Research into the spiritual lives of people with learning disabilities shows that, unsurprisingly, they like to attend church because it offers a chance to make friends and chat with them and have fun. But when asked if they met those friends only at church or also in homes, the answer was only at church. In the same research, a mother described how her teenaged son was not included in birthday parties and a carer observed that people with learning disabilities were only rarely invited into someone’s home.
This reticence perhaps comes from a desire to keep our public and private worlds separated, or from a fear of a person who is different, or from our own worry that we won’t know how to respond and what to do for the best. The example of Jean Vanier, who died on 7 May this year, is a challenging light to guide our ways. Born in Canada, he served in WW2, before feeling a more spiritual call which took him to study philosophy. He became aware about the way that people with disabilities were in institutions, rather than homes. In 1964, he left academia and invited two young men to leave the institution and live with him, in his home in his northern France, where he lived until his death. This was the beginning of the L’Arche homes. In 140 communities in 35 countries, people of differing abilities live together, learn from each other, help and serve each other. Jean Vanier’s work and writings point us to being better people, open to each other, shaping our communities to suit the people in them, learning to love.
Vanier and the work of L’Arche is inspiring, and sobering. I know my inner tendency to turn away. I have seen churches exclude or patronise when they should include and affirm. I am challenged by the L’Arche way that teaches me that all people they can teach me intellectual, practical and spiritual truths about honesty, love, acceptance. I am challenged to make my home, my next birthday party, be part of this way of being.
Yours in Christ,