Tender to the World

Jean Vanier, L'Arche, and the United Church of Canada

By Carolyn Whitney-Brown
Categories: Disability Studies
Publisher: McGill-Queen's University Press
Ebook (PDF) : 9780228000662, October 2019
Ebook (EPUB) : 9780228000679, October 2019
Hardcover : 9780773559110, 288 pages, October 2019
Paperback : 9780773559127, 288 pages, October 2019

Five decades of connections between the United Church of Canada, Jean Vanier, and L'Arche.


Jean Vanier’s spiritual vision and sense of humour shaped L’Arche, but the organization was also informed by its surprising history with the United Church of Canada. In Tender to the World Carolyn Whitney-Brown explores the connections between the two organizations through diverse critical insights from Julia Kristeva, Doreen Massey, and Mikhail Bakhtin, as well as Vanier's controversial articulation of the gift of weakness. Tracing the five-decade relationship between L'Arche and the United Church alongside evolving disability theories, Whitney-Brown examines both the fundamental importance of stories and the agency of people with intellectual disabilities. Inversion - a transformative overturning of expectations in social interactions - can be upsetting or exciting, challenging or inspiring, she argues. This book offers a fresh look at how L'Arche and the United Church have worked to break down walls of difference, illuminating how each tenders something unexpected to the other and to the world. At a time when many are seeking new visions for society, the long and complex relationship between Canada's largest Protestant denomination and L'Arche offers both encouragement and a deeper way to approach questions of living in diverse communities.


"Avoiding a straightforward, chronological account of the history of L'Arche and the ucc, [Whitney-Brown] has organized this history thematically and semantically. One of her preoccupations is with how the experience of L'Arche, or what might be called the "witness" of L'Arche, might be articulated in such a way that it has general significance. To this end, she has drawn on such diverse thinkers as Julia Kristeva, Mikhail Bahktin, and Jane Bennett. In Whitney-Brown's account, they give us a way of thinking through the activity and promise of L'Arche, and, to a lesser extent, the ucc, outside of the traditional circuit of Christian self-understanding. This is a difficult path, and Whitney-Brown travels it with great sensitivity and attentiveness." Canadian Historical Review

"At this critical time for the United Church of Canada, this book makes a stunning and incisive contribution to help the reader understand the need for destabilizing and then transforming a community of faith." The Very Reverend and Honourable Lois M. Wilson

"A remarkably fresh, tender, and challenging account of Vanier's life and work. Whitney-Brown's unique insight into Vanier's special mix of mission, humour, agency, and fragility is invaluable to our understanding of the spiritual revolution of L'Arche and of interreligious dialogue, disability studies, and new ideas of human community and culture." Richard Kearney, Boston College and author of Anatheism: Returning to God after God

"An important contribution to several disciplines, particularly the intersection between disability and religious studies. ... the news about Vanier allows the reader to approach the text with a more incisive and accurate view of the man at its centre, with an eye to this previously-hidden chapter in his history, opening the text and the range of topics it covers to deeper discussion and debate." Journal of Disability and Religion

"In a world marked by violence and exclusion, Whitney-Brown recalls the wonder and the transformative power of tenderness. Exploring the impact of L'Arche on the United Church, she allows us to consider the nature and intention of ecclesial communities and to be drawn into the mystery of a God who is transforming the world through the revelation of tender mercy – this book might just change the way you see the world." John Swinton, University of Aberdeen and author of Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefulness, and Gentle Discipleship

"Tellingly bracketed by uproarious tales of funeral-home laughter and the pantomimed unwrapping of Lazarus’s toilet-paper grave clothes, Tender to the World gracefully and thoroughly unfolds the close, mutually respectful connection of more than fifty years between L’Arche and the now post-Christendom United Church. Enlightening epigrams on 'tender' (noun, verb, or adjective) illuminate each chapter. Eschewing theological jargon, Whitney-Brown weaves the words of Aristotle, General Council reports, medieval poet Rumi, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and moving personal stories together with literary, philosophical, and psychoanalytic criticism to make for a scintillating read. Shining through every page is the compelling 'Don't-call-me-a-saint' Jean Vanier, whose Jesus-centred life is hard for non-believers to explain away. This book lingers in the soul." Bruce McLeod, former moderator, United Church of Canada

"Whitney-Brown explores the United Church's productive relationship to the Catholic thinker as a person -- the encomia and rhapsodic homages border on sainthood by acclamation or canonization by vox populi -- as well as through Vanier's incarnated vision of a ministry to people with intellectual disabilities. She does this by combining scholarly and pastoral approaches, the former by deploying various disability and cultural theories and the latter through profile and storytelling. It is a creative methodology, and Whitney-Brown shows a deft hand in managing it." Literary Review of Canada

"Mindful of Vanier's belief that personal transformation and social change come about not through ideas and theories but through relationships with others, Whitney-Brown focuses much of her book on recounting the stories of United Church members ... readers will likely be drawn to the many moving first-person accounts of how Jean Vanier and L'Arche touched people's lives." Broadview

"This excellent book engages the heart of L'Arche and the United Church of Canada, and the result opens up rich ecumenical conversations about social change and creating just and loving communities in light of a Gospel vision. The many stories and first hand accounts are blended thoughtfully with astute analyses, yielding a compelling testimony to the tender and creative power of communion that emerges when people encounter and are present to each other for who they are, with and without disabilities. This reveals an interdependency that undoes false binary hierarchies between abled and disabled. What's more, as Whitney-Brown highlights, following Vanier, the "pleasure" in such encounters connects to something deeply human – the celebrative joy of being welcomed and loved in mutual regard. Readers from both L'Arche in Canada and the United Church of Canada will gain much from taking up this book, a well-written and useful addition to the literature on theology and disability." Thomas E. Reynolds, University of Toronto and author of Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality