Creating a thriving community requires good people-focused policies, sustainable budgets, and good governance. These are all important and essential. However, what our imaginations need are real examples of other people and communities that have lived out what we aspire to become. While posters of movie stars and athletes adorn the walls of young fans, our neighbourhood heroes are less flashy and their slow and intentional work to love others seldom garners millions of social media followers. Yet these are the heroes we turn to as we nurture the fabric of our community together.
Jean Vanier is one of those heroes. He passed away on May 7th, 2019 at the age of 90 years old. Vanier was a Canadian and a member of the Order of Canada. He was a theologian who believed that his love of God translated best into love for people. In 1964 Vanier started L’Arche, a world-wide network of communities that support those with developmental disabilities. Over 10,000 people are part of L’Arche’s 147 communities. Vanier’s vision was that each person would be known, befriended, empowered, and welcomed no matter what their intellectual disability might be. In fact, he believed every person had a gift to share and it is our invitation to look for those gifts and empower them.
Jean Vanier was a giant of faith, service, and compassion. He wrote extensively, but his writings were always rooted in his own hands-on work to walk alongside others, never above or apart from his community. He believed that weaknesses were part of our story, and something that we did not have to hide. He said, “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and success.”
Vanier believed that it was in community that we truly grew into who we were made to be. He said, “When we begin to believe that there is greater joy in working with and for others, rather than just for ourselves, then our society will truly become a place of celebration.” Having been a military man and later an academic, he discovered that a simple life in community was the greatest gift. “Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other.” “Community is not about perfect people. It is about people who are bonded to each other, each of us whom is a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, love and hate.”
Jean Vanier taught us that simple acts of eating together, spending time sharing life, and learning to love each other in spite of the complexity, might perhaps contain some some of the greatest gifts we might ever receive. His life and love stands as an example for us as we seek to create better neighbourhoods and meaningful connections. Whether we think we are capable or not, Jean Vanier, this hero of compassion and kindness, reminds us that, “love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”
To learn more about Jean Vanier’s life and influence, I recommend taking the time to watch the film, “Summer in the Forest.”