Letter to the Editor
The Globe and Mail
Saturday June 1, 2019
When I read The Globe and Mail's obituary of Jean Vanier, I felt a warm glow and remembered a special encounter my husband and I had with him one evening in London in the fall of 1989.
At the time, my husband was helping to develop a program for young offenders at a children's mental health centre in Toronto. I accompanied him to a conference in England that looked at the latest approaches to working with this challenging demographic. Most of my days were spent visiting museums and historic sites, but I attended the final dinner, which was followed by a presentation by Jean Vanier, the keynote speaker.
Before the dinner, the conference organizers introduced him to the few of us who were fellow Canadians. I was immediately struck by his warmth and his open and unpretentious way of communicating, and I could not help noticing that although his clothes were not quite threadbare, they had seen a lot of wear.
When he heard that we lived close to Toronto, he encouraged us to visit Daybreak in Richmond Hill, the first L'Arche community in Canada. He also asked us to take greetings to Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and writer who had left his position as a professor at Harvard University in order to live a life of simplicity with the residents at Daybreak. Clearly, they had a lot in common.
By the time we were called to dinner, Jean Vanier had adopted us as his Canadian companions for the evening.
He was concerned about misplacing his bag - a small, brown and battered piece of luggage - and asked us to keep it with us.
I will always remember the powerful message that he shared in his address: Every human being is precious and needs love, even those neglected, overlooked and despised. There was power in his words because of the life he lived. The audience knew that he helped to feed, wash and toilet his disabled housemates.
We returned to our life in Canada - busy with work and family responsibilities - cherishing our encounter with Jean Vanier. I was curious about his life journey and read some biographical material about him.
I have a file in my desk where I collect stories about people who inspire me. When our world seems mean I can be reoriented to other ways of thinking and being human.
Jean Vanier and his words are in this inspiration file: "We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love."
Joanna Reesor-McDowell, Stouffville, Ont.