Beth Porter is the author of Accidental Friends: Stories from my Life in Community, a book that chronicles her experiences living in a L'Arche community, along with her interactions with Jean Vanier, with whom she worked on educational projects. In L'Arche communities people with and without intellectual disabilities live and learn together with dignity.
1. What was the most rewarding part of living in a L'Arche community?
For me, there were two very rewarding parts of living in community: the feeling of living life with authenticity and the friendships I share. I have developed friendships with people who are very different from me in some respects, but also amazingly welcoming and "whole," and who call me to be in the present moment with them.
(Photo courtesy of L'Arche Canada)
2. What initially motivated you to join L'Arche?
I heard Jean Vanier speak to university audiences in the 1970s and was moved by his message, which was inspired by the Beatitudes, and by his ability to be intensely present. (A friend commented, "He has eyes like vacuum cleaners!") I was also drawn by Jean's spirituality and his practical wisdom in his early books. In 1980, when I read Community and Growth, it struck me that Jean knew how to create stable, caring communities rooted in the values expressed by Jesus. I decided to visit the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ont., near where I was living. That was in 1980. I soon returned and stayed!
3. You worked with Jean Vanier. What was that like?
After 2000, I worked with Jean and Greg Rogers of the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the ministries of education in Ontario and Alberta to bring Jean's message to high school students. Jean loved being with young people. He sent WE Day messages urging students to change the world for the better and to do this with others. When he visited, he spoke to a large student forum and we made two short films of students in conversation with Jean about their future. We usually communicated via the Internet. In later years, Jean invited my editorial input on some items. He incorporated suggestions and was always guided by what was most pastoral.
4. Can you describe how you witnessed Jean living out his guiding principles in community?
Jean was a man of prayer. When he was visiting us or I was in France, very early, before others were up, I would notice him in the chapel immersed in silent prayer. Jean would be intensely present to whoever he was speaking with. I think his habit of prayer helped him in this. He trusted God and was not distracted.
He grew and mellowed over the years, and he became more deeply convinced that the world needs the L'Arche message: that each person, whatever their ability, has a gift to contribute.
He remained in touch with what was happening in the wider world. The last time I visited him, soon after an election here, he opened by asking, "So, how is Canada?"