GUEST COLUMN BY CAROLINE MCGRAW
On December 10, 2012 the Nobel Committee will present the Nobel Peace Prize at Oslo City Hall in Oslo, Norway. Amongst this year's nominees is Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche (French for 'The Ark'), an international network of faith-based communities that create homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. While neither Vanier nor L'Arche are household names, their work is truly heroic.
Vanier's Background and the Founding of L'Arche
Jean Vanier never intended to start an international organization, much less become world-renowned for doing so. Vanier, a Canadian Catholic who had served with both the British Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy, began his work with people with disabilities in 1964. He did so in large part due to his connection with Father (Pere) Thomas Philippe, a Catholic priest who introduced him to the dismal world of institutions for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Pere Thomas, who served as a chaplain for an institution in Trosly-Breuil, France, brought Vanier with him to visit the institution, as well as a nearby psychiatric hospital.
Deeply disturbed by the inhumane conditions he witnessed there, Vanier was moved to act. He invited Raphael and Philippe (no relation to Pere Thomas), two local men diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, to come and live with him instead of at the psychiatric hospital. From this small act of welcoming kindness arose the idea of L'Arche.
International Reach of L'Arche
L'Arche began to take flight once Vanier shared news of his work in France with people in his home country of Canada. Vanier told stories of the men he lived with – people on the very 'bottom' of society who were bringing God to him in a new and vital way. To be sure, there were many difficult days in that first community (as there are in every L'Arche community), but there was also the growing sense that those who society considered 'the least of these' were at the center, the core, the heart of this vibrant new community. As more and more people were galvanized by Vanier's speaking and writing about his work in Trosly-Breuil, new L'Arche communities started springing up … first in Canada, then in India, and then all over the world. Vanier could not keep silent about the cruel segregation he'd seen in institutions, and the imperative need for people with disabilities to be welcomed, celebrated, and included in the life of the world.
The Particular Work of L'Arche
L'Arche's primary work isn't caregiving alone; it's mutual relationships. To be sure, such relationships are forged in the fires of daily-life care and shared home life, but they're also characterized by vulnerability on both sides. Direct-care assistants and core members (adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities) alike offer one another more than physical assistance or practical supports – they offer one another their hearts. In choosing to make their home together, they are saying to one another, 'You have something to offer, and I have a great deal to learn from you.' And this foundation of mutual affirmation often leads to great personal transformation.
Though the L'Arche communities have their roots in Catholicism, their members come from myriad faiths and faith traditions, and their simple spiritual practices – including cooking and sharing meals together, and washing one another's feet – transcend potential dividing lines. By staying rooted in their work of everyday love, L'Arche keeps its focus on what is truly essential. As Bernie Farber writes in his recent Huffington Post piece, “The 'Mensch' I Hope Wins the Nobel Peace Prize”, “By creating L'Arche — a remarkable and unique network of homes where individuals with developmental disabilities live comfortably, together with volunteers and staff — Vanier has given those who are often forgotten and locked away as worthless, the miraculous opportunity to play an important role, by touching others.” Farber wrote movingly of a Jewish couple who had a son, Marvin, with developmental disabilities accepted into L'Arche. Thanks to the L'Arche community, Marvin was able to achieve a lifelong goal: celebrating his Bar Mitzvah at age 60.
Personal Experience in Community
I entered the L'Arche Greater Washington DC community just after I'd turned 23. I'd graduated from Vassar College, and I felt led to be a part of this community I knew almost nothing about. To be sure, I knew a bit more than most about developmental disability; my younger brother, Willie, has autism, and he struggles with behavioral challenges as well. It was a desire to know Willie better – that is, a need to understand his world, to stand in solidarity with him, and to celebrate the gifts he has to offer – that led me to be a part of the L'Arche community.
I can relate to Vanier's story, as I, too, had no idea how being a part of L'Arche would alter the course of my life. I came to community intending to stay for a year and serve as a direct-care assistant. Instead, I remained for five years, taking on various roles from home life coordinator to program director as the community's needs changed. I came to L'Arche thinking that it was a 'detour' from my life's work as a writer. By the time I left L'Arche in 2012, I knew that I'd found my call: to share the beautiful, true stories of people with special needs who had changed my life. If I hadn't come to L'Arche, I wouldn't have found my voice as a writer who 'digs for treasure in people', and I wouldn't have met my husband, Jonathan, who worked as a direct-care assistant on a L'Arche house team with me. And most of all, I might not have dedicated myself to creating a world in which we celebrate people not just for what they can do, but for who they are and how much they are able to love.
Fortunately for me – and for all of us – Jean Vanier dedicated himself to that task long ago. And his commitment to 'the least of these' continues.
Caroline McGraw is a friend of mine, and a would-be childhood paleontologist turned storyteller, digging for treasure in people with autism & special needs (& empowering caregivers to do the same). Visit her at A Wish Come Clear. Caroline's piece is a welcome break from the ugly news out of Aurora, Colorado. I'm recovering from knee surgery right now, and will post again on Wednesday, August 22, 2012, before the Republican convention. -Tom Callaghan