Jean Vanier has been awarded the Templeton Prize which is valued at $1,7 million. The Templeton prize was established by John Templeton, an American billionaire who made his fortune as a pioneer of mutual funds. He established the Templeton award to acknowledge people who ‘affirm life’s spiritual dimension’. It is fitting that Jean Vanier should join Mother Theresa and Bishop Desmond Tutu who have previously received the award. He received the reward for ‘his innovative discovery of the central role that vulnerable people play in the creation of a more just, inclusive and humane society’.
Our Faith and Light community based at Victory Park Parish in Johannesburg was thrilled to hear the news. Many of us met Jean Vanier personally when he visited South Africa in 2003. We are all grateful to him for his ideologies that have been instrumental in creating our small, caring Faith and Light community. We are one of five communities in South Africa and one of 1500 communities in the world. We meet monthly for prayer, fellowship and celebration. Every year the group is sent guidelines with the format for twelve meetings, which provide a message of joy, hope and encouragement to the members, who consist of people with disabilities and their families and friends.
Jean Vanier is a Philosopher, theologian and author of more than 30 books. I read his book, The Broken Body – Journey to wholeness, a few years before I got married, and was able to reread it after my son was born with Down Syndrome. I found Jean Vanier’s philosophy very inspiring. He is now 86 years old and has lived most of his life with people with intellectual disabilities. In 1964 while visiting a psychiatric hospital, one of the patients asked Jean, ‘will you be my friend?’ Jean was moved to answer with an Invitation for this young man and one of his friends to live with him in a house in France. He called his home L’Arche, meaning an ark or a shelter. His idea of making a home for people with intellectual disabilities was adopted by others, and so other L’Arche homes were established all over the world.
Faith and Light started soon afterwards when a young couple with two children who were intellectually delayed expressed their disappointment that they were not welcome on their parish pilgrimage to Lourdes. So they decided to make their own pilgrimage to Lourdes as a family. The first night they arrived, they went down to the inn’s dining room for supper. The inn keeper politely suggested that their dinner rather be served in their room so that other guests would not be disturbed and made to feel uncomfortable at the sight of their two children. On their return home they shared their humiliation with Jean Vanier and Marie-Helene Matthieu (co-founder of Faith and Light), who thought of the idea of organising a small pilgrimage to Lourdes where people with mental disabilities would be welcomed to participate. Word got around even outside of France and what was meant to be a pilgrimage for a small group of people, grew to a few thousand wanting to join in. This took three years to organise, during which, because of the growing number, people prepared in small groups which met regularly. Then for a week around Easter 1971 Lourdes was taken over by families of people with mental disabilities and their friends walking in the streets singing every day. Nothing like this had been seen in Lourdes before and people looked out their windows cheering and joining in the singing! It was from this first pilgrimage, that the idea for Faith and Light emerged. What they had experienced in Lourdes needed to continue. The seed from a hurt had been planted and the Holy Spirit did the rest. The small groups continued meeting monthly to support families who had an intellectually disabled member.
Faith and Light communities continued to grow and spread to other countries and in 1981 a second even bigger pilgrimage to Lourdes was organised. The year after this pilgrimage, Jean Vanier visited South Africa at the invitation of Rev. Trevor Hudson of the Methodist Church and following that, a group began to meet at the Central Methodist Church to discuss and develop Jean’s vision. The group included Rev. Trevor Hudson, Fr. Terry Barnard and Sr. Veronica Mary of the Ursuline sisters. Sr. Veronica Mary approached Patrick de Laroche who was co-ordinator of the youth group at Krugersdorp Catholic church, to ask if the youth group would like to help start a Faith and Light community. She went to speak to the group and took along Pat and Brian Bailey and their daughter Paula who has a disability. A bond developed from that first meeting and soon after, Faith and Light started at Krugersdorp. At about the same time, groups were started at the Kempton Park Methodist Church and in Cape Town at Nazareth House, Newclare and Manenberg. Helpers from the Kensington and Krugersdorp Faith and Light communities together with Sr. Teresa-Marie were instrumental in setting up our St. Charles community. It started in 1989 with about five families with children at Casa do Sol School, and young helpers from the parish. Although linked to the parish, not all families were Catholic and so the community was, and still is ecumenical.
In 2002, our family moved to the Victory Park area, and I prayed for friends for my children. It was not long afterwards that Rosemary and Patrick de Laroche moved in next door with their two sons. When Rosemary invited me to a Faith and Light meeting, I accepted so that the children could spend an afternoon playing together. In reality I was not looking for another commitment to add to my already busy schedule. Slowly, meeting with this group every month, the people with disabilities and their families crept into my heart, until I had a tremendous feeling of love and acceptance when I met with the group. I had seldom been greeted with as much joy and excitement. What a privilege! This feeling of belonging is predicted in Jean Vanier’s book, The Broken body – Journey to Wholeness, where he says,
‘If you enter into relationship with a lonely or suffering person you will discover something else: that it is you who are being healed. The broken person will reveal to you your own hurt and the hardness of your heart, and also how much you are loved. Thus the one you came to heal becomes your healer.’
This discovery is what earned Jean Vanier the Templeton award in March this year. When I first read the reason for his award, I questioned the words, ‘innovative discovery!’ We all know the truism that ‘in giving you shall receive”. I thought they were trying to attach some scientific discovery to the simple words of Jesus that motivate many people to do good. But on reflection I thought that often our growth comes in a series of awareness experiences and when we reach a point, we have to look back at the small steps we have taken to get there. Perhaps, in a world where it is all important to be more successful than others, it is not that obvious that when we seek the company of people with disabilities we will find healing for ourselves.
Jean Vanier is careful to explain in his book , Community and Growth, that a community is only truly a body when the majority of its members is making the transition from ‘the community for myself’ to ‘myself for the community’. I have seen that the journey of a community is not always easy. Our group stopped meeting for a while because of lack of leadership, but after the break we realised that we can’t take our community for granted, and a sense of gratitude and commitment is more noticeable. Jean Vanier says, ‘it is God who has brought us together and inspired us to love each other’ (Community and Growth) and I firmly believe that God will be with our Faith and Light community as we continue on our journey.
As I have got to know the people in my Faith and Light community I have a better understanding of the struggles of someone living with a disability. In some cases, they have to say goodbye to dreams that they had while growing up. Dreams of going to university, getting married, having children of their own. Dreams of driving a car, owning a house, holding a place of importance in society. They battle in a world that they are not quite equipped to handle. When I see the determination they have, the pride they take in their work, their ability to celebrate and enjoy life, this is a humbling experience. It encourages me to accept the challenges in my own life, be grateful for the blessings I have and to celebrate my own unique course of life. In conclusion I would like to say, ‘Congratulations Jean Vanier, and thank you for your continued advocacy for people with disabilities.’
With thanks to Patrick de Laroche for his input on the history of Faith and Light. For further information on Faith and Light you can email Ann Peartonpearton@icon.co.za and take a look at the websites http://www.faithandlight.org and http://www.jean-vanier.org/en/home