On Holy Saturday, the Wall Street Journal featured an interview with Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, which serve the disabled “in a world seeking perfect babies,” Vanier said. He describes “the gift of living with the not gifted,” and he understands how transformative it is to form communities of differently abled people. No wonder they are called “arks.” He is the winner of this year’s Templeton Prize, which honors individuals who make “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s breadth of spiritual dimensions.”
This remarkable individual has long been a personal hero of mine, and I was privileged to be present when St. John’s University awarded Vanier its Humanitatis prize for his leadership with people who find themselves at the bottom. His mission has been going down to the bottom and listening to those there, who have something to say. Thus he is very wary of too many awards, too much pomp that would elevate him above those God has called him to serve—and share life. I remember his attire at St. John’s; it was a simple windbreaker, khaki pants, and sneakers.
His ministry reflects the impulse of the earliest Christian community as recorded in Acts.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and
no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all (Acts 4:32-33).
It is the relationships within this founding community that impresses us. Vanier suggests that is the primal need of all humans, especially the disabled. They want to relate.
“Everything is about coming together,” he says, "through the eyes, through the face, through the hands, through the imperfections, with all that is beautiful and all that is painful.” Vanier began as a navy officer and earned a doctorate in philosophy. Neither profession was sufficiently incarnational for him, and in the early 60’s he founded the first L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuli, France.
Many come alongside Vanier in pursuing this ministry, and it has proved life-changing for all members of the communities. For those who cannot devote their lives to its intense demands, he has a suggestion: “Try and find someone who is lonely.” Go see that one; take flowers or other signs of life and beauty. “It always begins with small little things. It all began in Bethlehem. That was pretty small.”
Vanier is describing what it means to live in the power and promise of the resurrection. Christ is risen; and he rises through his followers who believe the Gospel.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.