Community and Growth by Jean Vanier (revised edition, 1989).
“Community is the place where people grow in love and in peacemaking. That is why it is imperative for communities to grow, expand, and deepen; and for many new ones to be founded and supported. Today war has become too dangerous; it could bring an end to our planet and to the human species. We are called to learn to grow in love and forgiveness” (p.31).
Community. Do I live in community? What is it we are saying when we talk of community? Community now seems to have turned into a word denoting a mere category: there are refugee communities, immigrant communities, the African-American community, the hispanic community, the LGBT community, the community in which I live, church communities, and finally, with all our technological changes, there are on-line communities.
As I seek out services from the Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities for my daughter, I have begun to question the idea of community. Do I live in a community? Where is my daughter’s disability in my community? Do I feel my community supports her or us? She does get special education services from our school district, and if she is found eligible by medicaid she will receive OPWDD services, which may or may not be available, depending on staffing. But, OPWDD is a statewide program. A service by which, if eligible, we will have obtained a modest safety net for my daughter as she ages and can no longer be cared for by us. Can OPWDD be considered a community?
The process to get into OPWDD is long and loaded with paperwork. Medicaid funds the services, which means they do the vetting.
I have had a lot of time to think about my daughter’s disability, which straddles both mental health and developmental disabilities. For most of her life with our family — starting at age 2 and a half when she arrived home from Kazakhstan — I have been pursuing services: Services to help her and to help us. Services from the school, and services from the county in which we live, and services from the state. We have received our share of support from employees who make up a community of people in the social services field. As I fill out one form after another and wait on Medicaid I wonder why I am reluctant to find a community where my daughter’s disabilities are not glossed over or understood as a list of services.
The idea that human beings come together and form communities centered around their shared interests or values is not uncommon. Certainly, there are communities that might come to mind like an Ashram, or even the more negative cult type of group that centers around a charismatic leader, Jim Jones and the Jonestown, Guyana mass suicide is something I remember making headline news in my childhood. Most of the mainstream intentional communities bring together a group of people who seek more than a house, a school and a shopping experience — what a typical neighborhood has to offer — . Today, intentional communities can be found right in the center of cities as a lighter version of more singularly dedicated communities. Courtney E. Martin, who writes for OnBeing, shares her experience living in Temescal Commons, an intentional intergenerational community in Oakland, California.
I often wondered if I could live in community with people who share my ideas. My daughter has mixed up the game a bit, and essentially has increased the stakes. Could I live in a community that seeks to share life with the most vulnerable among us, not for the sole purpose of taking care of them, but for actual interaction and sharing?
Jean Vanier’s book, Community and Growth, is a meditation on community. Of course, he is not talking about your friendly neighborhood community, one with a good school and amenities in walking distance that we commonly discuss with our realtor as we think about buying a house. Vanier has a very specific vision for community. His community is religious in its purpose, but in no way is its purpose to evangelize. It is a community that is meant to serve and get closer to God by serving people who are vulnerable and by recognizing our own vulnerabilities. It is a wholehearted community where one lives in communion with people who could not intentionally live in a community.
There are, in fact, many communities that share a common mission and try to live the word of Jesus. They are communities, as Vanier explains, which arise out of a calling: Communities founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, The Covenant House, Catholic Worker, Simon Communities, Taizé, the community of Lanzo del Vasto, and many communities in Latin America (p.88), are a few examples. His book, Community and Growth, is centered on the community he founded, L’ARCHE, in 1964 in France. I encourage a visit to his website:Jean Vanier. L’ARCHE has grown since Jean Vanier decided to live in communion with, rather than treat/befriend/help-out/study/etc…, two men with intellectual disabilities who were living in a state psychiatric facility in France. What he has learned from the growing pains and joys of a simple but courageous action taken out of love that has become an organization of 147 communities in 35 countries forms the core of his meditation on community. He writes of L’Arche and its mission as well as addresses questions all communities must consider, in particular those founded upon Christian faith:
“In each community there is caring, bonding and mission. Each one has different ways of living, and different rules and structures; priorities in daily life are different in each, but there is always the same desire to care for and love one another, to announce the universal good news to all people and to bring greater freedom, life and peace” (p.88-89).
Jean Vanier is careful not to limit community to a specific structure, and seems to be saying that the mission will ultimately lead to the best possible way of living in community. L’Arche USA’s mission rests on being in relationship with people who have intellectual disabilities. This corresponds with Vanier’s intention to create a community where all members of the community discover what is special about themselves; it does not stop at simply serving those presumably less fortunate; it goes to the other side of it: everyone serving each other. His words are formed by his theological and philosophical background as well as by his lived experience, his joy and love for God, and his sense of urgency. He writes:
“People come to l’Ache to serve the needy. They only stay if they have discovered that they themselves are needy, and that the good news is announced by Jesus to the poor, not to those who serve the poor…
Mission, then, does not imply an attitude of superiority or domination, and attitude of: ‘We know, you don’t, so you must listen to us if you want to be well off. … Mission is not elitism. It is life given and flowing from the tomb of our beings which has become transformed into a source of life” (p.99).
We see from Jean Vanier’s writing that he is not an evangelical who wants to spread the word of God by telling people what to do. He lives the gospels rather than just preaching them. If he spreads the word of God it is only by living the word. Throughout the book he gently shares stories of people who arrived at L’Arche — assistants and people with intellectual disabilities — who have been closed off to love; who are afraid to love, and who have learned from each other how to love. There is no mandate to stay in L’Arche. But, there are rules to be followed. If you feel your journey takes you elsewhere or you want to become part of the larger community then you follow your heart. What is a constant though, is L’Arche itself. It welcomes people with disabilities and volunteer assistants to commune with each other. It is simple and so exquisitely difficult when you think about it: live with each other and help each other to grow.
Often when we speak of community we forget that growth is essential for a healthy community. As Jean Vanier highlights the dangers of communities that become too closed or ones that have authoritarian leaders or even charismatic ones that can be ruinous to communities it is their fear of members of the community growing that becomes their downfall. This lack of growth or fear of it, is paradoxically what is at play when we desire security to the point of stagnation. It is through openness and faith in God that we welcome the stranger and thus keep a community flexible and able to evolve as a response to whatever might arise (p.160-162). There is a danger here in misunderstanding Jean Vanier. He is not saying that we ought not to have security of any kind and open our doors to anyone, even those who want to destroy our community. Obviously, the very idea of founding a place such as L’Arche is to provide security for persons with disabilities who are not able to live without help. But, the security of Jean Vanier is one of love. This is to say, it is knowing that you are loved that is the security from which everything else arises. It is only from love that everything else will follow, including discernment. If we emphasize security only, we will cut off opportunities for growth as we try to eliminate as much risk as possible.
What is most compelling about Jean Vanier’s book is that he continually directs us back to the most vulnerable of our society, the disabled and people with mental illness, not to tell us how they need us, but rather to tell us how we need them. Being in community at L’Arche is making persons with mental disabilities the center, not just the center of caring for them, but the absolute and necessary center that radiates outward and creates life understood and lived together. Most organizations that care for people, while they consider themselves communities, are not truly inclusive communities, that is, they, without intending it, or even realizing it, create objects to be cared for by a professional or by a healthy person. Jean Vanier’s community is a community that lives together and shares in the joys and and sorrows of the people who live in the community.
There is so much to learn from Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth. As we watch our politicians and our president deface much of what we thought was good about ourselves, we can use Vanier’s words as a guide for reflection on community. We have some people promising to make our country more secure by closing ourselves off from the world. But, we fail to have a conversation about what we are giving up in terms of growth when we decide to close down our borders and our minds. Some tell us violence will end all the violence. They fail to discuss peace as that which can be obtained without risk. On the other side, we have a defensive posture advocating for services without addressing how our communities might need to change and grow too. How are services are given with a clear delineation of who is needy and who is not. We forget we are all vulnerable. I think when we read Jean Vanier’s book we remember that love creates the conditions for a more secure world and focusing on security alone will only create fear. In particular, we have a fear of impending crises as if living means living without crises. But, as Jean Vanier writes:
“We have to know how to accept crises, violence and depression. We have to understand what people are trying to say through all the regression and confusion. We have to be able to decode the messages that are sent through bizarre behavior and to respond authentically to these cries for help. We have to understand certain laws of human nature and how human beings grow through work and relationships. We have to know how to lead people towards inner healing. We have especially to know how to enter into relationships” (p.278-279).
While it seems we have all been left behind by our politicians, pundits, media, and, most of all, our president, I believe we need to explore how we too have rested on one side or the other of these arguments and have been content to speak in terms of security rather than of love. Jean Vanier’s book is inspiring. I only hope that I too can make the commitment to a community where relationships are valued for their surprise and in this way give rise to new life.