An interview with Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier with L'Arche community members (Photo by Élodie Perriot).

The following interview appeared in the April 18,1992 issue of America.

L’Arche is a Christian community where people with a mental handicap live with non-handicapped people. L’Arche was begun in 1964 when Jean Vanier welcomed two men, Raphael and Phillip, to live with him in Trosly-Brueil, France.

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Today, there are 97 communities in 25 countries. They include 26 Canadian and 12 U.S. communities. Martin E. O'Malley is the Director of L’Arche Mobile and the Regional Coordinator for the Central U.S. Region of L’Arche, which includes communities in Kansas City, Kans.; Clinton, Iowa, and Mobile, Ala. This interview was conducted by Martin E. O’Malley when Jean Vanier visited Mobile last November.

What is your experience in community relative to the world and church, and what has L'Arche taught you about the world and the church?

I’ve traveled extensively over the last few years. We have L’Arche communities and Faith and Light support groups in Central and South America, the Caribbean, in Africa and throughout the Middle East and Asia and now particularly in Eastern Europe. This has brought me to discover our world of conflict, of pain and of extreme poverty, and it has made me also arrive at places of hope and of exciting developments. I suppose the first thing that impresses me is the immense division between the rich and the poor, between those who are well integrated into society and those who are marginalized and pushed aside. I have seen people who are self-satisfied and people who are crying out in distress and in pain. You see this in our rich countries. In London, for example, I was surprised not long ago to see the numbers of people lying in the streets at night. The same happens with the homeless in a city like Washington, and of course it is evident in countries like Honduras or Haiti. I think I'm discovering, more and more, that the poor are prophetic, they disturb, they cry out their anger, their pain and their depression. They disturb people who are self-satisfied, rooted, integrated into society, who are rich and powerful. The poor are prophetic because they are crying out for change.

"The poor are prophetic and disturb us, and yet Jesus came to bring the good news to the poor."

What is the place of the poor person?

Of course, in our communities we have many occasions to live with and be with people in this poverty—the angry, the depressed, people who carry inside themselves a lot of anguish and distress. They are people who have come from big institutions, people who were abandoned when they were young and have never lived a relationship. Of course these people disturb us: They wake us up at night, they shout, they are sometimes violent, they don’t relate with ease. All that pushes us to our limits. The poor are prophetic and disturb us, and yet Jesus came to bring the good news to the poor.

What is the good news that Jesus brings?

What is this good news? It’s that they are loved—that is to say, that they have a place in our hearts, in society, in the church, in our community. When people discover that they have a place and are wanted, little by little a certain peace comes about. I’m always touched by one of the commandments of Jesus, which we find in the 14th chapter of St. Luke. He said, when you give a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your rich neighbors, members of your family, because they can repay you. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the lame, the disabled and the blind, and you will be blessed, you will enter into a kind of Beatitude, a relationship of communion with the poor and the broken.

It is evident that the terrible inequality we find around the world reveals the brokenness and the divisions of our world. This is the first thing that we disciples of Jesus are called to address, because Jesus came to announce the good news to the poor. He came to touch and be close to the lepers and those that are marginalized. He came to reveal to those who are the weakest and the poorest that they are loved by the Father. I suppose that is what L’Arche and Faith and Light is all about.

"One of the dangers of the world today, and maybe of the church, is to fall into extremes—either as people who are solely concerned about the integrity of their faith and their tradition, or as those who are solely motivated by a need to help others through works of justice."

What danger do you see today in our world and church?

One of the dangers of the world today, and maybe of the church, is to fall into extremes—either as people who are solely concerned about the integrity of their faith and their tradition, or as those who are solely motivated by a need to help others through works of justice. These two extremes can push people into a faith and even a spirituality without any openness to the poor, or into social and political action without faith and without Jesus. I believe that for the church today and for all the disciples of Jesus, it is important to bring these two together. Isn’t that what James talks about in his New Testament letter, when he speaks about faith and works? Do we really love people, do we really love the poor, do we see in the face of the poor the face of Christ? Do we want to build community with the poor, and give them a sense of belonging, and can we do this if we haven't received the Holy Spirit, if we are not nourished by the body and the word of Christ? In L’Arche we are trying to bring these two realities together in order to discover the depth of the heart of Christ. He is in love with the poor and the broken, calling them to hope and resurrection, because He is in love with the Father.

What are we missing today and what has that taught you?

The second reality that I’m beginning to see, particularly in rich countries—but it’s also true of poor countries—is that there are so many lonely people. In our rich countries, we’ve won many prizes in a sense, many competitions: We have wealth, we have opportunities, the possibility to make choices, but we have lost something—a sense of belonging and a sense of community. People feel lonely. Children feel lonely. They break away from their parents because somehow these have been too authoritarian, too dominating, too absent. And there is the loneliness of the broken family: Everywhere there is the terrible screeching of lonely people. Today there is an immense need for community, for belonging. Of course there can be a “belonging” without any personal becoming. You can see assemblies of human beings in powerful sects where people don’t feel free to be themselves. They have to obey the group and sacrifice their personal consciousness for the security of collective consciousness.

When you speak of “belonging” today, can you deepen that in relation to the world today?

Community is a sense of belonging, but for the sake of personal becoming, so that we all become, each one of us, freer. In our world today, there is an immense need for people to discover belonging—that we belong to each other and need each other. Each of us has different gifts, and we need to complement each other with these gifts. The world, particularly in our societies in North America and richer countries of Europe, is highly competitive. We tend to be in rivalry one with another: “I'm more important than you.” Community, on the other hand, is a belonging where we encourage persons to be themselves, to find their place. Communities like L’Arche and Faith and Light are called to be these places of belonging, where people with disabilities and those who assist them discover that they belong to the same family, that they can trust each other and care for each other. I believe this is going to be one of the great challenges in the years to come. Christianity is not just a place where we live out issues, or seek individual spirituality in order to be saved. Christianity is the place of community, and its communities are open and ready to welcome those who are broken and weak in order to announce the good news to the poor.

"I believe that the human heart is crying for an authentic meeting with the God of forgiveness, so that we can become men and women truly liberated, living in the present moment."

What is needed today for the world to build peace?

A third reality, which I’m sensing very particularly today, is a need for an experience of God—to really discover the true God, the loving God, the Father. People, I feel, are so wounded today, and in many of us there is a great and deep sense of guilt. Maybe this guilt began when we were very young, at the very first moment we were rejected or felt we were not loved by our parents. This guilt increases as we discover that we haven’t loved people as we should. Husbands haven’t loved their wives, wives haven’t loved their husbands, parents their children, children their parents and so on. None of us has been able to live the incredible beauty of the Gospel message. In all of us there is a guilt, and I believe that the human heart is crying for an authentic meeting with the God of forgiveness, so that we can become men and women truly liberated, living in the present moment—not in the past, not in the future, not locked up in the prisons of our guilt or our broken self-image, but truly liberated. This happens when we discover that we are loved by God. It is not for us to hold on to that love, but to discover that our flesh and all our being are made so that we can communicate this love quite often. In many parts of the world, young and old are thirsting for a meeting with the true God, not just for ideas about God, but an experience of God.

What have you discovered in Europe and North America about the unity of Christians?

The fourth reality I’m sensing in our world and particularly in the countries of Europe and North America is the urging of the Spirit for unity among Christians. This has been one of the gifts of L’Arche. L’Arche never set out to become ecumenical. As a matter of fact, when L’Arche began, it was very much on Catholic soil in France, but then in the United Kingdom, in Canada, and later on in the United States, in Australia, Germany and Switzerland our communities began welcoming people from other Christian churches. We didn’t seek them out because they were from different churches. We welcomed people who were in need, and then we discovered that they were Lutheran or Anglican or Presbyterian or Methodist and so on. Gradually, L’Arche discovered that it was an ecumenical reality. When you welcome people who are Methodist, it’s important that they be integrated into their own parish. That means we must be in contact with the minister from the Methodist Church. We are gradually discovering what it means for Christians from the different denominations to live together, to pray together, to celebrate life together. We might be separated by certain elements of our faith, but our love of Jesus and of the Word of God, and our love for each other in our community of communion, are helping us to discover a new way of ecumenism.

What can you say specifically about ecumenism in L’Arche?

Ecumenism is to love everyone in the community as they are. To love them with their tradition, to encourage them to live their tradition and to live it fully and to grow as deeply as possible in the essence of that tradition which, for a disciple of Jesus, will always be to love Jesus more and to love our brothers and sisters more. This actually is leading us even further, because in a place like India and among our communities in Africa we are welcoming people who are Hindus and Muslims. We are discovering our common humanity. We are praying together and learning to love each other and respect each other deeply. I believe that in the years to come Christians will be called more and more to enter into this ecumenical and inter-religious reality, not focusing too much on the reality of inter-communion, but discovering that there can be another type of communion—communion with the poor. Maybe we are not able to drink the chalice of the same Eucharist, but we can drink together the chalice of pain, the chalice of suffering due to our divided world. We can then become people who thirst for unity.

What is the message of Jesus to you?

The message of Jesus is truly a universal message of love. When Jesus walked in the land of Israel, He loved the Romans, the Samaritans, the Jewish people, the lepers—He loved each one. I think He came to teach us to love in that particular way and to open our hearts to a new love. At the heart of the message of the Gospels is: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, speak well of those who speak badly of you, and pray for those who persecute you.”

What is the fundamental mystery of L'Arche in the church?

Living in community with people who have been very wounded, we touch our own brokenness, our own inner pain, our own anguishes, our own hardness of heart. Little by little, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are teaching us to open our hearts to all people and to discover that we are called to love the enemy. The fundamental mystery of L’Arche is that of belonging and of communion. It is to enter into communion with the poor. The heart of the mystery of the church is that she is essentially a place of communion. Little by little we are being called to that gift.

Explore America's in-depth coverage of the life of Jean Vanier. 

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