Reflecting on the Anniversary of Jean’s Death

The following are my own opinions and do not reflect those of L’Arche International.

Screenshot_20200226_105259 I still remember sitting at home in my pjs when an email pinged on my phone.  Breaking news: Jean Vanier is Dead.  At that point, I had been connected with L’Arche for 6 years and I considered Jean somewhat of a hero.  No one could ever take his place, I thought.  Those are some pretty big shoes to fill.  Would the movement survive without his gentle guidance and presence, or would it crumble?  That’s the problem when we saint someone before they are even gone.  When people heard the name L’Arche their minds were instantly drawn to Jean.  Yes, there have been many men and women throughout the years who have made great strides for L’Arche at both a local and international level, but surely no one could ever do as much for the movement as he did himself.  His death seemed almost surreal.  None of us wanted it to happen, but it happened.  I was faraway from my Scottish community at that time.  I was back home renewing my visa, so the timing all seemed a bit unfortunate.  However, it wasn’t long before I was rushing to my laptop to stream in his service.  Remembrance ceremonies were taking place all over the world.  My Facebook page was lit-up with tributes and kind words of sympathy. 

Today, marks one year since Jean’s death, but today we are living in a very different world and in a very different reality.  When news came out about Jean’s abuse of power, my Facebook lit up once again, but this time the words, sentiments and tones were much different.  The words were not of kindness but of harshness, not of sympathy about Jean, but of empathy towards the women he had harmed, and not of tributes, but of dismay and disdain.

I remember shortly after the news was made public about Jean, my pastor emailed me to check in on me.  This was a very kind gesture as she knew how much L’Arche meant to me and how much I considered it a vocational ministry.  That Sunday at church (only a day or two after I received the email), we met privately after the service.  As I sat there with her next to me, I unleashed many words.  I do not remember those spoken words anymore, but I remember the intensity of emotion behind them.  It was like going through a grieving process.  There was anger at Jean and what he had done, there was denial because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that one of my heroes in the faith had truly done such a thing, there was the question of whether I wanted to continue on in L’Arche, and then underneath it all there was this unsettling feeling that sometimes no matter how good we think a person is, they are still capable of having a shadow side.  As my mentor would remind me time and time again since that terrible day “we are all only human.”

Life went on in the L’Arche community following not only Jean’s death but this awful news.  Our local minister was constantly in and out providing pastoral care and support.  Our leadership team got dialogues up and running and thankfully many people felt safe enough to come out and share their own thoughts and feelings about the news.  Some even were brave enough to relate their own personal experiences and tragedies.  There comes a time for transparency in all organizations, but more than that, there comes a time to honour our stories and to hold them tightly and in confidence.  I have no doubt that communities throughout the world were met with the same pastoral response and processing opportunities.  I know that as a L’Arche community we were “all in this together.”  It was something that all L’Arche communities had to face and process.  We were not alone.

My thoughts cycled through various stages.  Somedays, I was so glad to be part of L’Arche still and see this new resilience blossoming and a new courage igniting.  Other days, I found my enthusiasm waning.  I had already started thinking of a new ministry opportunity several months before and I knew that regardless of how enjoyable my time in L’Arche might have been, I was swiftly being called out of it to a different vocational role.  And then there were days when I sat in front of a Jean Vanier book agonizing over what to do with it.  In the end of the day, I decided to put them all in a drawer, but I haven’t opened that drawer since.  The academician in me is not willing to give up all that he contributed to disability theology.  The student in me is angry that we relied so much on one voice when there are hundreds more who have contributed but we have ignored.

It seemed like things were just getting in full swing with our individual and collective processing of Jean Vanier, when another tragedy hit us.  That of COVID-19.  The virus put a halt to any group processing meetings.  Pastoral care shifted to telephone and video calls.  A local organization which previously informed women they could reach out to them to talk about Jean was forced to suspend its services indefinitely.  In the words of a long-term L’Arche member who is a friend of mine “It seemed like the dirty bugger got off lucky.”  Isn’t that just like him?  A man of charm, escaping any further scrutiny because the world turned on its head.  As I sit here today, it amazes me how finite the human mind is.  We are only able to process one tragedy at a time.  No matter how devastating a blow something can be, when another difficulty comes along, we shelve the first and direct our energy solely on the new challenge.  Thus, we forgot about Jean, and started focussing instead on a wide-scale pandemic.

I hadn’t thought much about Jean until today.  The anniversary of his death.  And it seems we are all still grieving in our own ways.  Maybe there is a part of us which is still grieving Jean himself.  For all the evil he may have caused to women (and he did), he also was successful in founding an international movement which has impacted thousands and touched the hearts and souls of many young assistants.  He is a man who rescued people with disabilities from the horrors of institutions.  He is a man who informed a lot of what we know and rely on today in the disability movement as the cornerstones for a person centered approach.  Perhaps we are grieving the vision we once held of Jean.  That’s normal enough.  It is one of the hardest things for a human to process when they realize a person they loved and trusted is not who they once thought the person was.  And then there is the sense of grief we feel today – holed up in our homes, the loss of human interaction and connection, the loss of activities and hobbies once enjoyed, and the loss of many of our personal freedoms we once took for granted.

All of these events roll into one big lump of collective grief and an overwhelming sense of loss.  Every day we are hearing in the news that these are “unprecedented times” and that we are going to have to adapt to a “new normal.”  Human beings are incredibly resilient and while many of us have not enjoyed these new measures, we have come to understand them and abide by them.  The day we heard about Jean was perhaps not unprecedented.  Sadly, stories of abuse of power have swept both the religious and secular worlds.  Leaders who have abused the vulnerable is not a new story to tell, yet sadly, there is a part of us all that wishes it was.  There is a part of us that still may feel unprepared to deal with the reality.  A part of us that perhaps thinks somewhere in the back of our mind that there weren’t signs we could have seen.   And now L’Arche is forced to live in a “new normal.”  A normal which still includes Jean as part of our story, but which also uses pastoral sensitivity to show that what he did should never have been and will never be the norm.  It was unacceptable and it should never have happened.  Our new normal in L’Arche has called for all of us to be adaptable.  To find ways of being “L’Archey” (holding the core values and visions we always have) but in a different way.  

Today one year after Jean’s death, I joined the L’Arche prayers.  People’s faces filling the screen.  Trouble with mics and with WiFi.  Off key singing.  A bit of confusion about who does what when.  This has become the new normal for us.  We are all in this together. A year ago if you were to say we would be meeting in this fashion, I never would have believed it.  But this is now the seventh week we have done this and it will likely be several more weeks left to go.  We are adaptable, and we will find ways to thrive as a community both locally and globally and that’s exactly the same with our relationship with Jean. We have reached a new normal, but we are ready to be courageous as we face this change.  We can’t change the past and what our founder has done, but we can be responsible for having a positive outlook as we look for ways to continue to help and support all those who have been harmed by this tragic news.

You can access my first blog about Jean here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2020/02/26/reconciling-the-news-of-jean-vanier-with-the-work-of-larche/

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