Remembering Jean Vanier’s World-Changing Legacy

Learn more about Jean Vanier and how his organization has helped disabled individuals in more than 35 countries.
(Photo by Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times)

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Jean Vanier, the man who has quietly set off a revolution in the way we relate to one another and to people with disabilities. It’s understandable — he was always committed to small acts of love for those on the margins. His life and legacy, however, are proof that these small acts can change the world.

We just learned that Vanier has died after more than 90 years of life, so it’s an appropriate time to look back at the life of this man, and the wisdom he brought us. This video distills his insights about meeting one another in our shared human dignity, and how that is a source of joy. “There’s only one thing that really matters,” he said: “relationship.”

Vanier founded L’Arche, which is a network of almost 150 communities in 35 countries around the world where adults with mental disabilities live with caregivers. It all began in the 1960s in France — Vanier visited a government-run psychiatric hospital and was disheartened to see how those people were living.

So he did something about it.

He invited two men with intellectual disabilities who were institutionalized to come live with him in his home near Paris. They shared life together, and the radical community they shared — where the disabled and caregivers live together as equals, each with their own essential contributions to common life — became a model for other homes. He named the program L’Arche, after Noah’s ark.

The wisdom that Vanier shared from these encounters teaches us something important about the spiritual life: It’s about LOSING power, not gaining it. That’s a counter-cultural way to live, but it’s the only way to grow in love.

“Spirituality then is about getting close to people who have been rejected,” he said. “It’s breaking down the wall that separates the rich and the poor.”

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