Jean Vanier wins Templeton Prize

Jean Vanier, who for the past 50 years has sought inclusion for people with disabilities, has won the $1.7 million Templeton Prize.

He joins the ranks of Mother Teresa and Billy Graham in receiving the prize, which is given to people who make exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

“Our society will really become human as we discover that the strong need the weak, just as the weak need the strong,” Vanier, 86, said at a news conference announcing the prize.

In 1964, Vanier moved into a house with a number of adult men with intellectual disabilities. In doing so, he founded the L’Arche movement, which now boasts similar residential facilities in 35 countries.

Embracing people with disabilities

I marveled last week at the images of Pope Francis physically embracing people with disabilities. In this first photograph, he stopped his Popemobile to give a blessing to a man who was being carried by another. These images prompted me to look for other pictures of famous and powerful people in similar situations.

Pope Francis blesses man with a disability in St. Peter's Square.

Pope Francis blesses man with a disability in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis stopped to hug an American boy who has cerebral palsy.

Pope Francis stopped to hug an American boy who has cerebral palsy.

Pope Francis has consistently lived up to the legacy of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a live of poverty, humility and compassion. I am hopeful that images like these, which went viral on the Internet and were shown widely on television, will go a long way to softening public attitudes toward those with disabilities.

This young boy, Dominic Gondreau, was seated near the front in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday. There were perhaps a quarter million people in the square, but Pope Francis noticed Dominic. His father, Paul Gondreau, later talked about what this encounter meant to him and his family.

Humanitarian and theologian Jean Vanier fully embraces people with intellectual disabilities by living in community with them.

Humanitarian and theologian Jean Vanier fully embraces people with intellectual disabilities by living in community with them.

Jean Vanier left a promising naval career and life in academia in the 1960s to set up a L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France. After becoming aware of the plight of thousands of people with developmental disabilities living in institutions, he invited two men to live with him in the first L’Arche house. He has devoted his life to writing and lecturing on embracing people with disabilities. He still lives in the original L’Arche community.

President Obama embraces Rosa Marcellino of Maryland after he signed Rosas Law.

President Obama embraces Rosa Marcellino of Maryland after he signed Rosa’s Law.

President Obama signed Rosas Law in 2007, requiring that all government documents eliminate any reference to mental retardation and instead use the term intellectual disability. The law was named for Rosa Marcellino, a 9-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who lives in Maryland. Rosa’s family fought to get the law passed. Her brother, Nick, said, “What you call people is how you treat them. If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude toward people with disabilities.”

The road to Daybreak

Henri Nouwen

September 21 was the 16th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest and writer who lived and ministered at Daybreak, a community in Toronto for people with intellectual disabilities. Nouwen is one of my favorite authors. He is thoughtful, insightful and humble in his writings.

It was through reading his book The Road to Daybreak  that I learned of L’Arche, an international network of communities that seeks to support people with intellectual disabilities so they can take their rightful place in our society.

Daybreak is a L’Arche community, where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together.  When I began working in earnest on my book about Uncle Melrose, who had an intellectual disability, I sensed that it was important that I visit a L’Arche community. I wasn’t sure why, I just knew I had to do it.

And so, in the fall of 2009, I visited a L’Arche home in downtown Washington, D.C. , where I was welcomed by the very kind and generous Caroline McGraw. Caroline showed me around the enormous multi-storied house, where each person had a private bedroom.

Feeling out of place

I met all of the folks who lived in the house when we sat down to a meal together. I have to admit, I felt very uncomfortable during my visit. I felt I was intruding in a private home, but each of the “core people” was kind and welcoming. So were the staff members who cooked the meal, set the table and helped the core people eat.

When we finished the meal, we passed a lighted candle around the dinner table and talked about what we were grateful for.  It was a beautiful and tender time. I told my hosts that I was grateful that they had allowed me to come into their home and share a meal with them.

I should not have felt so out of place. L’Arche communities often open up to the public for tours so that neighborhoods, towns and cities can become better acquainted with core people and the way of life inside these group settings.

L’Arche is global

There are only a smattering of L’Arche communities in the United States, with most of them located on the East and West Coasts and in the Midwest. But there are 140 such communities throughout the world – in 40 countries.  The organization was founded by Jean Vanier, a former educator who left behind promising careers in the military and in academia to live and work with people who have intellectual disabilities.

I have tremendous respect for men like Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen, who chose to devote their lives to supporting and helping others. Likewise, I have great respect for my father, who didn’t choose to devote his childhood to the care of his younger brother Melrose. But because their mother had five children and an absent husband, Dad got recruited. He gave up much of his boyhood to help his brother cope with his limitations.

As Dad, Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen found out, working with the disabled is not glamorous, lucrative or easy. But it is worthwhile – tremendously worthwhile.

I’m still not sure why I felt compelled to visit a L’Arche community, but I’m so glad I did. If nothing else, it gave me a picture of what life can and should be like for people like my uncle.