Seeking True Welcome for People with Disabilities

connel / Shutterstock.com

Photo via connel / Shutterstock.com

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is responsible for the wheelchair icon in the convenient parking spaces, for the Braille numbers in the elevator, for the accommodations made for students with learning differences in the classroom, and for closed captioning on television. It has provided people with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities access to places and experiences that the majority of people in America take for granted. New York’s Mayor Bill DeBlasio even declared July “Disability Pride Month” in the city. All of this is very much worth celebrating.

And yet, while people with disabilities have more access to opportunities and experiences than ever before, to assume that that ADA has remedied the problem of exclusion and prejudice against people with disabilities would be like assuming that the Civil Rights Act remedied racism. Such prejudices and the oppression they engender reach deep into our hearts; they involve our deepest fears and insecurities.

L'Arche: 50 Years of Transforming Communities

Co-chairs of L'Arche USA's inclusion team dramatize the founding of L'Arche. Ima

Co-chairs of L'Arche USA's inclusion team dramatize the founding of L'Arche. Image via Brian A. Taylor Photography.

Krista Tippett, host of the successful podcast On Being, is one of those transformed people. She described to Sojourners how her radio pilgrimage to an Iowa L’Arche community and an interview with L’Arche founder and Templeton Prize winner Jean Vanier influenced her way of thinking about Christianity:

“What I love about L’Arche is that it is a living manifestation of some of the most paradoxical and lofty ideals of Christianity — strength and weakness, light and darkness — that our culture and some of our churches can barely grasp. It’s very countercultural, very paradoxical. But it’s embodied at L’Arche—lived and breathed in an everyday way.”

After a flower procession and a dramatization of the origin story of L’Arche, Tippett joined in on the 50th-anniversary celebrations by publicly interviewing four L’Arche community members.


Jean Vanier: A Prophet for the 21st Century

Photo via Christopher Bremrose / Flickr

Jean Vanier and a resident of L'Arche named Kathy in L'Arche Bognor in Trosly, France. Photo via Christopher Bremrose / Flickr

The problems of the world can overwhelm us. When we are confronted by the Divine in the cries of human need, we may, like Isaiah, feel unworthy and ill-equipped to respond. However, if we allow this Divine experience to transform our human weakness, we can find the courage and strength to answer that call, as Jean Vanier has, with a bold, “Here I am!” What follows may be more difficult than we can imagine, but we can be confident in the knowledge that the work we do is Holy work.


John M. Templeton Jr., Philanthropist Devoted to Science and Religion, Dies at 75

Photo courtesy of Templeton Foundation / RNS

John Templeton Jr. Photo courtesy of Templeton Foundation / RNS

John M. Templeton, Jr., a pediatric surgeon who left medicine behind to carry on his father’s passion for pursuing “new spiritual information” through the sciences as president and chairman of the Templeton Foundation, has died. He was 75.

Known as “Jack,” the younger Templeton retired as director of the trauma program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1995 to take the foundation reins and became chairman after his father’s death in 2008.

School of Love

WHEN FATHER THOMAS PHILIPPE brought philosopher Jean Vanier on a tour of asylums, institutions, and psychiatric hospitals, Vanier discovered “a whole new world of marginalized people ... hidden away far from the rest of society, so that nobody could be reminded of their existence.” A year after this realization, recounted in The Heart of L’Arche, Vanier founded the first L’Arche community in his new home in France. Vanier shared meals, celebrations, and grievances with Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two men who had lived in asylums ever since their parents passed away.

Vanier was inspired by life with these friends, and motivated by a new understanding of Luke 14:12-14: “‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

In the words of Vanier, “L’Arche is a school of love.” It is a “family created and sustained by God,” and it is an embodiment of the belief that “each person is unique, precious, and sacred.” In practice, L’Arche is a global network of communities: People living with and without developmental disabilities sharing meals, prayers, work, and advocacy efforts.

Eileen, an artist and a member of the L’Arche community in the Washington, D.C. area, explained to Sojourners that through L’Arche she can explore museums, create and share art, cook and host a pork-chop dinner, or stay in and watch television with friends. She’s learned much over her decades with L’Arche and, she explained, “I teach people how to pray.”

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Beyond the Wheelchair Ramp

Baloncici / Shutterstock

Baloncini / Shutterstock

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.

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Jean Vanier, Founder of L'Arche, Wins Templeton Prize

Jean Vanier. Photo via Templeton Prize / John Morrison / RNS

Jean Vanier. Photo via Templeton Prize / John Morrison / RNS

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.

The Feast of Christ the King

Stained glass panel in the transept of St. John Church, Ashfield, NSW.

Stained glass panel in the transept of St. John's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Photo by Toby Hudson via Wylio [ht

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in our church year.

I always find it a strange feast to celebrate in a democracy, in which the whole point is that we do not have kings, but shared authority vested in the people and temporarily delegated to elected leaders. What does thinking about Jesus as a King mean to folk like us?

This year it is particularly strange, for, with the exception of the marriage of William and Kate, this has been a bad year for kings. Monarchs, tyrants, plutocrats, and autocrats of every stripe have found themselves under assault from a powerful wave of populism, as the citizens of country after country have risen up to hold their leaders accountable for their stewardship of their nations. Throughout the Middle East and in parts of Europe and the United States, the official narrative of power has been held up and judged against another set of ideas, one that speaks of fairness, liberty, and raising up the poor. Ruler after ruler has heard a cry that translates, roughly: “as you did it to the least of us, so shall it be done to you.”

Christ is a different kind of king, and his authority always calls our leaders to account, whatever the form of our government or our political preferences. Christ embodies a form of leadership that is rarely seen in our world. In the ordinary scope of things, our leaders wear nice suits and inhabit the corridors of power and cut deals with the wealthy and the powerful. Christ, however, threw in his lot entirely with those whom the doors of power shut out. He would talk with anyone, eat with everyone, and, in the end, died among the refuse of his people. He was a leader who led from below.