In our continuing series, Jeff and Joy write about their experience of Jean Vanier:
Joy and I both have been deeply touched by Jean Vanier and by the rich community of L’Arche. After his death I wrote to L’Arche saying that, perhaps more than any other person, Jean had been a profound influence on my life.
When Joy moved to Calgary, she contacted L’Arche looking for work, and it was our own dear SoulStream partner, Helen Barry, who interviewed her and gave her work supporting the core members in one of the houses. It was right up Joy’s alley. She loved working with people with disabilities, and she loved the emphasis that each person, core members and assistants alike, have both gifts and disabilities. It creates a radical equality.
Joy didn’t meet Jean Vanier personally, but she had a very telling experience of his huge heart. At a very large rally in Edmonton, she watched as one of the Calgary core members went up to see Jean. Jean broke into a big grin, called him by name, and gave him a huge hug. Out of all the many people in L’Arche worldwide, Jean knew him by name and responded to him so warmly!
My first experience with L’Arche and Jean Vanier came when our family moved back to Calgary from Jamaica and I got to know one of the L’Arche assistants. I was touched by the way community created a deep sense of justice.
I spent years as a friend of L’Arche and often participated in their gatherings and retreats. It was like home. In fact, as we began Barnabas Christian Fellowship a few years later and later, as SoulStream came into being, many of the deep values of L’Arche were embedded in the formation and structure.
I met Jean at a L’Arche retreat in Gatineau, QC. I was deeply moved by his humility, his simplicity, and his powerful call to treat everyone with dignity. At the time I was going through a deep deconstruction of my faith and my conceptions of God. I asked to speak with Jean and he graciously agreed. I will never forget admitting that I had lost my understanding of God and that one of the very few ways for me to perceive God or name God was through the image of water. Jean’s response was very caring and understanding. Then as I was getting up to leave, he said to me simply and directly, “Just stay close to Jesus.” It was almost shockingly out of place! And then it hit me that he was describing the core of his own life and spiritual grounding and offering it to me as a gift. I have held that gift close to my heart for many years.
Thank you Joy and Jeff for this window into your lives and how they have been touched by Jean.