Having heard today of the death of Jean Vanier I feel I must acknowledge the influence of this gracious man on my life and ministry, recognising that this is also the case for thousands and more who over years have been touched by the L'Arche Community or read any of his books or reflections.
My own story began in the early 1990s when I spent a month of a sabbatical with the L'Arche Community in Liverpool. This had been sparked by a felt need to work with those in a residence for people with intellectual disabilities near the church in Runcorn, Cheshire, where I was minister.
The richness and depth of relationships both in L'Arche and in what became Stepping Stones at Bethesda, along with the need to establish and sustain them, were echoes of those first relationships Jean Vanier and Fr. Thomas Philippe built with Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux in 1963 in Troisly, France. Jean himself has said,
“These communities are schools of the heart which have transformed the lives of countless people across the world.”
but I suspect that he himself would have been unaware of the full extent of his influence.
At the end of one Summer holiday in France Judy and I visited Troisly, where the first L'Arche Community was established and remains. Then, when I began work for the Free Churches Group nationally, I was invited to participate in L'Arche's Church Leaders' Consultative Group, meeting regularly with Community leaders to explore how L'Arche relates to and influences the wider Christian community.
This led to my participation in a UK L'Arche gathering, with hundreds of community members living for a week in St John's College in Durham. Here we celebrated Jean's birthday with lots of fun and laughter, a cake and a giant puppet of Jean. One cannot describe such an event, but some of my many photos (below) illustrate the relationships of support and trust and celebration that marked the event and are the life-blood of L'Arche.
The papier maché wild goose which 'flew' amongst the crowds on the green and in the cathedral, a symbol of the Holy Spirit moving amongst his people was perhaps the most significant image for me, for L'Arche is indeed a movement of the Spirit that brings change and life to the world.
And in the midst of this movement has been a simple man of faith, for whose life we thank God.