A Nobel-Worthy 2009 Person of the Year

In my last post–after shouting “Amen” to the lament of a New York Times columnist who mockingly nominated Tiger Woods as 2009 Person of the Year for representing the spirit of the age in leaders who “play us for suckers”—I promised to offer my own Person of the Year with a simple criteria:  an influential life offering an alternative to the cynicism of the age.

I recently learned my choice will be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.  Let me put that in context; I was not excited about Obama being awarded the prize.  For me it’s quite simple:  the Nobel should honor a breakthrough vision, achievement, or track record.  While there are signs that Obama might move in startlingly fresh and visionary directions (his June Cairo speech on Islam), these signs did not get traction toward a new pathway.  And I found Obama’s acceptance speech disappointing; while remarkable for the nuanced defense of just war, he did not offer a compelling vision for peacemaking in the 21st century (for a good reading of the speech’s complexities see Fred Kaplan’s Slate column).

But my 2009 Person of the Year is one whom a Nobel Prize would rightly honor for a long journey of achievements (he would detest the word) that truly demonstrate “the way things are is not the way things have to be”:  Jean Vanier, the founder of the international L’Arche movement which has established over 130 communities across the world of disabled and others sharing life in friendship and mutuality.

If you ever doubt another way of life is possible in a divided world, go spend a couple days in a L’Arche community.  I did that four years ago and the memories still reverberate within me.

Watch a couple minutes of this Speaking of Faith interview called the “Wisdom of Tenderness” with Vanier and get a feel for this 6′ 5″ gentle giant who has created communities where disabled and others are altered at their very core.  Vanier is one whose very presence, words, and body gradually take you into a new dimension of human possibilities for everyday transformations of hospitality, friendship, truth-telling, patience, forgiveness, sacrifice, and–most importantly,  joy and celebration–for the sake of a new community.  L’Arche, says Vanier,

“… is a school of love where we learn to love others who are different. This requires each person to grow in humility and to work on themselves. It means learning to see each person as somebody in whom God dwells, a person from whom we can receive gifts and who can help us to grow in love.”

In spite of his enormous responsibilities for L’Arche communities throughout the world, I happen to know that Jean took the time to write a series of notes from France to accompany some friends of mine through a very painful experience this year.

That’s the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

Related Reconcilers Posts: Gentleness as Leadership? Jean Vanier Thinks So

Also See:

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1 Comment

  1. A wonderful nomination Chris. I’ll offer a second to anyone accepting such nominations.

    Jean’s words about celebrations and belly-laughs in his recent book with Stanley Hauerwas was priceless.

    I have followed Jean Vanier since being introduced to his work through that of Henri Nouwen by my spiritual director in the early 1990s. Shortly after that, I began working in a residential setting with Disabled adults while I finished graduate school. The organization was much more institutional than L’Arche communities, but Jean and Henri were heartfelt and faithful guides as I sought to faithfully serve our residents and staff.

    I then left that work to lead a campus ministry. There, while working with with very privileged students and belonging to to a community that brought people together across divisions, including social class and (dis)ability, I had an opportunity to live much of the community and joy that Vanier encourages. Vanier’s vision of recognizing the gift of peace and community with those we see as “needy” continues to shape my vision of working on ourselves first as we seek change in the world around us. As society in developed countries becomes more polarized between the very-privileged and the under-privileged,I see church and related avenues of ministry as some of the few areas where we can bring the groups together in mutual understanding and reconciliation.

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