Jean Vanier - Philospher, Theologian, Intellectual, Human.

Jean Vanier Starfire

At the age of 90, Jean Vanier died last month leaving behind a remarkable legacy in this world. If you’ve not heard of him, it’s likely because of his steadfast dedication to the lives of people with developmental disabilities, people whose lives were on the periphery of society, not often seen or valued.

Known as a philosopher, theologian and intellectual he was most simply, human. In 1964, after becoming aware of the inhumane conditions of institutions in which people with disabilities were living, Vanier bought a small house and welcomed two men with disabilities as housemates, Raphaël and Phillippe and founded the first L’Arche community, one example of community living for people with disabilities. Instead of starting a program, or building a new institution, Vanier instead lived alongside his friends and at the time of his death this year, had lived over fifty years in communion together with people with disabilities.

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Referred to by many as a living saint, he was just a person, like any of us. While he gained notoriety, asking to present and speak across the world, receiving awards for his work with people with developmental disabilities he was quoted as saying,

“I feel that people are saying, ‘You’re doing a beautiful work’; and that doesn’t interest me, because what they are really saying is, ‘I’m glad you’re doing it, not me.’”

Through his work in the L’Arche community, we are given one example of how we all might work to build “inclusive communities of faith and friendship” wherever we are. One in which “transforms society through relationships that cross social boundaries.” L’Arche today has communities in 38 countries, with over 10,000 members with and without disabilities living in community together and continues to grow. This was one step towards more integrated community life for people with disabilities. Jean Vanier’s work and his life began to spark the imagination for what more could be possible for our friends, family, and neighbors with disabilities.

His life serves as a reminder that it is not our purpose to create more systems or institutions in which people “go” but to instead foster the kind of community and culture that Jean Vanier embodied in his life: welcoming, reciprocal, personal, and individual.

It is our purpose instead to work towards creating communities that truly believes for everyone: You Belong Here. 

Jean Vanier, September 10 1928 - May 7, 2019

Candice Jones Peelman is the Executive Director of Starfire, a visionary organization working to build better lives for people with disabilities.

L’Arche is able to testify that the art of living together is born from the creative welcoming of humanity’s diversity and fragility. Learn More: www.larche.org

Candice Jones Peelman