Life With and Among the Marginalized: Wisdom from Jean Vanier

For more than the past seven years I have worked with students with special needs. When I moved home after college with a Biblical Studies degree in hand, there weren’t many jobs looking for someone with my background. My brother informed me of the summer program he was working in and so I too began working with him as a Special Education Teaching Assistant. It was a challenging time, yet rewarding, as I began to have my eyes opened to what I would later learn is an extremely hidden and marginalized population.

As soon as summer school was over, I began working for my local school district as a Special Education TA and have been employed by them ever since. Within this time, I have worked with all ages from kindergarten to adults of 21 years old. I have worked with students who have learning disabilities and require a little help reading to non-verbal, wheel-chair bound students who are unable to do anything for themselves (eating, toileting) and can be dangerously violent. I have worked with students all along this spectrum, many of whom have rarely been seen by the public eye. And it isn’t just these individual students that are hidden, but the families and other support structures that are behind them.

Along the way, I was blessed to attend seminary and complete a Masters in Theological Studies. Combining the life experience I was receiving at the hands of the hidden and marginalized with the holistic change in thought and action that was being cultivated in seminary, I began to sense something was amiss in the Church’s relation to those with special needs.

I firmly believe people living with – what are commonly known as – “disabilities” are the most neglected group within the Church. This was recently brought up at most recent Emergence Christianity event with Phyllis Tickle and reflected upon by Julie Clawson. There are a few resources out there regarding Christian life and witness and the beautiful-yet-hidden humans I’ve worked with. I don’t say this as to induce guilt. Rather, I’d like to ask questions and raise awareness of what our current situation actually looks like.

I have learned the most from the founder of L’Arche: Jean Vanier. L’Arche is “an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities.” It is not just another home of seclusion for these people. No, it is a community where, in the words of Vanier himself, “We live together – those with disabilities and those who wish to have a deep and sometimes lasting relationship with them. We laugh and cry and sometimes fight with one another; we work, we celebrate life, and we pray together.” And in this way the giving of life does not flow in one direction, as would be normally thought, from person without disability to the one with. (To be honest, this is a horribly anemic way of seeing each other. We all have disabilities, some are just more visually identifiable than others.) Instead the learning of life and love is reciprocal as one develops the eyes and ears to see the life and love emanating from those we normally would deem life and loveless. This has been a lesson I have had to learn over and over.

I plan on writing more from this space of learning from those deemed weak and insignificant. Jesus has quite a bit to say about this reality and thankfully I have come across Vanier and his rooted wisdom from actual life. Before I write about the lessons I have been graced with, I beg you to watch these short videos.

Watch them. Listen to Vanier. Reflect upon what he is saying and the community he is saying them out of. He is a light.

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