Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, wins Templeton Prize

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"Before being Christians or Jews or Muslims, before being Americans or Russians or Africans, before being generals or priests, rabbis or imams, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are all human beings with hearts capable of loving," said Catholic theologian and author Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, after being named the 2015 recipient of the Templeton Prize March 11.

The award comes as L'Arche - a network of residential communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities work and live together - concludes a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary.

The award is an "incredible culmination for the year," said Bethany Keener, director of communications and development for L'Arche Greater Washington, D.C., which includes two homes in Arlington and two in Adams Morgan.

Valued at about $1.7 million, the prize honors "a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works."

Keener said the prize money will contribute greatly to L'Arche's work, but she also hopes it will draw more attention to people with intellectual disabilities, "who still face so much discrimination."

The prize was announced during a news conference at the British Academy in London by the John Templeton Foundation, based in West Conshohocken, Pa.

Previous recipients include Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, the Dalai Lama and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

Vanier began the L'Arche movement in northern France in 1964, when he invited two intellectually disabled men to live with him as friends. The movement has grown into 147 L'Arche residential communities operating in 35 countries and more than 1,500 Faith and Light support groups in 82 countries that similarly urge solidarity among people with and without disabilities.

Vanier has traveled extensively throughout the world to give talks, lectures and retreats - especially to young people and those at the margins of society, including in prisons - and to reach out across religious differences.

He is the author of more than 30 books, all of which have been translated into 29 languages.

In remarks prepared for the announcement of the prize, the 86-year-old Vanier said "our world is evolving rapidly," and we are at a "crisis point."

"Either we will move together toward a deeper unity of all people … or the divisions that exist will grow into terrible forces of fear and hate."

But Vanier also noted there have been positive changes. He said there is "a change in the way people with intellectual disabilities are seen. For many years these wonderful people were seen as 'errors,' or as the fruit of evil committed by their parents or ancestors. ... They were terribly humiliated and rejected. Today we are discovering that these people have a wealth of human qualities that can change the hearts of those caught up in the culture of winning and of power."

In addition to celebrating the Templeton Prize, L'Arche Greater Washington, D.C., will honor the end of the movement's jubilee year, drawing around 200 members from across the country to several events May 28-30. Members of L'Arche will meet with their respective representatives on Capitol Hill May 28. Public celebrations include a "Sharing Our Gifts" gathering at the National Zoo May 29, with music, games and a photo booth, and a public forum and interfaith prayer service May 30 at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington. Krista Tippett, host of NPR's "On Being," and Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, will be guest speakers.

Keener's prayer is that the anniversary events and the Templeton Prize will encourage people to see those with intellectual differences as valuable, "as people to be cherished and loved - that they aren't a charity case," she said.

"Our hope is that Jean Vanier's work and the work of L'Arche can be a sign of hope, a sign that there is a different way for all of us to live together."

Click here to read about a L'Arche member's faith journey.

If you go

Go here to RSVP for the L'Arche anniversary events "Sharing Our Gifts" May 29 at the National Zoo, Lion/Tiger Hill, 3001 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, from noon to 3 p.m.; or the public forum and interfaith prayer service May 30 at National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave., N.W., Washington, at 2 p.m. For more information call Liz Yoder at 202/232-4539.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015