Jean Vanier and the gift of L’Arche

Vanier found fullness of life in those snatched from despair and placed in homes based on mutuality, respect, and care.

When Jean Vanier entered the room, it was buzzing with grace. It was as if the air was buoyed in warmth. Across the room, sensing the presence of someone holy, our friends and housemates—L’Arche “core members,” people with intellectual disabilities—turned their faces toward the gentle giant with a broad steady smile and tufts of white hair. He had a slight bend to his back, as if his posture had adjusted over time to look into the faces of those smaller than him, which was almost everyone.

I met Vanier, who died May 7, on one of his last trips to the United States. He came to the gathering of L’Arche communities in the Pacific North­west. My community in Portland had grown from the experiment in gentle reception that was birthed in 1964, when Vanier sensed a call from God to live among the poor.

Vanier first learned about the possibilities of intentional community while visiting Harlem in the 1940s. It was there he met the people of Friendship House—an experiment in cross-racial living, founded by Catholics, that was being taken up around the US and Canada. He saw similar work happening among the people who lived in the Catholic Worker homes in New York.