Jean Vanier died May 7, 2019. He is a hero to me since he modelled true inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. I hope we have another Jean Vanier, no, many more in our lifetime.
Canadian philosopher and humanitarian Jean Vanier (1928-) was the founder of 149 L’Arche homes in 38 countries around the world. In these homes people with intellectual disabilities (the residents) live and work side by side with the nondisabled (their assistants) as peers in “mutually transformative relationships.” Jean Vanier emphasized the great discovery of his life, “Above all, I have discovered how people with a disability can be a source of peace and unity in our terribly divided world, provided we are willing to listen to them, to follow them and to share our lives with them.” Among his over thirty inspiring books, Becoming Human (1998)is one I keep coming back to at various stages and roles in my life. The inclusivity Vanier proposes is a powerful reminder of the value of the heart, of wisdom and of spirituality in leadership. Jean Vanier was one of Canada’s most inspiring and influential leaders. His quiet nature, insightful wisdom, deep faith, and humble yet radical hospitality have made a deep impact for peace in our world.
Through his example and his writing Vanier taught how to build community by valuing the human person no matter their background or beliefs, abilities or disabilities, wealth, prestige, poverty or insignificance. He saw unity and the possibility of integration in a pluralistic world.
Leaders everywhere can learn from his practicality, humanness, ability to inspire hope and empower generativity. Vanier was grounded in the real concerns and needs of people and through this, affirmed the struggle and beauty of ordinary life. Just as much as he wrote and spoke about the importance of work for and with marginalized people, he actually did the work, involving himself in the complexity and messiness of change with determined conviction and a strength rooted in faith. He had to be very practical to truly help people –he lived in community with the people he was helping. He had high ideals “but at the same time, never let them interfere with the reality of the present moment. He lived life in all its nuances and was with people, getting to know them in their joys and sufferings. Vanier recognized the ‘mysterious potential’ of being able to be with people in their difficulties and why, rather than focusing on the hopelessness of a given situation, leaders are called to greater humanity. His leadership was service with not to people. With a sense of humor and strength of his convictions, he demonstrated how to be human – to work through difficult relationships, build understandings with people who have different views, not to be separate from but with others and take the time to celebrate. Vanier celebrated humanity and togetherness regardless of challenging circumstances. He fostered a sense of belonging and purpose such that each individual brings something to the collective purpose and is included.
The life and words of Vanier inspire passion and hope among leaders who care for people and want to use the privilege of their positions to make a social impact for a more peaceful and humanistic world. Vanier was a leader who demonstrated an ability to empower generativity. He equipped others to do the work with him and his legacy is evident in the houses of hospitality he established and the many others that were founded subsequently. His ability to resource through encouragement, mentorship and advocacy allows the impact of his work to multiply. Vanier’s words are a call to action for leaders no matter the context:
It is always good for individuals, communities and indeed nations, to remember that their present situation is a result of the thousands of gestures of love or hate that came before. This obliges us to remember that the community of tomorrow is being born of our fidelity to the present. We discover that we are at the same time very insignificant and very important because each of our actions is preparing the humanity of tomorrow; it is a tiny contribution to the huge and glorious final humanity.(1989)
Spink, K. (2006). The Miracle, The Message, The Story: Jean Vanier and L’Arche. London: Hiddenspring.
Vanier, J. (1998). Becoming Human. Toronto: ON: House of Anansi Press.
Vanier, J. (1989). Community and Growth. New York: Paulist Press.