A Little Friend of Jesus: The Life and Legacy of Jean Vanier

Written by Brianna Lantz
Jun 27, 2019

“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love. ”

– Jean Vanier

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On a quiet little farm outside of Tacoma, Washington, far from the ever-widening urban sprawl, is a community unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. It’s the kind of place where one can simply be; there is no hustle like the kind behind me in the city. Here, one can breathe and laugh and love without agenda. Here, peace permeates the air, and its scent is intoxicating.

This is L’Arche Tahoma Hope, a 42-year old member of L’Arche International, a worldwide network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives together. Its founder, the late reformer Jean Vanier, passed away this spring, but his legacy leaves imprints all over L’Arche’s 154 locations. I am here to understand how one man—one whom many called a saint, although he repeatedly shrugged the title—made such a lasting global impact through his life and faith.

The greenhouse on the farm of L’Arche Tahoma Hope; photo via L’Arche Tahoma Hope

Not long after I arrive, I am greeted by Cindy, a spunky, long-time core member of this community. (“Core members” are “individuals with disabilities who form the heart of a community” and occupy a place of honor within it.) Cindy, who has become something of a spokesperson here, beams with an earnest, ever-present smile. As she guides me through the grounds, it becomes clear that she takes enormous pride in this place she calls home. She leads me to the Welcome Center, arguably the crown jewel of L’Arche Tahoma Hope. Centered by a large labyrinth etched into the floor, the space is open and airy and primed to foster relationships between this community and the larger outside community. Anyone can come and participate in a number of meaningful activities together, from cooking to dancing to yoga to arts and crafts.

As we make our way to Ananda, Sanskrit for “where joy springs” and the home that core members share with live-in assistants, I meet Les, who has just emerged from a “stained glass” workshop. He proudly raises a patchworked piece of paper, generously colored and pieced together by yarn, ready to be displayed in his window. But he has something else to show me, something far more important to him: a signed basketball by Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers. Protected by a square plastic case, the ball is clearly Les’s most prized possession. Les does not speak, but the wide smile that stretches across his face and the pride in his eyes tells me just how much Lillard’s act meant to him.

I am here to understand how one man—one whom many called a saint, although he repeatedly shrugged the title—made such a lasting global impact through his life and faith.

I’m not here for more than an hour when I begin to notice a theme, a common thread that runs through this place: a sense of pride that is indicative of a larger grasp of dignity. This is not a place where people are defined by their disabilities, but instead where they are loved and championed for the gifts inherent within them. This is not a place where well-intentioned caretakers come to “love on” people with intellectual disabilities, but instead it is a place to learn from core members and live in mutuality with them. Because of what it is not, this is a place where folks can live into their divine image without fear of ostracization and ableism; this is a place that bears the marks of Jean’s offering to humankind: the gift of dignity.

Photo via Association Jean Vanier

“We give dignity to each other by the way we listen to each other, in a spirit of trust and of dying to oneself so that the other may live, grow and give.”

– Jean Vanier

________

The story of Jean Vanier begins in 1928, when he was born into privilege as the son of the 19th governor general of Canada. His life trajectory involves a slow descent of downward mobility that began after an eight-year stint as a teenager in the Canadian and British navies. Feeling unmoored by the dropping of the atom bombs in WWII, Jean chose to leave the Navy and pursue works of peace. The subsequent decade of Jean’s life was marked by intense study, silence, prayer, and solitude on a small plot of land in Portugal where he could live simply with little money.  

This is a place that bears the marks of Jean’s offering to humankind: the gift of dignity.

But the great turn of his life was in the early 1960s, when he was invited to France by his spiritual mentor, a Dominican priest who served as a chaplain in an asylum for men with intellectual disabilities. Jean was greatly disturbed by what he witnessed: men resigned to walking in circles all day in an atmosphere of anger and violence. Yet underneath the guise of pain, Jean saw in these faces a beautiful tenderness, a deep longing for friendship, and a “primal cry” to love and be loved.

Motivated by the conviction that Jesus wanted something to be done for these men, Jean bought a house nearby and invited two of them—Raphael and Phillipe—to live with him as equals. With just one tap and one wood burning stove, life was simple, but it formed the foundation upon which Jean, Raphael, and Phillipe built a deep bond that Jean felt reflected the covenant between God and the suffering world. In this atmosphere of mutuality, Jean knew that individuals could grow into their fullest self and realize their capacity for love. He would later name the home “L’Arche”—French for “the ark.” It would be the first step on a path that led to 154 communities across 38 countries.

Photo via L’Arche Canada

“Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging, so it is at the heart of communion with another.”

– Jean Vanier

________

Jean never claimed to have the big solution for such a complex issue like institutionalization; he built L’Arche to simply be a sign, one that says “a society, to be truly human, must be founded on welcome and respect for the weak and downtrodden.”

What Jean leaves behind is not necessarily a successful, scalable model (at least by Western standards); in fact it’s the very subversion of the definition of success that makes L’Arche so unique.

Underneath the guise of pain, Jean saw in these faces a beautiful tenderness, a deep longing for friendship, and a “primal cry” to love and be loved.

“[Jean] began to sense how living with [people with intellectual disabilities] could transform him, not by developing his intelligence or qualities of leadership but by awakening the qualities of his heart, the child that lived within him,” says Sue Hudacek, long-time friend of Jean and staff member at L’Arche. “He recognized that they were teachers of the heart, and that they had much to teach him.”

This “Copernican revolution,” as Sue calls it, this “change of attitude from that of ‘wanting to do things for’ to that of ‘listening to and being with’ would come to shape the values of L’Arche. Coupled with the paradoxical teachings of the Gospel, like “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” and “blessed are the meek,” L’Arche is truly a model in subversion of the status quo and a picture of Christ entering an afflicted world.

Jean and Mother Teresa in India, photo via L’Arche USA

Just as Jesus connected to others through the washing of feet and laying of hands, Jean recognized the simple power of being present to the suffering body. “Bathing, helping people dress, to eat: It’s to communicate to them through the body,” Jean once said. “And then, as the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up. There’s a recognition. There’s a contact. There’s a relationship.”

It’s small gestures like these that form the grand scope of Jean’s life and legacy. He never sought to widen his reach or scale his model of care; instead he found peace in making something of the little things. “Maybe the big thing that’s going to happen is that little lights of love will spread…Little places where people love each other and welcome the poor and the broken,” Jean said. “We’ll never hit the headlines, but we’ll be creating these little lamps. And if there are a sufficient number of little lamps in each village or each city, well, then the glow will be a little bit greater. What is important is just to become a little friend of Jesus.

Header photo via R2W films.

Photo by Pierre Michaud/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Image

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