Reconciling the news of Jean Vanier with the work of L’Arche

Mar 2, 2020 by

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It all came at once — a messy break up, the death of a close friend and the troubling news of Jean Vanier and sexual abuse. These three experiences all hit me hard, wounding the core of my being, making me question life and all it brings. Moments of gratitude intermingled with overwhelming loss, grief and tragedy. I was mourning three special relationships — ones that personally impacted me.

I heard the news about Vanier on Saturday morning in the form of a 13-page report from L’Arche International in my email. My mind was reeling. Before I even had time to let it sink in, my Facebook was lit with hundreds of responses, blog posts and photos — many expressing dismay, bewilderment and even hatred. One of my friends who is a pastor posted a picture of two books — one by Vanier and one by John Howard Yoder. His caption read “both of these are going in the bin today. I’ve had enough of cult leadership.” His reaction was similar to that of many others — “you can’t trust anyone.”

I wanted to jump on the bandwagon and write immediately myself, but something held me back. I am a member of a L’Arche community and L’Arche has been a huge part of who I am for the last seven years. The news is not just about another stranger who did something awful (although that would still be devastating). Rather it is about a man I had come to love and admire. The founder of a global movement which has impacted and influenced millions.

I came to L’Arche as a young, inexperienced and naive 22-year-old. Looking back, I had no idea what was in store. Living a communal life seemed idyllic and the peaceful compound of our main property added to the mood. I came to L’Arche as a respite from my theological studies, I continued on while gaining a master’s degree and studying for ministry. I stayed on because I felt in my heart that L’Arche, too, was a ministry in the proper sense of the word.

L’Arche Canada infused the teachings of Vanier. He was practically a saint before there was even talk of canonizing him. Each weekly team meeting began with a quote from his famous book Community and Growth. Each formation session began with a video clip of him speaking about vulnerability, fragility and humanity. Pictures of him were dotted around the offices, workshops and chapel. Long-term assistants spoke about meeting him and how influential and amazing that experience was. I never met him, but always wished I had.

When he passed away last year, the world turned to deep mourning. Communities held memorial services and grieved. His funeral service was broadcast to tens of thousands. One influential newspaper published an article titled “People You Wish Would Never Die.”

And then it happened. News that Vanier wasn’t really who he said he was. All that talk and hype about caring for the vulnerable and protecting them from abuse while being an abuser himself. We are now left with the question of how to reconcile his teachings and books (which were good) with his character (which was not so good).

Comments abounded. I have heard everything from proof that this is exactly why we can’t trust religious figures and justification for why that individual is anti-Catholic, to a resigned “isn’t that just typical.” to the flippant yet seering comment I received after church on Sunday “at least it was only women.” Many also wondered why the women hadn’t spoken up until after his death, but it’s important to remember he was a strong, influential, charismatic leader the world worshipped and adored.

Having been a survivor of sexual abuse by a religious figure myself while an assistant in another L’Arche community, I understand to some degree their pain and anguish. But it also has shown me again that even in the face of such tragedy both strong resilience and strong prejudice exist. That’s because sexual assault is painful, uncomfortable and most of all unnatural. It is important in this time to honor each person’s journey, to give space and voice to process and grieve and, most important, not to invalidate survivors or tell them how they should feel or respond to the news.

There are still myriad questions circulating around the communities, but the primary one is “what does it mean to hold the core tradition of L’Arche, to be a ‘L’Archey’ person in light of all that has happened?” This is an answer we will have to struggle and grapple with in the upcoming months. However, my initial reaction is “it means the same as it did before we heard the news about Jean.”

I was a pacifist before I learned the news of John Howard Yoder because, while influential, Yoder did not invent pacifism nor was he the only person to write and speak about it. I remain “L’Archey” because while Vanier’s misdemeanors deeply wound and anger me, he was not all that L’Arche had. He may have founded the movement, but the spirituality of L’Arche was modeled and lived before me by so many men and women I’ve known personally and not by Vanier himself. L’Arche doesn’t mean less to me because while I was shaped by his words and lessons, I was more shaped by the people with disabilities I’ve met, the “core members” and the assistants who share life with them. I am in L’Arche not for Vanier, but because I care deeply about advocating for the needs of those who can’t advocate for themselves.

I am deeply disappointed, but I still don’t regret any time I’ve spent in L’Arche. I may feel lied to by Vanier, but I certainly don’t feel as if my time was built on a falsehood or illusion. I may be momentarily embarrassed by him, but I am not ashamed of the movement itself, which he founded and committed his life to and in which I continue to live and thrive. Just like the naive 22-year-old, the more mature 29-year-old me continues to insist that this is a ministry, and an important one.

The day I heard that my friend passed away ripped me apart. For two days I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t connect to people, my heart was heavy, I couldn’t concentrate. I was a mess. The day I heard about Vanier, I was in shock, I couldn’t believe it, my heart was heavy, I was a wreck. But life went on.

I still miss my friend tremendously. I still mourn her passing. I still wonder if I will ever fully heal. I still miss my idealized version of L’Arche, I still am in shock and grief and wonder if I will ever fully reconcile it, but life continues on. And L’Arche continues on.

The core members held me through my friend’s passing with kindness, tenderness and compassion. And the core members remind me daily of my mission and vision to stay in L’Arche because of their heart and love.

Vanier may have created L’Arche but he didn’t make it — the people with disabilities made L’Arche a home and a community. They are the ones to whom my attention will now be turned in the face of such seering loss and tragedy.

Deborah-Ruth Ferber is a children’s pastor at Trulls Road Free Methodist Church in Courtice, Ont., and a field associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. She writes at Zwiebach and Peace, where this post first appeared.


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