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L'Arche Communities - Finding Strength

An assembly about the founding of the L'Arche communities

by Claire Law

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore what L’Arche has to teach us about human strength and weakness.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need the PowerPoint slides that accompany this assembly (L’Arche Communities - Finding Strength) and the means to display them.

  • You will also need a table and two chairs set up at the front of the room, ready for an arm-wrestling match. Arrange for a willing member of staff to be your opponent in the arm-wrestling match.

  • Have available the YouTube video ‘Summer in the Forest (2017) Official Trailer’ and the means to show it during the assembly. It is 2.26 minutes long and is available at:

  • Optional: further information about volunteering with L’Arche is available at:


  1. Have Slide 1 showing as the students enter the room.

    Show Slide 2.

    Ask the students if they have ever had an arm-wrestling match. Explain that you are going to have an arm-wrestling match with a volunteer. Invite the member of staff to come forward.

    Ask the students who they think will be the strongest in the match and ask them to vote. Hold the arm-wrestling competition and declare the winner. You may also wish to have other people compete.

  2. Point out that the arm-wrestling match indicated that [insert name] was the stronger of the two. However, there are many ways to measure strength. Is physical strength the only way to determine whether someone is strong?

  3. Show Slide 3, clicking through to show each question in turn.

    Read out the questions as they appear.

    - How do we (as individuals and as a society) measure strength?
    - How do we (as individuals and as a society) measure value?
    - How do we (as individuals and as a society) measure success?

  4. Let’s consider how we measure these things.

    Show Slide 4, clicking through to show each picture.

    Picture 1: One way to measure strength, value and success is by physical strength. We award gold medals to the world’s best athletes because of their physical strength and success.

    Picture 2: Another way to measure strength, value and success is by academic achievement. We congratulate people who do well in their GCSEs and A Levels, and those who go on to do well at university.

    Picture 3: Another way to measure strength, value and success is by financial achievement. We are impressed when we hear about people who do well in business and earn lots of money. Wealth is a sign of status for many.

    Picture 4: Another way to measure strength, value and success is by how popular we are, by how many friends we have.

  5. Point out, however, that these are not the only ways to measure strength, value and success. Today, we are going to hear the story of a man called Jean Vanier, who discovered that in weakness, we can find great strength. He found a different way to measure value.

  6. Show Slide 5.

    This is a recent photo of Jean Vanier. He was born in 1928 and grew up in Canada, where his father held an important job as Governor General of Canada. Vanier had a good education and went on to become a naval officer. As part of this career, he accompanied the British royal family on their tour of South Africa aboard H. M. S. Vanguard in 1947.

    However, Vanier had a strong inner spiritual calling to do something else and left the Navy in 1950 to study philosophy and theology. For a while, he taught at a university, but after spending time with people who had learning disabilities and were living in institutions, Vanier decided that he wanted to find a way of life that was not based on money, academic success, physical power or popularity.

    The people in the institutions had a profound effect on Vanier. They had been kept hidden from wider society because of their disabilities, leading Vanier to say, ‘I was touched by these men with [disabilities], by their sadness and by their cry to be respected, valued and loved.’

    In 1964, Jean Vanier invited two men with learning disabilities, Philippe Seux and Raphael Simi, to leave their institution and come and live with him in a small house in Trosly-Breuil in France. Vanier went on to establish L’Arche here, which is French for ‘the Ark’, a place of safety and refuge.

  7. Show Slide 6.

    Jean, Philippe and Raphael lived very simply. There was no indoor plumbing. In the beginning, Vanier did most of the cooking and it wasn’t very good. Jean, Raphael and Philippe did the chores together to keep the place going. Vanier had no real experience of supporting people with learning disabilities, but he learnt as he went along.

    Jean, Philippe and Raphael learnt about one another and grew in friendship with one another. People were inspired by this way of living, and various people began to come to help. These early days were an important time of discovery for Vanier. The language that was used to describe people with learning disabilities at the time included phrases that would be considered inappropriate and incorrect today. However, Vanier saw beyond such terms. He discovered that Raphael and Philippe were important teachers for him. He began to recognize, in his own words, that ‘the weak and the vulnerable have a gift to give to our world.’

  8. The small community grew fast, soon welcoming new people with learning disabilities and young people from around the world to share their lives. It did not take long for people to decide to create new L’Arche communities in their own countries. Today, there are 149 L’Arche communities in 38 countries around the world, from Belgium to Brazil and from Uganda to the USA.

    Show Slide 7.

    More than 3,500 people who have learning disabilities are currently supported by L’Arche. Just as Jean, Philippe and Raphael shared the original L’Arche house in 1964, L’Arche houses all around the world nowadays share in this vision to create communities with a culture of shared lives between people with and without learning disabilities.

  9. In 2017, a documentary called Summer in the Forest was released in UK cinemas. The film tells the story of Jean Vanier founding L’Arche and looks at the work of L’Arche today. We are now going to watch a trailer for the film, in which we see Vanier speaking about how living in community with people with and without learning disabilities has helped him to discover what strength, value and success really mean.

    Show the YouTube video ‘Summer in the Forest (2017) Official Trailer’.

Time for reflection

Now that we know a bit more about the founding story of L’Arche, let’s think again about those questions we considered at the beginning of this assembly.

Show Slide 8.

- How do we (as individuals and as a society) measure strength?
- How do we (as individuals and as a society) measure value?
- How do we (as individuals and as a society) measure success?

How do we measure strength, value and success?

Pause to allow time for thought.

Can we, like Jean Vanier, say that a life in which we discover how to be more fully human by embracing our own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of others, is a life of success?

Are we willing to learn from others?

Are we willing to learn from the wide variety of people that are to be found in the world?

Pause to allow time for thought.

In the Bible, St Paul said, ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’

Show Slide 9.

St Paul had learnt that in situations of weakness, there can be great strength.

Jean Vanier learnt that the apparent weakness of a disability gave people the strength and ability to teach others what was really important in life. Not power, not money, not academic success, but friendship and positive relationships.

Are we willing to discover for ourselves what is really important in life?

Are we willing to learn from others?

Pause to allow time for thought.

Optional: Show Slide 10.

Perhaps some of us would like to consider taking a gap year to live in a L’Arche community, either in this country or elsewhere in the world.

I wonder what life lessons we would learn from living in such a community.

Dear God,
We recognize that there are many ways to decide what defines success and strength.
The idea that being weak means that we are strong seems strange at first.
Help us to see that in vulnerability and weakness, there can be an inner strength and value.
Help us to see this in the lives of people who have a disability
So that, instead of seeing what a person cannot do, we see everything that a person has to offer the world.
Help us to learn more about ourselves, and the ways in which we experience weakness or failure.
Help us to grow stronger, wiser and more able to connect with others as a result.
We pray for the work of Jean Vanier and L’Arche.
We pray that it may be a sign to others that friendship and community are precious things.

Publication date: August 2018   (Vol.20 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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