On June 27, L'Arche Greater Vancouver with the support of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, The United Church of Canada and Christ Church Cathedral (the venue for the event) invited the greater community to gather for ecumenical worship honouring Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche.
Born in Geneva, Switzerland on September 10, 1928, the fourth child of the future 19th Governor General of Canada, Georges Vanier and his wife Pauline Vanier (née Archer), Jean followed his father into the military and served in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy (1941-1950), prior to the realization that his strong inner spiritual self was urging him on a different path. He followed that path directed by his Catholic faith and became a great philosopher, theologian and humanitarian. In 1964 while living in France he founded L’Arche, an international organization of residential communities for people with developmental disabilities, their allies, supporters and assistants. L’Arche communities are located in 37 countries around the globe.
Jean Vanier died on May 7, 2019 in Paris. During his long life of compassionate service he was awarded: the Order of Canada, 1972; National Order of Quebec, 1992; International Humanitarian Award, 2001, Legion of Honour, 2003; Pacem in Terris Award, 2013 and The Templeton Prize, 2015.
The Jean Vanier quote on the cover of the Order of Service bulletin which is a question for us all to ponder, set the tone for the evening:
"Can we reasonably have a dream of a world where people, whatever their race, religion, culture, abilities, or disabilities, whatever their education or economic situation, whatever their age or gender, can find a place and reveal their gifts?"
The nave of the Cathedral was at near capacity as people from all over the Lower Mainland and beyond experienced a 90 minute presentation that included: Scripture; a homily by the worship leader, United Church Minister, Rev. Louise Cummings; prayers; music with a focus on congregational participation; a PowerPoint presentation overview of Jean Vanier's life; personal reflections from those who were and are profoundly impacted by Jean's life and message; laughter; and a very moving Blessing ritual where those in attendance lined up in front of four "stations" and each waited in turn to receive a blessing from a member of the L'Arche Greater Vancouver community. The words shared during the blessing were:
"You are more beautiful than you dare imagine, so let your light shine!"
Although Jean Vanier was a Roman Catholic this memorial event was truly ecumenical, beginning with a greeting and a brief reflection from the Dean of the Diocese of New Westminster and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very Reverend Peter Elliott. Dean Elliott shared that Jean Vanier’s work, his writings, his prayers, his ministry had touched him deeply. He said, “Many is the time that I heard people say that being in the presence of Jean Vanier was like being in the presence of Jesus.” Dean Elliott also brought greetings from Archbishop Melissa Skelton who was unable to attend. Archbishop Skelton is an honorary member of the board for the current fundraising initiative, “We All Belong”. The goal of this campaign is to raise 30 million dollars for a new L’Arche Greater Vancouver community to be built on the current property at 7401, Sussex Avenue in Burnaby.
Following Dean Elliott’s greeting, Executive Director/Community Leader of L'Arche Greater Vancouver, Denise Haskett offered her greetings and warmly thanked folks for their support and attendance. She told the story of the period of time in early-mid May around Jean Vanier’s death and how the Greater Vancouver L’Arche community gathered together as L’Arche communities do around the world to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of a community member who has died. The Greater Vancouver L’Arche community gathered and watched the video feed of Jean Vanier’s funeral as it was taking place in France.
Beginning the worship with the Opening Song (“All are Welcome”) and prayers, worship leader, Rev. Cummings gave a brief address and reflection which was followed by members of L’Arche and their assistants, lining up on the west side of the chancel platform and presenting symbols of Jean Vanier’s ministry beginning with a navy blue windbreaker (blue windbreakers were Jean Vanier's trademark clothing of choice), and finishing with a large orange cut into sections. Jean Vanier had a mischievous and whimsical sense of humour and was known for throwing orange peels and orange sections during community meals.
Hollee Card, Former National Leader of L'Arche Canada had the honour of screening and narrating a 10 minute PowerPoint presentation that chronicled Jean Vanier’s life and his incredible ministry. The final slide consisted of a fairly recent close up photo of a smiling Jean Vanier with a quote in the top left corner, which read:
“I am deeply peaceful and trustful. I’m not sure what the future will be but God is good and whatever happens it will be the best. I am happy and give thanks for everything. My deepest love to each one of you.”
Next in the order of service were addresses from the two guest speakers. First to speak was Al Etmaski, a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. He is a founding partner of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and BC Partners for Social Impact. As co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) he proposed and led the campaign to establish the world's only disability savings plan - the RDSP. Al is an Ashoka fellow, and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD). He was recently awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. Among the personal thoughts and reflections, Mr. Etamaski drew parallels between the life and legacy of Jean Vanier and another Canadian of his generation who was also from Montreal, Leonard Cohen.
For Mr. Etmaski, Jean Vanier was less like a saint (as many would make him out to be), but was in fact, completely an authentic “true believer”. Jean Vanier’s profound message that “imperfection is a source of personal and societal transformation” is at the root of the philosophy that fuelled his ministry. “Imperfection, the price of admission for someone who wants to change the world.”
Next up to the ambo was Hollee Card who spoke about her personal transformation after discovering the books of Jean Vanier as a teenager. Books like “Be Not Afraid”, “Followers of Jesus”, “Eruption of Hope”, but it was one of his earliest works, 1974’s “Tears of Silence” that had a powerful impact and a great influence on the direction and purpose she would choose for her life. Ms. Card said, “He saw himself as a spokesperson for those he supported…Jean’s vision was a global vision to build a more compassionate society.”
The addresses led into the Blessing ritual that took place at four stations at the front of the nave each led by a L’Arche member accompanied by an assistant.
Following the Blessing, Dean Elliott led Closing Prayers which concluded with The Lord’s Prayer; the Reverend Dr. Gordon How, retired United Church minister who has been deeply involved in the ministry of Jean Vanier and L'Arche offered prayers and then the Most Reverend J. Michael Miller, CSB, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver offered prayers and a blessing. The congregation rose to their feet and sang the Closing Song, “Blest Are They” by David Haas before leaving the sanctuary and gathering downstairs in the parish hall for light refreshments and conversation.
Present at the liturgy as ushers and greeters were representatives of the hard-working group of people who are implementing the current Capital Campaign. They made themselves available to offer information about opportunities to support “We All Belong”. For more information about the campaign and the wonderful new L’Arche facility planned for the near future please visit the website.