Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without disabilities live together, bearing witness to such marks of the Kingdom as friendship, peacemaking, and gentleness. In 2008 Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas wrote Living Gently in a Violent World. The passage below, written by Vanier, comes from a chapter entitled “The Fragility of L’Arche and the Friendship of God.”
Today some people idealize people with disabilities when they find autonomy, live alone, look at television, and drink beer. Autonomy can be good to a certain extent, but in our community a number of people who wanted to live alone fell into loneliness and alcoholism. The problem was not that they lived alone but that they lacked a network of friends. It always comes back to belonging. We have to discover more fully that the church is a place of compassion and fecundity, a place of welcome and friendship. We need time to listen to and understand people with communication problems. It takes time to become a friend of people with disabilities.
Before starting L’Arche I was rather serious. I prayed, I did philosophy, I taught. When I started living with people with disabilities, I learned to fool around and to celebrate life. There are three activities that are absolutely vital in the creation of community. The first is eating together around the same table. The second is praying together. And the third is celebrating together. By celebrating, I mean to laugh, to fool around, to have fun, to give thanks together for life. When we are laughing together with belly laughs, we are all the same. We’re all just belly laughing. Some of our people are really crazy and really funny. They are funny because they are crazy, and they are crazy because they are funny. It’s super to be with them . . .
. . . Food and love are linked closely. Our first meal as human beings was at our mothers’ breasts. We were filled with love and security and filled with nourishment. One of the worst books I have ever seen is a manual that explains how to teach people with disabilities to behave at mealtimes. Every page is about how to eat properly. When I read it I said, “They’re all going to be constipated or have diarrhea!”
A meal is supposed to be a place where you can laugh, even if you get a chunk of food in your face when somebody spits on you! That’s all part of the game. I am not saying we shouldn’t teach good manners. That’s another thing. But to make the meal a place of pedagogy is crazy . . .
. . . When Jesus says, “Invite them to your table,” he’s talking about bringing people together in friendship. And Jesus knew this wasn’t always comfortable – people criticized him because he ate with sinners and prostitutes; he became their friend.