Jesus Knows Sign Language

By Taylor Johnson 4-21-2011

During my last year of college, my pastor lent me the book Living Gently in a Violent World, co-authored by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas. This book is an exploration on how followers of Christ ought to live in broken world.

The introduction of the book recounts the story of Jean Vanier teaching a course on pastoral care. During one class, Vanier asked the students to share some of their spiritual experiences. One of the students, Angela (who was deaf) began to share a dream she had where she met Jesus in heaven. She recalled talking with Jesus for some time and never experiencing so much joy and peace. "Jesus was everything I had hoped he would be," she said, "And his signing was amazing!" Vanier explains to the reader that "for Angela, heaven's perfection did not involve being 'healed' of her deafness. Rather, it was a place where the social, relational, and communication barriers that restricted her life in the present no longer existed."

Angela's story made me weep. It immediately brought to mind Gabriel and Sydney, two of my own younger siblings that live with intellectual disabilities. I began to ask difficult questions: Do I see Gabriel and Sydney as gifts? Do they know they are loved? How can I change the way I pray for them?

Not long ago, Jean Vanier was nominated for The Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Vanier first encountered people with disabilities during his time living in community in France. There he learned from a Dominican priest named Father Thomas Phillippe, who invited Vanier to work with him as the chaplain of a small institution for people with disabilities. Vanier witnessed the plight of people in psychiatric hospitals and became deeply connected with them. He realized that he couldn't simply be with them for a few years and say goodbye. Through those experiences, he found his vocation and committed himself to the people.

His experiences influenced the creation of a different kind of living model called "'L'Arche" (which in French means "the Ark"). L'Arche is an ecclesial refuge for faith-based communities to engage in mutual discipleship. The first L'Arche community opened in France in 1964, and since then, several other locations have been planted around the world.

But it's not just about different types of people deciding to live together. That's really just the surface. When asked about his vision for community, Vanier replied, "It's essentially communion. People with serious handicaps who've been rejected can only grow to greater fulfillment if they know they're loved. There's a difference between doing things for people out of generosity and being with people

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