“Will you be my friend?” asked Raphael Simi who was confined to the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux in Trosly, a southern suburb of Paris. Next to him stood Philippe Seux, both intellectually disabled and living in deplorable conditions. It was 1964.

A tall strapping professor of ethics listened. Already moved by visits to other institutions warehousing “idiots” and the unseemly, the question changed the direction of his life. Mindful of Jesus’s practical care for the poor, he bought a small house at the edge of a nearby forest and with his new friends set up housekeeping—a messy undertaking but one persevered in.

Daily, often humdrum, interacting dissolved barriers of fear and the customary manner of doing things, opened new inroads into the comic that they shared, and actualized the bedrock of their graced humanness: joy, love, tears, and freedom. From this experience evolved L’Arche (French word for The Ark—like Noah’s), and a quiet revolution was born.

After five decades, such radical care for the unlovely still inflames the psyche of its founder, Jean Vanier, now eight-eight years old. Others of like mind have entered into this movement and following prayerful discernment, developed other group homes in France and around the world. Today, L’Arche has over five thousand members who live in one hundred and fifty-one communities that are spread over five continents. Three of these communities are in St. Louis, Missouri.

This moving story has been captured in Randall Wright’s documentary, Summer in the Forest (2018) and can be seen at the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis, Missouri—another must see.

 

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