, who begins a residency at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center next month.

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Source: Religion News Service