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Jean Vanier is shown in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2008.

IAN BROWN/The Globe and Mail

This is the first instalment in a continuing correspondence between Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, a worldwide group of communities for the disabled, and Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown.

Mr. Brown is the father of a 12-year-old boy, Walker, who was born with a rare genetic syndrome called cardio-facio-cutaneous syndrome. He wrote about their experiences in a 2007 Globe and Mail series, The Boy in the Moon (see globeandmail.com/boyinthemoon).

Mr. Vanier, one of the world's leading thinkers on disability, was born in Canada 80 years ago and founded the first L'Arche community in 1964 in a small house he bought for himself and two disabled men in Trosly-Breuil, 70 kilometres northeast of Paris. Today, L'Arche operates 130 communities in 34 countries, including 27 in Canada.

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Mr. Vanier still lives in Trosly-Breuil. The two men met when Mr. Brown visited there for the first time in April.

Ian Brown writes:

July 17, 2008

Toronto, Canada

Dear Jean,

My visit to L'Arche was extraordinary. I still remember La Semance, the house where I lived three days with the residents, and my early-morning walks to the village to buy bread at the boulangerie - frost on the ground, rosemary flowering - then to the hotel next door for a café. And of course the nervousness I experienced every time I walked in, for fear that my fractured French would fail me and I would look like a fool.

If you visit, please say hello to Gégé and Jean-Claude, my dinner companions every night I was there. Gégé in particular reminded me of Walker, even though he's in his 50s and Walker's only 12 - they're the same height and have the same posture, the same slow progress across the floor or up stairs.

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Gary Webb, your long-time friend who runs La Semance, seemed to have a special relationship with Gégé: It was Gary who led him in to dinner, Gary who cut up his food, Gary who made him laugh. One night, Gégé managed to get quite a bit of chocolate sauce on his face, to the point where he looked like a bandito, and Gary pretended to have a gunfight with him. I suppose someone from the outside could have thought Gary was making fun of Gégé, but he was laughing.

After that, I didn't hesitate to start conversations with people who couldn't speak, in the normal sense of that word. The even stranger thing was that the next morning, when I went to buy bread, I was no longer nervous about my French. Gégé taught me there are worse things than looking foolish.

But it was hard to keep feeling that graceful after I returned to Toronto. Which raises a question I have for you: How can I sustain my belief that all the effort I am making with Walker actually means anything, especially now that I've left the gifted and comforting company of L'Arche?

In Trosly, I met people who understood the value of living alongside people who are intellectually handicapped. When you have a relationship with someone in need, with someone who is weak, you can recognize your own weakness too, and can then approach each other as equals. But now, back in Toronto, it is easy to lose heart.

How can you convince people in the real world of power and money, on Wall Street or Bay Street or the bourse of Paris - where success is addictive and always more valuable than weakness - that weakness might just be the route to a greater humanity?

It's all very well to speculate that the peace process in the Middle East could benefit from one side saying, "Help me - I am weak," instead of trying to bluster from strength to intimidation. But it's hard to be sure the idea has any practical application.

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I'm lucky. I have Walker to remind me of these matters. And even there my optimism flags.

Let me give you an example: A few weeks ago, Walker and I drove to upstate New York to meet some other kids with his syndrome. I didn't know if they would even register with Walker. On the way, we pulled over at a gas station to go to the bathroom.

Now, peeing with Walker is always interesting. I have to keep him from touching the urinal guard, or putting his hands on porcelain that should not be touched by any human being who isn't wearing a hazmat suit. And this is while I'm at the urinal myself. But we survived that and moved to the sink to wash our hands.

I soaped his meaty little paws. As I did so, I was reminded - because these tiny tasks take time, and force me to concentrate on one thing - how much pleasure it gives me to feel his rough skin, to hold his lumpy hands. Then, when I pulled the paper out of the dispenser, he smiled and even held his hands up to dry!

That was when I realized how nervous I had been about our little trip. The prospect of meeting handicapped children, something I do many times a week, still terrifies me, even after all these years. I was afraid of all their bentness, their strange angled bodies, their jutting teeth, their raucous noises. Why? Because I might fail them. It's ridiculous, because they aren't worried about that. All they want is to be loved and accepted.

It's an important thing to remember, and I am grateful to Walker for reminding me. But was he reminding me? Really, it's just a story of a small boy washing his hands. These connections and aperçus that I insist on seeing might just be imagined on my part. And if I can't know, how can I convince myself that making the effort is worth it?

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Especially, I must say, given that I am not religious. I agree with what E.M. Forster, the great English novelist, said in his famous essay What I Believe: "Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff. I do not believe in it, for its own sake, at all. Herein I probably differ from most people, who believe in Belief, and who are only sorry that they cannot swallow even more than they do. My law-givers are Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St. Paul."

So I wonder how you have managed the crises in your own faith - when you asked your father for permission to enlist in the navy; when you left teaching at the University of Toronto and the path to the priesthood, standing against your mother to start L'Arche. You must have had doubts. And the way you started L'Arche, without a plan! There must have been many times when you thought you had lost your mind.

I wonder how you maintain faith in yourself, particularly if you have lived an unconventional life that can't be measured by conventional standards. How do you know it isn't all for naught?

I hope this letter finds you well and thriving. I look forward to hearing from you.

Warm regards,

Ian Brown

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Jean Vanier replies:

September 12, 2008

Trosly-Breuil, France

Dear Ian,

Maybe you feel alone as you travel with Walker. Maybe we in L'Arche sometimes feel alone in a highly competitive society. The question is, how to transmit a vision of peace and of love to our world, a way of life which favours justice and the sharing of wealth and where every person is seen as valuable and helped to find a fullness of life - a place of belonging.

I did not begin L'Arche because I wanted to help a few "unfortunate" people locked up in dismal and violent institution. My life in L'Arche is part of a larger struggle for peace.

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During the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. rose up to bring justice to the blacks of the United States. His dream of brother- and sisterhood flowed from his deep belief that every human being is important and valuable, that everyone has a right to be free and have a place in our society. This dream flowed from his faith in Jesus and the Gospel message: Each person is important, each person is a child of God.

My life in L'Arche flows from the same conviction. Our communities want to witness the beauty and value of each person, whatever their culture, religion, abilities or disabilities.

This conviction gives me strength, and I feel united to many people who believe in this universal brother- and sisterhood - people working amongst immigrants and refugees, people working with (or for) people with disabilities or with other difficulties, with those caught up in the drug world, in the world of prostitution, in the prison world; people working for justice and peace in South America, in the Caribbean, in Africa; all those people who are struggling for greater, universal justice and peace.

Do I have moments of discouragement? Of course I am sad when I hear of a mother having a child with disabilities aborted. Of course I can be disheartened by a culture of competition that favours the strong and tends to eliminate the weak.

But how could I have doubts when I am living every day with people with disabilities, and can see their beauty, their love, their openness to life? My faith in their value is being constantly deepened and enhanced.

A lot of people with disabilities do not have a community which brings them life. We human beings are not meant to be "loners." Loneliness is so often compensated for by hyperactivity, by the need to be a winner and to go up the ladder of promotion, or by hiding behind alcohol or television. We are meant to be together, to be bonded in and through places of belonging, where the strong support the weak and the weak bring comfort to the strong. In a culture of competition, which accentuates individual success, the weak are seen as a nuisance and are quickly put aside, or eliminated.

I find strength because I live in a community, in a place of belonging. We encourage and support each other, but even more, we love each other and celebrate life together. We human beings are made to be people of joy, of fun and of celebration.

Your questions come, I sense, from your loneliness. As a responsible father, you (like all such fathers) are part of a vast struggle for peace and unity and life. But you do not always realize or remember this. You are too alone. You did not travel down to New York with others who love you and Walker.

As for E.M. Forster, I am afraid he did not know Moses very well. Moses was a great man. He came like Martin Luther King to liberate his people from slavery, to "set my people free." He was not assassinated, but he suffered because his people were often stubborn - often had "thick necks." At some moments they even wanted to return to slavery and the "onions of Egypt." To be truly free we have to pay a price, to grow to greater maturity and to assume responsibility.

Nor is Forster clear about Paul, who cried out that faith, if it does not lead to love, is worth nothing. To believe that people with disabilities are important is nothing if we don't struggle to help each one to live more fully.

The struggle between a closed religion and an open one is the struggle of many people. A closed religion accentuates rituals and dogmas - it gives a form of security. An open religion accentuates love for people, and implies a certain insecurity and vulnerability.

That struggle is mine, maybe yours as well. It is not easy for you to be with Walker at certain moments. It is not always easy for me to be with some people with disabilities. We are all so vulnerable in love that we don't always know how to love.

Some people insist that many of the people who believe in Jesus are closed up, and that their churches have done terrible things. They are right. But there are also many Christians who truly love Jesus and his message, who have tried to live this unconditional love.

At one point, you speak about the "real" world - the world of those addicted to success and to promotion. But isn't the real world also those who are angry with this closed society, and are addicted to drugs, violence and gangs? Isn't the real world also all those who are between the world of social success and the world of depression, trying to bring the two together?

The real world is people with hearts and minds yearning to find a meaning to their lives. We are all in this struggle.

Many people in our rich societies struggle between individual freedom and the need for exciting experiences, on one side, and growth to responsibility through belonging, on the other. Individual freedom can create anguish and depression. Closed belonging can bring security, but stifles individual freedom.

We in L'Arche are struggling to find that harmony between freedom and belonging, between competence and spirituality. We still have a long way to go, but we are on the road, which we hope will lead to greater trust in our human family, and greater peace and unity in our world.

Thank you, Ian, for your letter. Thank you for coming to L'Arche. And thank you for being a journalist. Our world needs people to speak out and reveal truths that sometimes are hidden and swept under the carpet.

Jean Vanier

The correspondence continues next month.

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