Vanier’s death turns eyes to legacy, ideas

Special to Western News

Jean Vanier has spent more than 50 years as an advocate for the inclusion of vulnerable and marginalized persons and for their contributions to making a more human society. His experience and vision for were the inspiration for King’s University College professor Pamela Cushing to found the Western affiliate college’s Disabilities Studies program.

Jean Vanier’s legacy will continue on in the thousands of people committed to shared community among people with and without disabilities, says the Director of a new Western-based research centre founded in his name.

Vanier, an internationally recognized Canadian philosopher, theologian and humanitarian renowned for his teachings in disabilities work, died Tuesday at the age of 90.

Vanier had lived for years in a L’Arche home, a worldwide community he founded on the belief that those with intellectual disabilities are valued and equal teachers of life.

“He lived and left with a full heart,” said King’s University College professor Pamela Cushing, founder of the new Jean Vanier Research Centre at the Western affiliate college.

For Cushing, Vanier’s enduring impact is both personal and professional.

“As a person, I learned that listening to someone is the most important thing you can do with them – real listening or ‘presence’ as Jean would call it. All the tasks we busy ourselves with to show people our love are fine. But in today’s rushed world, just being with them is vital and life-giving. Give them the gift of your whole presence,” she said Tuesday.

She credits Vanier’s teachings and mentorship with providing both inspiration and foundation for her work in founding the Disabilities Studies program at King’s. Cushing, who met with Vanier dozens of times including in week-long retreats with other academics and L’Arche supporters, also wrote the nomination for Vanier to receive the 2015 Templeton Prize, awarded to those who have made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

Vanier was author of 30 books about disability, inclusion and religion, and was son of Canada’s 19th Governor-General Georges Vanier and Pauline Vanier.

In 1964, when people with intellectual disabilities were largely disregarded or shunned, Vanier taught that their lives held inherent value and that they held insights to be shared on an equal footing with people who did not have disabilities.

In L’Arche Communities in 37 countries, ‘core members’ who have intellectual disabilities live together with assistants – each learning equally from the other. London has three L’Arche homes and a new L’Arche gathering place.

The Jean Vanier Research Centre at King’s is dedicated to examining and building on Vanier’s work. It aims to address both discriminatory acts and exclusionary attitudes and to change how people envision the value and potential of people who are disabled or marginalized.

“As a professor and department leader, I was influenced by how Jean was as a builder. I learned that being a builder is so much harder than being a critic. He comes from the war generation that saw so much destruction. This catalyzed him and many of that era to build back,” said Cushing.

“In two decades of working in his orbit, I witnessed the power of focusing on the path forward instead of dwelling on the problems and critiques. Those are important to understand, yet too often, we end there in despair and paralysis. Jean’s modus operandi was to begin with the injustice and let that be the catalyst for constructive social and economic change.”

He was open both to new questions and answers, but unflinching in his conviction people look at disability through a different lens. “He could admit his own fragility, his own not-knowing. But he would always say, ‘Life is fragile. But that is not a reason not to do something decent with your life. You matter to someone. It makes a difference that you live and have lived.’”

He realized his radical idea of mutuality was often challenging and risky, yet he forged ahead, she said. “For Jean, the fragility of a project, or the imperfectness of his solutions at that moment, did not justify stasis. He would choose the path of imperfect-but-courageous action over doing nothing.”

When Vanier learned Cushing was looking to start a research centre, he gave his blessing – with a caveat.

“Make sure the ideas don’t die when I do,” he told Cushing as the centre was in its formative stages. “Keep creating space to discuss the treasures we’ve all discovered in living with people with intellectual disabilities. Keep everybody talking, talking and listening to what people can learn when they’re having these genuine encounters.”

Of note: King’s will livestream Vanier’s funeral from France on May 16 at 8a.m. in the Joanne and Peter Kenny Theatre, 266 Epworth Ave. (Doors will open at 7:30 a.m.) All are welcome and there is free parking on campus.