Remembering Jean Vanier

November 18 2019


As you may know, earlier this year we sadly lost Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche and one of the giants of disability theology and practice. Mat Ray, Livability’s Head of Church Partnerships, reflects on Jean Vanier’s legacy and the privilege of running a recent workshop based on his approach.

Jean Vanier’s life and legacy

This summer Livability was invited by Greenbelt festival to lead a workshop exploring his life and legacy. It was a generous offer, but a nerve-wracking challenge: to do justice to the man who authored over a dozen books and spent over 50 years leading an organisation that has grown to operate in 40 countries – all in just 55 minutes!

Through his writing and speaking, Jean encouraged a radical rethinking of the value of disabled people. But it was his actions – moving into the first l’Arche house to live together with three men with learning disabilities, building a community of equality, joy and celebration – that really challenged the world.

The power of his work

So we decided that instead of presenting a hopelessly diluted summary of his words, we would try to help people experience some Jean’s work. Key to his approach are the importance of welcome, of community, and of shared stories. We started by inviting those who came to the workshop to greet strangers and spend time finding out about each other. As we started to build a temporary community, we heard a little about Jean’s life, and his commitment to community.

Members of the l’Arche London community led us in an exercise, encouraging us to notice, name and appreciate gifts. Then a group came to tell us about how they have been influenced by Jean – one man had attended his funeral, a woman had known him well, and a disabled minister who had never met Jean, but credits Vanier’s writing with giving him the confidence to become a vicar.

Getting creative

Finally the whole workshop got creative, together making strings of bunting decorated with words and images of what we each, disabled or not, bring to our church communities.

Throughout the short workshop, we had managed to squeeze in 9 different voices, some disabled, others not disabled, some who had known Jean personally, others influenced by his writing. Laughing, building community and creating together – hopefully doing justice to Jean Vanier’s legacy.

A challenge for all of us

Jean Vanier famously wrote “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” This week, why not pick one or two ‘ordinary’ things from your to-do list and consider how to do them with ‘extraordinary’ love. What would it involve? What difference could it make? Are you brave enough to pick one or two things from Jean Vanier’s inspiring life and determine to live them out?

Mat Ray, 2019

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