ON A BALMY SUMMER afternoon in July, I rang the bell at Jean Vanier’s sky-blue gate in Trosly-Breuil, France. Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities of people with and without developmental disabilities, is central to a new documentary film, Summer in the Forest. I was there to interview him about the film and as research for a play I’m helping to write for the 50th anniversary of L’Arche Daybreak community, near Toronto.
As the gate opened, Vanier, wearing his signature navy blue jacket, greeted me with the warmest presence I have ever felt, saying, “All the way from Daybreak you have come to visit me!” I replied sheepishly, “Yes, to finally meet the man who changed my life.”
My salutation was not hyperbole—Vanier’s gift, a vision of communities where people live in a spirit of mutual learning, dignity, and care, has touched and changed the lives of thousands of people around the globe. Though I’d come for professional reasons, it also felt like a pilgrimage to seek Vanier’s wisdom in the place where it all began. He ushered me into his small office and living room to chat.
In 1964, while Vanier was living in Trosly-Breuil, he visited a psychiatric hospital near Paris. He saw men there subjected to violence, locked up all day, and feared by the public. He was moved with a compassion that he couldn’t totally understand at the time. But as Vanier told me, “We all have, as human beings, a design that teaches us to reach out to others, and not only to serve ourselves. If we listen to this inner design, this inner voice, it will lead us always to do what is right.” With little training and no formal plan, Vanier bought a dilapidated house and took three of the men out of the institution to live with him in the village.
The first night didn’t go so well, as they could not find how the electricity worked and one of the men became so frightened and violent, smashing windows, that he had to return to the institution the next day. Two of the men, Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, lived with Vanier for the rest of their lives. Vanier named their home “L’Arche,” French for “The Ark”—it became the first of what are now more than 150 L’Arche communities in 37 countries.