“Every child, every person, needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.”
I first read these words in Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier’s Massey Lecture “Becoming Human” in 2013 in Montréal—I had never heard of L’Arche, but these words nurtured my humanity and self-worth at a time when I felt broken. I was at a pivotal junction in my life, having chosen my identity as an activist over a fledgling medical doctor, facing persecution after correcting a significant medical error I had discovered. Vanier’s words offered me hope in the face of a mountain of medical/university institutional resistance and isolation. The result would be three years of fighting for my career and mental health. I took solace, often, in Vanier’s words and community-building efforts—in the notion of being stronger together because of our weaknesses.
L’Arche, meaning “the ark” en français, was founded by Vanier in 1964 in France, nurturing inclusive and secular safe spaces for persons of all abilities. It has since grown across 35 countries with 147 communities, including the Comox Valley. L’Arche’s spirit and Jean Vanier’s personal journey are beautifully captured in a profound interview with Krista Tippet that can be found online at Onbeing.org.
As I initially sought to set anchor and establish my medical practice, having worked from Montréal to Manitoba with an eye to the sea below the mountains, a search for community led me to the Comox Valley. I discovered, in these very pages of the CV Collective and the L’Arche community, reflections of a remarkable spirit of resiliency and kindness.
Since then, I have actively encouraged patients of all backgrounds–and especially those too often disenfranchised by the “developmental disability” stigma–to share their gifts and connect with our L’Arche community.
I first met Erica and her mom Marlea as patients of mine in the summer of 2018, and they encouraged me to share their story here. Erica is a remarkable young woman who continues to redefine “disability”–yet, in 2018, after moving from Ontario where she was involved with Special Olympics programs, she initially struggled while settling into the Valley with her mom, who herself faced significant medical challenges. During our visits, we talked about getting involved with L’Arche. It was a deeply moving surprise to see her celebrated for her beautiful driftwood sculptures at L’Arche Comox Valley’s annual Art of Belonging celebration last March–so quickly had she adapted and excelled at contributing to her new community.
As Marlea explains, “Getting involved with L’Arche, Erica is a totally different person since moving here. I can’t tell you how much better our lives are. It’s amazing how independent she has become. L’Arche has played a big role.” Erica shares that with “the candle making and other art… when I’m there [at L’Arche] I feel happy.”
We live within a broader world of crises–climate change, misinformation, isolation, inequality, and prejudice–that may often overwhelm and further isolate us individually. For me, the antidote to such despair lies in building resilient, kind communities. The path forward can be found in the inspired work of L’Arche.
Jean Vanier died on May 7, 2019. I imagine he might question some of the suggestions of “sainthood” that have since been attributed to him. His own commitment to helping us become human was so rooted in our common humanity. As he said himself, “Those we most often exclude from the normal life of society, people with disabilities, have profound lessons to teach us.”
Those interested in finding out more about L’Arche Comox Valley can visit larchecomoxvalley.org. Weekly drop-in coffee is held on Fridays from 10-11:30am, at the I Belong Centre, located at 1465 Grieve Avenue, Courtenay.