When I sat down with Tony Gibbings last week, the community leader of L’Arche in Ipswich, he reminded me it was the fourth time I had visited him in the last few years. It is true – and the reason I keep on going back to see Tony, and what Tony and his colleagues are doing, is because it is very, very special.
In a large but unassuming house on the corner of Ivry Street and Warrington Road there is a community, founded a decade ago by Tim Mason, who died far too young earlier this year. It is a very special community, yet it is the kind of community to which we should all belong – where the individual is respected for their innate human dignity, not on the intellectual gifts or material trappings by which we all classify ourselves, and where the individuals are bound together in community by communal eating and a quiet spirituality.
If this sounds like the cross between a commune and a religious community, you would be entirely right. It is a L’Arche community, part of a worldwide movement founded by the remarkable Jean Vanier back in 1964. The revolution of the 60s was just underway but already there was a growing movement of people who sought to reject materialism and individualism, choosing to live in communes here in Britain but also in the USA and across western Europe. At the same time, the winds of change were flapping the curtains of the Roman Catholic Church, which was in the grip of the Second Vatican Council which would chart a radical new direction for global Catholicism.
A practising catholic but also a child of the sixties, Vanier was influenced by these heady changes – and so it must have seemed less radical then that it does now for him to set up a small community which included two men with learning disabilities. The principle was simple: society spurned people with what Vanier calls ‘intellectual disabilities’ – but this was to contradict a truth that we all have as much to offer as each other, as much to learn from each other, as much in essential human dignity as each other. By living together, we live a life of true justice, of real learning and of fundamental compassion – in a community of equality that brooks no idea of one ‘type’ of person needing another ‘type’ more than the other. The fact is, as Vanier bluntly puts it, that those without intellectual disability need those with learning problems as much as the other way round. Then and now, society sees that relationship as one way; Vanier and L’Arche understand it to flow in both directions, with equal force and equal benefit – and live according to that belief.
It is a beautiful idea but the practice is more beautiful still. It happens every day on the corner of Warrington Road and Ivry Street. Men and women with learning disabilities living with men and women who have volunteered to live in the community. Like all the truest communities, the centre of the home is the table, and it is there that I have always begun a visit – over a plate of biscuits and a mug of tea. Why do I keep on going back? Because there is a miracle happening – one that exposes an absence in my own life and I suspect an absence in the larger part of our modern society, but every time leaves me feeling uplifted, not chastised. Go and see it for yourself and see what miracles are going on in our town.