‘Intrinsically Worthy’: Jean Vanier’s Legacy to People with Disabilities

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 May 7 at age 90 in France.

A winner of the Templeton Prize and numerous other honors, Vanier transformed the way people think of caring for people with disabilities.

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 Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness with Vanier, 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.

But 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 people with disabilities 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 ‘the ark’—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.

Susan McSwain, who co-founded a Durham, N.C.-based Christian nonprofit that offers various programs for people who are developmentally and intellectually disabled, said Vanier was a major influence on her work.

In particular, she cited Vanier’s commitment to mutuality in friendship.

“A lot of work with people with disabilities comes from a mindset of someone who has something to give somebody who doesn’t have something,” said McSwain, the co-founder of Reality Ministries. “It’s a one-way street. Jean Vanier turned all that on its head by saying, ‘We’re incomplete without each other.’”

His work was also distinctly Christian, though L’Arche homes are ecumenical and interfaith.

Vanier talked of the brokenness of both people who are disabled and abled, and of the transformation that can happen through relationships of mutuality. He also founded a similar organization, Faith and Light, which consists of small groups that meet regularly to support and celebrate people with developmental disabilities.

“I’m not interested in doing a good job,” he wrote. “I’m interested in an ecclesial vision for community and in living in a gospel-based community with people with disabilities.”

c. 2019 Religion News Service


Cara Milne, a regional disability advocate for the Alberta South/Saskatchewan classis of the Christian Reformed Church (a classis is a regional group of churches), is another individual influenced by the work of Jean Vanier. “I sent Jean Vanier a copy of my book [Building Community: Practical Ways to Build Inclusive Communities for People Who Are Vulnerable] when it was first published in 2017 with a note of thanks for his influence he had on my career. He sent me back a personalized handwritten note of encouragement and blessing. I was so thankful,” Milne said.

Disability advocates like Milne operate as a network across the CRC denomination with the support of Disability Concerns ministry. Mark Stephenson, the director, said “Reading Vanier's writings, as well as those of the most famous resident of one of his communities, Henri Nouwen, I’ve been able to frame my own experiences as the father of a child with severe, multiple disabilities to see not just her deficits and challenges but also her gifts and contributions to the lives of the people around her. Through his writings and the L’Arche communities themselves, Vanier brought to me and to the world an entirely different model for viewing people with intellectual disabilities, not as people to be “cared for” in institutions, but as fellow citizens, image-bearers of God, and participants in the work of God’s kingdom.”

The Banner has a subscription to Religion News Service and occasionally re-publishes articles of wide Christian interest, according to the license. This story has been edited for length and clarity. The quotes from Cara Milne and Mark Stephenson have been added. The original story can be found here.

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