Four Signs of Healthy Community
Jean Vanier knows something about community.
Born in 1928 as the son of a high-ranking official in the Canadian government, Vanier traveled the world and served in the Royal Navy. Sensing that there must be something more to life, he resigned from his naval commission in 1950 to study theology and philosophy, eventually completing a Ph.D. at the Catholic University of Paris. Through his friendship with a Catholic priest, he renewed his faith in God and became deeply concerned about the plight of people with intellectual disabilities. In 1964, Vanier invited two disabled men to leave their institutions and move into his home. This led to the establishment of L’Arche (“The Ark”), a worldwide federation of residential communities where people with intellectual disabilities live, pray and worship together with caregivers in an atmosphere of friendship, mutuality and inclusion. Although L’Arche was founded as a Christian organization, the communities are open and welcoming to people of all religious beliefs. Vanier has studied, taught, and written extensively on topics related to faith, disability and community. He became a close friend and mentor to the late Christian author Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), who resided at a L’Arche community in Ontario, Canada for the last ten years of his life. In recognition of Vanier’s influence and achievements, he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2015. (Previous winners of the Templeton Prize include Billy Graham and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.)
For decades, Vanier studied the inner workings of communities (especially religious ones) throughout the world. He learned what makes communities thrive and what causes them to fail. In his international bestseller Becoming Human (1998), he describes the enormous role that community plays in human development. Community is not the same thing as society. Society is where we earn a living, but community is where we experience belonging. Community is where we grow into full fledged human beings.
Belonging is important for our growth to independence; even further, it is important for our growth to inner freedom and maturity. It is only through belonging that we can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centeredness that both protects and isolates us…
(Becoming Human, Kindle edition, p. 35). If a community is healthy, it provides the structure and security that foster personal growth. But communities can also be unhealthy. They can appeal to the dark, egotistic parts of human nature and sow conflict and discord throughout the world. Vanier continues:
However, the human drive for belonging also has its pitfalls. There is an innate need in our hearts to identify with a group, both for protection and for security, to discover and affirm our identity, and to use the group to prove our worthiness and goodness, indeed, even to prove that we are better than others. It is my belief that it is not religion or culture at the root of human conflict but the way in which groups use religion or culture to dominate one another. Let me hasten to add that if it were not religion or culture that people used as a stick with which to beat others, they would just use something else (p. 36).
In Vanier’s understanding, the key difference between healthy and unhealthy community is this: An unhealthy community turns inward and develops a superiority complex. A healthy community recognizes that it is only a small part of the human race and fosters a sense of interdependence with the rest of humanity.
A group is the manifestation of this need to belong. A group can, however, close in on itself, believing that it is superior to others. But my vision is that belonging should be at the heart of a fundamental discovery: that we all belong to a common humanity, the human race. We may be rooted in a specific family and culture but we come to this earth to open up to others, to serve them and receive the gifts they bring to us, as well as to all of humanity (p. 36).
Vanier writes from an international perspective. He knows that Western people tend to be individualistic, and Easterners tend toward collectivism. Having seen the strengths and weaknesses of groups operating in diverse cultures, he is constantly aware of the delicate balance that must be struck between limiting personal freedom for the good of the community and preserving the dignity and uniqueness of the individual. He is also keenly attuned to the inequalities that exist in our fallen world, where the strong usually dominate the weak. In healthy community, each person knows he is both strong and weak; understanding and accepting their individual limitations is a key part of what gives community members a sense of belonging.
In Chapter II (“Belonging”) Vanier lists four signs of communities that are healthy. The first sign of a healthy community is that it treats all of its members, including the weakest and most vulnerable, with respect, seeing them all as equally important, and deliberately includes everyone in decisionmaking.
In healthy belonging, we have respect for one another. We work together, cooperate in a healthy way, listen to each other. We learn how to resolve the conflicts that arise when one person seeks to dominate another. In a true state of belonging, those who have less conventional knowledge, who are seemingly powerless, who have different capacities, are respected and listened to. In such a place of belonging, if it is a good place, power is not imposed from on high, but all members seek to work together as a body. The implication is that we see each other as persons and not just as cogs in a machine. We open up and interact with each other so that all can participate in the making of decisions (p. 58).
In Old Testament times, most of the Jewish people had a deep sense of belonging. But through the prophets, God rebuked them for ignoring the poor, weak and disadvantaged in their midst, for treating them as less-than-full members of God’s family (Isaiah 58:6-7).
The second sign of healthy community is that it values differences of opinion and promotes dialogue. Vanier has sharp words for communities that enforce and manipulate.
The second sign of healthy belonging is the way a group humbly lives its mission of service to others. It does not use or manipulate others for its own aggrandizement. It does not impose its vision on others but instead prefers to listen to what they are saying and living, to see in them all that is positive. It helps others to make their own decisions; it empowers them. When a community is closed and fearful of true dialogue where each person is respected, it is a sign of death not of life (p. 60).
A third sign of healthy community is acknowledgment that the group’s distinctive views and values are not always right, and that in the final analysis, maintaining these distinctives is less important than learning how to love.
As we begin to see others’ gifts, we move out from behind the walls of certitude that have closed us up… A few centuries ago, different Christian churches were fighting each other. Their theologies were calculated to prove that one was right and the other wrong. Today, instead of seeing what might separate us, whether as churches or cultures, we are instead seeing what unites us. We are beginning to see each other’s gifts and to appreciate them and to realize that the important thing for each one of us is to grow in love and give of ourselves (pp. 60-61).
Finally, the fourth sign of healthy community is openly admitting its mistakes and reforming itself with advice from the outside.
Fourth, it is a healthy sign when a group seeks to evolve and to recognize the errors of the past, to recognize its own flaws, and to seek the help of experienced people from outside the group in order to be more true and loving, more respectful of difference, more listening and open to the way authority is exercised. The group that refuses to admit its own errors or seek the wisdom of others risks closing itself up behind walls of “superiority” (p. 61).
In conclusion, healthy communities are where people experience God’s goodness and become well formed human beings.
Groups that develop with these four signs are, to my mind, healthy groups; they are helping their members to break free of the egotism inherent in us all and to grow towards greater maturity and inner freedom. They are discovering our common humanity, allowing us to be ourselves, intertwined with each other, receiving and giving life from one another. Do we not all share the same earth and sky? Are they not for us as we are for them? We all belong to each other, we are all for each other. God, too, is for us as we are for God. We are called to grow in order to become fully ourselves and fully alive, to receive from others, and to give to others, not being held back by fears, prejudices, or feelings of superiority or inferiority (p. 61).