Pamela Cushing

Centre puts new light on Vanier’s life work

By 
  • May 11, 2019

The ideas of one of the great Canadian Catholic thinkers of our time will live on at King’s University College which has been chosen to house the new Jean Vanier Research Centre.

The centre on the campus of the Catholic college at Western University in London, Ont., will “keep the energy going” for Vanier’s ideas and life works that focused on bringing those with intellectual disabilities and those without together in community.

King’s announced the creation of the centre just days before Vanier died in France on May 7. As it gets underway, the centre will mourn Vanier while also embarking on a celebration and the study of his life’s work.

“We pledge to continue our work, inspired by this great Canadian, to analyze, elaborate and share the insights — or ‘treasures’ as he called them — that grew out of his distinct style of real-world applied scholarship in disability, spiritual and religious studies,” said Pamela Cushing, director on the new centre.

Cushing said the Jean Vanier Research Centre will blend nicely with the school’s Disability Studies program, which she also founded. It will partner with the Jean Vanier Association in France and L’Arche and will initially bring together about 20 international scholars and leaders from non-profit organizations to examine and think through some of the ideas generated by the founder of the worldwide L’Arche and Faith & Light communities.

“All of us have the sense that there’s something more that we have to articulate here,” said Cushing. “It’s almost like Jean couldn’t do that himself. It has to be people who can take a step back and shine a light on what he was doing. Some ideas may be revealed as stronger than we knew and other ideas may fall by the wayside.”

Vanier founded L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 1964 as a community to build relationships between people with intellectual disabilities and those without, and offer a place where all belong and work and learn from each other. Vanier expanded the concept and in 1969 L’Arche opened in Richmond Hill, Ont. It has since expanded around the world with 149 communities and 14 projects in 37 countries. Similarly, Faith & Light communities bring together thousands, with disabilities and without, through community and family gatherings in 1,500 communities in 82 nations.

Vanier always taught that each person has dignity and it is up to those around the marginalized to discern that dignity, said Cushing. These were “radical ideas” Vanier espoused for the time. And much like Vanier and L’Arche learned from mistakes made and kept the vision pointed forward, “in the same way, the projects of the centre are trying to do that too,” she said.

“The centre offers a pathway forward for some of these conundrums by externalizing this task of articulation — by shining some arm’s-length light on Jean’s writing, ideas and practical works, and sorting out what the themes and continuous concepts are, and are there aspects of his thought that can be articulated in a way that is perhaps more amenable to informing policy and practice in other settings.”

The centre has been in the works for about a decade informally, but has ramped up in the past two years.

It’s no accident King’s was chosen as its home. It’s a good fit because of Vanier’s relationship with Cushing dating back almost two decades when she was doing research at L’Arche for her PhD in anthropology and later through retreats they led together, as well as the presence of the Disability Studies program at King’s and its rich Catholic history.

“He told me, ‘Let’s do something so that the treasures of insight don’t disappear with me,’ ” said Cushing.

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