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Loving the outcasts 

click to enlarge Jean Vanier
  • Jean Vanier

For many years, spiritual leader Jean Vanier frequented orphanages. In his visits, he sometimes clutched a forlorn child to his chest."Immediately the face of the child is transformed," Vanier said, describing how a simple, loving embrace from a stranger can be transformative. Sadly, once released from his embrace, the child's look of despair usually reappeared.

However, Vanier, the 80-year-old founder of L'Arche communities, which serve people with developmental disabilities, can no longer emotionally withstand those visits. "It's too painful," he told an audience last week at Durham's Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church, where he spoke to a nearly full house.

Once called idiots, retards or handicaps, people with developmental disabilities were often shunted to orphanages, hospitals or other institutions where they languished under draconian conditions. But in 1964, Vanier established in northern France the first L'Arche community, which integrated people with and without developmental disabilities. Today, there are 135 L'Arche communities in 36 countries, including 16 in the United States.

Vanier was in Durham partly to promote his new book, Living Gently in a Violent World, co-authored with Duke Divinity professor of theological ethics Stanley Hauerwas.

Much of Vanier's message makes the connection between loving the people whom society has cast aside as unlovable and the struggle to create a more peaceful world.

"The fundamental principle of peace is a belief that each person is important," Vanier writes in Living Gently.

"People with disabilities remain the most oppressed people of this world," said Vanier, a tall man with a voice so soft it is often hard to hear. "Many feel that they are not entirely human."

Vanier says his focus on those with disabilities is rooted in Scripture, especially the Gospel stories in which Jesus embraced the mentally and physically ill and other outcasts.

"I just sense the hand of Jesus" in the growth of L'Arche, Vanier said. "The building of L'Arche has been a story of transformation."

That transformation has happened in the form of committed relationships in which people with and without disabilities become like family, Vanier said.

"These people are very precious, and if we live with them, and communicate with them, and enter into a relationship of mutuality with them, we will change.

"People need to be understood," he said, adding that to listen to a person gives him or her dignity, and it is a form of holiness to do so."Our ministry is founded on broken bodies. When you live with people with disabilities, you must be in community."

Immigrant support

In the past year, there has been an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in North Carolina: It was a focal point in many local and state elections; it has become an issue in who is admitted to North Carolina community colleges; and many law enforcement agencies are partnering with the federal government to sweep undocumented immigrants off the streets, often separating families in the process.

However, not everyone views immigrants—documented or not—as the enemy. George Reed and Chris Liu Beers of the North Carolina Council of Churches want to find a way to "help to raise a contrary voice that would try to bring about some change in the climate that we were seeing on immigration issues," Reed said.

That search produced the N.C. Religious Coalition for Justice for Immigrants, a loosely knit group that is looking for ways faith communities can help those being vilified.

Last month, the Council of Churches invited religious leaders to show their opposition to the anger and hatred directed at immigrants, and to offer "hospitality rather than hostility," said Reed, executive director of the Council of Churches.

More than 300 religious leaders from throughout the state, including Imam Oliver Muhammad of the As Salaam Islamic Center, Bishop N.C. NAACP President the Rev. William Barber, Michael Burbidge of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, and Rabbi Eric Solomon of Beth Meyer Synagogue, have signed a statement of solidarity with immigrants, and an estimated 2,000 petition signatures have been collected from the general public.

"[W]e agree that all immigrants are made in God's image and that our religious traditions demand that we care especially for the stranger," the solidarity statement reads. "We call on all people of faith to stand with immigrants as a matter of religious responsibility, to advocate for their well-being and protection, and to educate our local communities about issues affecting immigrant peoples."

Solomon said, "When we stand by and listen to elected officials talk about other human beings as if they're less than human simply because they come from a different culture, we are denying what is written specifically in the Torah. ... This is personal for us in the Jewish community. I am representative of many who come from immigrant backgrounds, and we will not forget what happened to us, and we will not let it happen to anyone else."

For more information or to sign on to the petition, go to www.welcometheimmigrant.org.

Radical nuns

For her talk at Raleigh's Nazareth House last week, Dominican Sister Ardeth Platte wore a T-shirt with a quote from the late Catholic Worker Ammon Hennessy: "I'm not disturbing the peace. I'm disturbing the war."

Platte and fellow Sister Carol Gilbert have been trying to disturb the war makers for many years and have spent time in nearly 30 jails and prisons for their peace activism.

The pair gained international notoriety in the fall of 2002 when they and a third nun used hammers to symbolically disarm a Minuteman III nuclear-armed missile silo in a remote area of Colorado.

For their actions, the three were convicted in a federal court of destroying government property and interfering with the national defense, two serious charges that landed Platte in prison for 41 months and Gilbert for 33. Their actions are the topic of a 43-minute documentary, Conviction.

Since being released in 2005, they have lectured throughout the country advocating for disarmament while living at Baltimore's Jonah House (www.jonahhouse.org/sacred_earth.htm), a resistance community founded by the late Philip Berrigan and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister.

Today, the U.S. has more than a third of the world's 27,000 nuclear weapons, Platte said. Together, the U.S. and Russia hold 95 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal, weapons that should be deactivated under treaties the U.S. has signed—and ignored.

"President-elect Barack Obama has already talked about bombing Afghanistan and Pakistan if he has to," Platte said. "He's already talked very clearly about building the military up."

Although the 2009 U.S. military budget is approaching $1 trillion, Platte said the United Nations General Assembly has been pushing a serious disarmament agenda that the U.S. and other countries should support.

"This is becoming a very strong movement," she said. "The strengthening of the U.N. is very important. There's a lot of hope right now, and we've got to keep it alive."


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