In the early 1990s I read the late Henri Nouwen’s book, The Road to Daybreak, his account of leaving the prestige and comfort of Harvard University to join L’Arche Daybreak, a ministry serving severely mentally challenged adults in Toronto, Canada. This new ministry was part of a network of L’Arche homes begun by Jean Vanier in 1965 in Trosly-Breuil, France.
L’Arche, in French, means “the ark,” and the image is of Noah’s boat of safety and salvation. As I read about L’Arche and Jean Vanier, my heart was opened to ministry “to the least of these.” Now, for the second time, I’m reading Vanier’s book, From Brokenness to Community.
Nouwen’s faith journey in The Road to Daybreak is a book to which I return periodically. It moved me so deeply when I first read it that I ordered copies for my then teenage children.
Nouwen died in 1996. Vanier died on May 7, 2019. But the impact of both continues through their ministries and writings.
I think of these faith heroes as I ponder the IPHC’s core value of justice. Nouwen and Vanier had a keen understanding of “the poor” that arose from their ministry with mentally challenged men and women.
From Brokenness to Community is a book taken from Vanier’s 1988 lectures at Harvard Divinity School. It describes aspects of Christian community that challenge my sometimes-idealistic views.
Vanier wrote: “Jesus calls his friends into community with others who have been chosen for the same path. This is when all the problems begin! We see the disciples squabbling among themselves, wondering who is the greatest, the most important among them! Community is a wonderful place, it is life-giving; but it is also a place of pain because it is a place of truth and of growth – the revelation of our pride, our fear, and our brokenness.”
In his Harvard lectures, Vanier described his call to ministry in 1964, when he took two mentally disabled men, Raphael and Philip, from an asylum and provided a real home and constant care for them. He described what he learned: “When I had begun living with them, I soon started to discover the immense pain in their hearts. When we talk of the poor, or of announcing the good news to the poor, we should never idealize the poor. Poor people are hurt; they are in pain. They can be very angry, in revolt or in depression.”
Vanier gave almost his entire adult life to those living in the margins of life. In fact, we usually find ways to put such people totally out of sight—even farther away than the margins! But Vanier found them hidden in institutional shadows and brought them into the margins where they could be loved and served. He saw that these people could become instruments of Christ’s grace. In the last years of his life, Nouwen took the same path to the margins.
There are different kinds of poverty. Besides those who are poor due to disabilities, there are those Jesus called “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). There are also the poor who lack food and other provisions.
The law of Moses instructed those with much to insure the poor could gather grain and other food supplies around the edges of fields (see Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 19:10; 23:22). Their efforts to gather for themselves was a way of providing the dignity of work.
There are also the poor who are homeless and live on the streets (see Luke 14:21; 16:20). There are those who are oppressed and persecuted, and become poor refugees (see Psalm 12:5; 109:16; Proverbs 14:31). And yes, there are those who become poor through their foolishness (see Proverbs 10:4; 21:17).
In the gospels, Jesus made numerous references to the poor. The songs of praise at Jesus’ birth expressed hope and deliverance for the poor and lowly (Luke 1:52, 53). Though Jesus was not destitute and had resources from several sources, He accepted the “poverty” of our fallen humanity when He stepped into this earth in the Incarnation. And, the Bible says, “though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Christian communities are to be places where social status, wealth and prestige are not used to differentiate people by worldly categories of worth or importance (see James 2:1-9). The members of the church at Laodicea believed themselves to be rich, wealthy and in need of nothing, yet they were actually “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
Care for the poor is never easy, whether the poor lack the basic needs of this life—shelter, food, clothing, and protection—or they are the proud, self-sufficient people who don’t realize how desperately poor they really are. As Vanier understood, disillusionment, disappointment, anger, resentment and a host of other responses quickly eliminate the not so subtle self-congratulations of our efforts to help.
As followers of Jesus seeking to be messengers of reconciliation, we must not be naïve or discouraged when we work with the poor. We must persevere, ever recognizing that our often-loving efforts of generosity and compassion are often rejected, ridiculed and even squandered.
May God raise up new “kingdom outposts” of faithful servants in the IPHC who will move among those living in the margins. May our presence in this world bring grace, patience, and lovingkindness.
This article was originally published in the Encourage magazine.