For 50 years, people with and without developmental disabilities have shared life in L'Arche communities.
RECENTLY, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH moved toward beatifying Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was martyred while presiding at a Mass in El Salvador in 1980. Romero preached that, for the love of God, soldiers and paramilitary forces must stop murdering their brothers and sisters—and he paid with his life. Many have since honored his witness during El Salvador’s civil war as “a voice for the voiceless.” Without a doubt, more of us should take on that mantle.
And yet. Sometimes we are notcalled to be a voice for the voiceless. Sometimes we are called to listen carefully and discover the voices in our midst. Sometimes we are called to consider whether weare the ones preventing voices from being heard.
We are almost 25 years beyond the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and while access is still not all it should be, we need to move beyond the wheelchair ramp. We need to listen to those living with disabilities—as fully human, as fallen and holy, as friends of Christ, as people with abilities, as disciples on the Way.
What is disability? This simple question is not easily answered. There are people living with impairments, a loss of expected physiological form or function. A person missing a leg. A person whose optic nerve did not develop correctly. A person who has sustained a brain injury. The disability refers to the consequences of an impairment: loss of walking, blindness, memory issues. Handicap, in turn, refers to the societal disadvantage resulting from an impairment.
But when talking to people living with disabilities, those clear-cut categories become muddy. Some embrace the term “disability” as a simple aspect of who they are, a way of describing their lives and advocating for societal change. Others reject the term, saying they perceive no negative consequences from their impairments, only positives. Others fear the term and simply do not use it.
Jean Vanier, an advocate for people with developmental disabilities who helped create an international network of residential communities that champion the rights of their residents, has won the 2015 Templeton Prize.
A Roman Catholic layman and a lifelong student of philosophy and theology, Vanier is best known as the founder of L’Arche — French for "the Ark" — a global network of communities where those with and without disabilities live side by side as equals.
The network was begun in northern France in 1964 when Vanier invited two intellectually disabled men to live with him as friends. It has evolved into 147 L’Arche communities, in 35 countries. In addition, a support group for families of people with disabilities, known as Faith and Light, has spread to 82 countries.
“One can conceive of L’Arche and Faith and Light as living laboratories where Vanier essentially exposed his ideas to the most challenging test of all — real people, real problems and real life,” said John Swinton, a professor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland Divinity School, in nominating Vanier for the award.
In a statement at a news conference in London, Vanier, 86, said those with intellectual disabilities offer spiritual lessons and gifts to a world too driven by success and power.
Churches are supposed to be communities that represent Christ’s infinite love — and many of them do — but certain groups of people seem to be continually ignored, alienated, undervalued, and simply lost within American churches. Leadership structures, social expectations, religious values, and traditions within faith communities have a tendency to favor some groups but not others, resulting in discrimination instead of equality, exclusion instead of acceptance, and prejudice instead of fairness.
The first time Jesus preached in a synagogue, he said that he had come to proclaim release to the captives (Luke 4:18). Those captives include people who have disabilities, sometimes literally. My friend Margaret who works overseas with people with disabilities told me that some of them have scars on their wrists from being chained to their beds for years as children. Pastors from a number of different countries have told me similar stories.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will not right all the wrongs committed against people with various disabling conditions, but it puts a line in the sand that squares with the message of Jesus.
People with disabilities tend to be the most oppressed in any community. Even here in the U.S., they are more likely to be unemployed, poor, and victims of crime compared with the general population. People with disabilities from around the world wrote the CRPD, patterning it after the landmark U.S. legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Last spring, I heard a terrific talk from Shane Claiborne at the Festival of Faith & Writing. Claiborne, a prominent voice in progressive Christian circles, lives in Philadelphia’s inner city, where he and the other inhabitants of the Simple Way community practice a “new monasticism.”
They value hospitality and communal living, seek to build relationships with those living in their neighborhood, and are concerned with issues around poverty and wealth, power and violence. From the descriptions I’ve read, the Simple Way practices similar values to the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., where I worshiped for most of my 20s. The Church of the Saviour had the unusual distinction of taking both Jesus and social justice seriously. It was a community in which I was comfortable speaking like an evangelical, while voting and approaching social issues like an Episcopalian.
Listening to Claiborne speak back in April about justice and love and how our stories illuminate God’s kingdom, I felt at home. Here was the kind of guy I used to worship with in my earnest urban-dwelling days. His message, his words, and his stories felt intimate, familiar, and inspiring.
That is, except for this one story...