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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

While I’ve lost faith in Jean Vanier, I have not lost faith in L’Arche

Jean Vanier used to be a personal hero of mine. In fact, the founding story of L’Arche was one of the most impactful stories of my life.I first experienced L’Arche the summer after my freshman year at Notre Dame through the Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP). I spent eight weeks living and serving as an assistant in L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C. (GWDC). In L’Arche, assistants (people without disabilities) share their lives with core members (people with disabilities). We live in community together.In my role as an assistant, core members trusted me to help them with cooking, getting dressed, brushing teeth and other aspects of their daily routine. I trusted core members to teach me how to live more authentically and with more compassion.  I realized shortly after my SSLP that eight weeks would never be enough. In that summer, I discovered a home, a family and a mission that I hope to carry forward for the rest of my life. It was so impactful, in fact, that I committed to L’Arche as an assistant for my next two summers at Notre Dame, and, after my graduation this May, I will return to L’Arche GWDC as a full-time assistant and community member.When news broke of Vanier’s despicable behavior, I originally didn’t know how to simultaneously hold the story and community I love and this terrible discovery about its author and founder. The theology and mission of L’Arche were now attributed to a man who gravely hurt others and then lied about it. Part of what originally drew me to Vanier’s writings in the first place was that they seemed to be matched by the way he lived his life: he preached about vulnerability, mutually transforming relationships and human dignity while modeling those values everyday (I thought) by choosing to live in intentionally inclusive communities. Reading the news from L’Arche USA on Saturday was therefore certainly a shock: the “authentic” lived theology I knew was suddenly called into question.But then I was reminded, as I often am in L’Arche, that the story of L’Arche was never really Jean’s. The story at its heart always belonged to our core members (people with disabilities). While writings and press about L’Arche sometimes focus on the fact that Jean chose to live with people with disabilities (which at the time was certainly revolutionary), it is important to remember that core members also made the choice to believe in a vision of inclusion, with incredible faith and trust and considerable risk. Core members are our founders.It is often said that on one of the first nights in L’Arche, the power went out in the house, and assistants (people without disabilities) could not figure out how to turn on the lights. One of the founding core members taught them how to flip the breaker, restoring light to the home. I believe that this is a time where the light in L’Arche homes will once again be turned on by our true founders. L’Arche was never meant to be led by assistants, or the founder: it was meant to be led by core members, who have always been at the heart of our communities around the world. Core members will lead us in praying for the courageous women who shared their stories, in sharing love and support with them and in healing our communities. Core members will guide our new, authentic and honorable stories of togetherness and mutuality. On Saturday, I was especially heartened to hear how some of the core members in my L’Arche community responded to the news about Vanier. One core member, who I consider to be my brother and one of my dearest friends, previously truly admired Vanier; this core member was known for his talent in retelling our founding story to new assistants as part of their orientation. After hearing the news, he paused for a few moments to collect his thoughts before replying that tomorrow, at Sunday Mass, he would add the women Vanier hurt to the prayer list. This is the mission of L’Arche: aligning ourselves always with the most vulnerable in our communities. While I am not a L’Arche spokesperson, my personal experience has made it abundantly clear that the mission of L’Arche, of sharing the gifts of those with intellectual disabilities through mutually transforming relationships, is alive and well, despite the reprehensible actions of Vanier. While we now know that Vanier did not authentically live the ideals that L’Arche was founded on, our core members always have and always will. If you want to learn about our true theology, about how we choose to center our lives around caring for each other and the most vulnerable among us, please rest assured that our best teachers — our core members — are just as committed as ever. While my faith in Vanier is broken, my trust in our core members has, if anything, been strengthened. I trust our core members to guide us through this disillusionment. I have immeasurable and unshakeable hope in them, and I am honored to follow their lead, alongside many assistants and community members around the world, today and everyday. 

Alice Felker


Feb. 24

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.