“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” – Jean Vanier, Becoming Human
L’Arche Founder, Jean Vanier, ‘A Celebration of Life’. Photo: Supplied
On 7 May 2019, L’Arche International announced the death of its founder, French-Canadian humanitarian, social visionary and Christian philosopher Jean Vanier, who died in the early hours that morning, in the Maison Médicale Jeanne Garnier in Paris. He was 90 years old.
‘Jean has left an extraordinary legacy,’ said L’Arche International Leader Stephan Posner. ‘His Community of Trosly, the Communities of L’Arche, Faith and Light, many other movements, and countless thousands of people have cherished his words and benefited from his vision.’
Jean Vanier, who gave up a career in the Navy to follow in the footsteps of Christ, was the founder of two international organisations for people with intellectual disabilities: ‘L’Arche’ and ‘Faith and Light’. He advocated for marginalised people for over five decades, highlighting the profound teachings and the gifts that they offer.
Jean Vanier, founded L’Arche in 1964 in response to the treatment people with learning disabilities faced in institutions. Distressed by the institutionalisation and the isolation and loneliness of people with intellectual disabilities, Jean Vanier invited two men, Raphael Simi and Phillipe Seux, to live with him in a small house in Trosly-Breuil, a village in France. He named their house ‘L’Arche’, a French word for ‘the ark’ in the biblical story of Noah and the flood. By living with Raphael and Phillipe, Jean discovered a new way of living the beatitudes of Jesus.
Word spread and young people from various parts of the world came to the community in Trosly to share their life with people with an intellectual disability. Some of these young people were inspired by the vision of L’Arche and founded L’Arche communities in other countries. In 1998 the L’Arche Kāpiti community was established in Paraparaumu.
Today, the International Federation of L’Arche consists of over 150 communities in more than 38 countries around the world where more than ten thousand people with and without learning disabilities create places of welcome and celebration, sharing in life together. Each L’Arche community operates independently, but all are united in their commitment to the L’Arche mission: ‘To make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities, working together toward a more humane society.’
Dr David Treanor, International Envoy for L’Arche New Zealand, said, ‘Jean’s death is a great sadness. His vision was one of radical welcome, inclusion and joy, where marginalised people with learning disabilities are valued and celebrated.
‘He will be greatly missed by people from all walks of life who have been influenced and changed by his teachings, which remain as relevant today as ever.’
After retiring from his role at L’Arche, in recent decades Jean Vanier focused his work on sharing a message of unity, dignity and diversity. He entrusted the organisation’s legacy to the people who define what L’Arche is today – its members and communities.
In addition to his work with L’Arche, Vanier co-founded Faith and Light, and inspired the creation of many other organisations. He influenced thousands of people around the world and published some 40 books on how people with learning disabilities make essential contributions to building a more humane society.
Jean Vanier won the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2015, an annual international humanitarian award, second only in status to the Nobel Peace Prize. He was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize several times.
The Templeton Prize was originally awarded to people working in the field of religion (St Mother Teresa was the first winner), but in the 1980s the scope broadened to include people working at the intersection of science and religion.
To learn more about the life and legacy of Jean Vanier, visit: www.jean-vanier.org/en
New Zealand memorial service for Jean Vanier
The L’Arche community in Kāpiti held a vigil for Jean on Wednesday evening 8 May. A national memorial service for Jean Vanier, open to the public, will be held at St Gregory’s Catholic Church, Bishopdale, Christchurch, on Saturday 8 June, at 11am. In Wellington, a service will be held on Sunday 23 June, at 2pm, Bishop Viard College (Porirua).
The L’Arche community would also like to advise about a movie launching in New Zealand in June called Summer in the Forest. It’s a documentary about life in the first L’Arche community of
Trosly-Breuil in northern France, and features Jean Vanier. The film depicts ordinary, everyday life in that community, and the extraordinary nature of what’s being lived there.
Tickets need to be purchased in advance, and the movie will be shown in several city centres – Wellington (12 June), Auckland (12 June), Christchurch (5 June), Palmerston North (12 June) and Paraparaumu (12 June). Go to www.summerintheforest.co.nz for more details and to buy tickets.
A tribute from L’Arche Kāpiti
Candice Wilson, Community Leader, L’Arche Kāpiti
Candice Wilson (l), Kāpiti L’Arche Community Leader, with Jean Vanier, and Tamzin Hine (r), a core Member of L’Arche Kāpiti. Candice and Tamzin were invited to France in 2014 to celebrate L’Arche’s 50th anniversary. Photo: Supplied
A good man, a humble man left the world last month. His name was Jean Vanier, a French-Canadian philosopher who founded an organisation called L’Arche in 1964, when he invited two men with intellectual disabilities, Raphael Simi and Phillippe Seux, to share life with him in a simple home in Trosly-Breuil, in the north of France. He did this after witnessing the abysmal conditions they endured in the institution they called home.
Since then, the L’Arche movement has grown to over 150 communities in 38 countries around the world, two of which are in New Zealand – L’Arche Kāpiti in Paraparaumu, and L’Arche Mt Tabor in Auckland – with a third sister-community, Marralomeda Charitable Trust, in Christchurch. The three communities in New Zealand live in the spirit of Jean Vanier’s teachings where adults with differing abilities choose to share life together in home settings.
Starting out strongly Catholic, L’Arche is now ecumenical and multi-faith in nature, welcoming all so long as they’re open and respectful of other’s traditions. In many L’Arche communities, home life remains central, where people with differing abilities work, play, pray and celebrate together, side by side.
Some members of the community are paid, and others come as volunteers to share their life for a time, often from other L’Arche communities around the world. Each member of the community has gifts to share, ways to contribute and joys to bring, regardless of whether society has labelled them as having a disability or not. Indeed, in L’Arche communities, more often than not, the ones coming to be the ‘carers’ soon realise they’re being ministered to in ways they couldn’t have possibly imagined. Although far from perfect, that is the essential beauty of L’Arche – the mutuality of relationships, the balm against loneliness and the sense of interdependence in a day and age where ‘independent living’ is touted as the ultimate aim in disability circles.
So hats off to the man who started a movement he thought wouldn’t get bigger than the number of people he could fit in his car. Jean Vanier died at the age of 90 in the Maison Medicale Jeanne Garnier in Paris in the early hours of 7 May. He was a giant of a man who desired to follow Jesus and did so with all his heart. He believed the path to ‘success’ was downward mobility, to seek out those society typically excludes or rejects and to reveal to them their immense value and beauty. He will be dearly missed.
Published in WelCom June 2019