Rev'd Benjamin Wall is available for speaking engagements about Welcome as a Way of LIfe and the themes covered in the book (radical hospitality and welcome, Jean Vanier, disability in the church, etc...).
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WELCOME AS A WAY OF LIFE
BY THE REV'D BENJAMIN WALL
AUGUST 26TH, 2016
New Title From Benjamin S. Wall
Welcome as a Way of Life
A Practical Theology of Jean Vanier
This book is about the theology of Jean Vanier. Drawing from Vanier’s writings, it situates Vanier's theological thinking on community, care, and what it means to be and become human in the context of “welcome.” This book draws attention to how welcome, for Vanier, is a visible expression of genuine hospitality, friendship, and human growth, offering an alternative way of conceiving and naming the social forming dynamics within Christian community, with special attention given to how welcome occurs within the communities of L’Arche. At a deeper level, this book assesses Vanier’s thinking on the place and role both the self and community play in welcoming the truth of reality as it is revealed and given within community in order to prepare the way for exploring how welcome is a sign of community life, the visible expression of individual and communal trust in God’s providence, and a conduit of God’s presence in the world.
Benjamin S. Wall (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Assistant Professor of Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Greensboro College in Greensboro, NC.
Tell us about your book. What is your book about?
Welcome as a Way of Life: A Practical Theology of Jean Vanier is about the theology of Jean Vanier. You may be thinking, “Who is Jean Vanier?” Many people in America know of Jean Vanier through the works of Henri Nouwen. In Canada, Europe, and the UK Jean Vanier is more widely known for his work in L’Arche. L’Arche is a federation of 149 communities in 37 countries worldwide. Each L’Arche community provides a place of welcome where
people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers; create inclusive communities of
faith and friendship; and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries. My book digs deep into the writings of Jean Vanier, looking at all his works as one synthetic whole, in order to help others see the theological resourcefulness found therein. The book demonstrates the many ways in which Vanier’s thinking on community, care, and what it means to be and become human is relevant for the church and world and, in particular, the church within the world. Themes of welcome, friendship, genuine hospitality, vulnerability, disability and the church, to name a few are given special attention throughout the book. One of the primary aims of the book is to show why welcome and responsiveness must be central to any human community, Christian or otherwise.
Why did you write this book?
Because I believe that Vanier and L’Arche have a lot to teach us about the Lord, what it means to be human, and how welcoming the other is to abide in love.
How did you come up with the title?
The title took many forms along the way. In 2011 I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Jean Vanier in L’Arche, Trosly France, which is where Vanier established the first L’Arche community. During my visit I was able to interview Vanier in which he drew a connection between the themes of encounter, listening, and welcoming presence. In doing so, he encouraged me to think of these themes more as gestures of welcome that have to do with a way of living together in solidarity with others. While Vanier’s response, to some extent, supplied me with the idea for the title of the book, it is vital to note that it was the actual welcome I received by Vanier and the L’Arche community that had a larger impact on my writing, and thus the title. While there are many ways to name the characteristic spirit of L’Arche and Jean Vanier, I wholeheartedly believe “Welcome as a Way of Life” describes their embodied ethos best.
Is there a central message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
This question is similar to “Which child of yours is your favorite?” Yes, the central message in my book is that to abide in love entails welcoming the other.
How does your book relate to spiritual practice?
At the heart of my book is the theological claim that vulnerability, dependency, and others are integral to what it means to be human. I believe this claim is central to Christian theology and spiritual practice because the One of whom Christian theology speaks and to whom Christian spiritual practice is oriented embodied a way of life in which vulnerability, dependency, and others play an essential role in manifesting the power of God. For this reason, I believe vulnerability, dependency, and otherness do real theological work for Christian spiritual practice.
What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
I want to draw attention to the writings of Jean Vanier and the work L’Arche. I have become a better father, husband, friend, and person because of the Vanier’s works. My prayer is that others will also benefit in the same manner. My hope is that the Church will raise awareness and much needed dialogue about the ways in which their gatherings, buildings, practices, etc... exclude as well as welcome persons with all types of abilities. More importantly, I have the desire that the Church will be a place where the weakest within our midst is seen as indispensible to our sacramental life together; where people with disabilities not only are able to physically access the gathering but are given place to fully participate in the life of the church; and where people of all abilities are welcomed. So far, I have received a lot of encouragement from readers, telling me how the book has impacted their thinking and practice of welcoming others.
Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
Yes. Persons with disabilities are underrepresented in the church and society. The notion that dependency, not autonomy, is essential to being and becoming human is an underrepresented idea in our ever-individualistic culture/world. It is without contention that persons with disabilities are somewhat underrepresented even within certain disability studies discourse. Since my book deals with the practical theology of Jean Vanier and L’Arche, one comes face to face with having to think theologically about disability, in general, and persons with disabilities in particular. Part of the practical theological task I seek to accomplish in the book is to provide a constructive reading of Vanier’s work that will, I hope, cultivate conversations about what it means to be human and, in particular, how persons with disabilities and disability are included in the framework of one’s response to that question.
What books have influenced your thinking along the lines of disability and the Church?
The Rule of St. Benedict, Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth, the works of John Swinton on dementia, mental health and disability, Jennie Weiss Block’s work on hosting, Stanley Hauerwas work on suffering and Christian virtues, Christine Phol’s works on hospitality, Hans Reinders work on friendship, and the theological contributions of Nancy Eiesland, Amos Yong, Brian Brock, Frances Young, Thomas Reynolds as well as many others all have played an influential role on my thinking in these areas.
To abide in love is to embody a way of life that inhabits humility to welcome others. For it is in welcoming the other that we welcome God’s presence within the story of our lives. Welcome as a way of life presupposes that welcome possesses an intrinsic relationship to creaturely worship. How we welcome others visibly expresses the measure of moral fiber of the church’s being, act, and understanding of worship. Jean Vanier’s writings and L’Arche visibly express a way of life that is given shape in welcoming, listening and remaining responsive to others; others, and especially God. As we have seen, listening underlies, informs, and gives definite shape to community and care as a way of life, making genuine welcome within L’Arche possible. Correspondingly, listening gives shape to welcome as a way of life that entails living out one’s fidelity to the commonly held vision that the other lays claim to our being; a way of life characterized in living together, being with and present-for others. Read from this perspective, genuine welcome originates in a commonly held vision about what constitutes humanity, community, communion, and care; humanity is shared, community is a way of life in which faithful listening to others makes welcome possible, and communion is vital for humanity.
On the whole, welcome is integral to if not representative of the whole characteristic ethos and way of life within L’Arche. Vanier and L’Arche offer a radical vision of the ways in which the specificity of Christ’s claim on one’s self is concretized within the story of our lives in and through welcoming the other. To abide in love is to welcome others
“Wall’s Welcome as a Way of Life is a welcome addition to the growing realization that Jean Vanier and his friends have a lot to teach us about the Lord.”
—Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus, Duke Divinity School
“Benjamin Wall has made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of how the life and writings of Jean Vanier cohere in a precisely articulated vision of Jesus Christ. Wall shows why welcome and responsiveness must be central to any human community, Christian or otherwise, that we want to label ‘caring.’”
—Brian Brock, Lecturer in Moral and Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen
“‘Welcome,’ ‘hospitality,’ ‘community’—while trite in some theological discourses, Wall has retrieved these notions from deep within the Christian tradition with help from a source not expected to yield theological and conceptual robustness: the L’Arche ‘way of life.’ It’s the radical otherness of L’Arche realities that moves practical theology from the margins of applicability to the center, where it will transform Christian imagination and praxis from within. Difference and vulnerability here do real theological work to generate new forms of human relationality, thanks
to Welcome as a Way of Life.”
—Amos Yong, Professor of Theology and Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary; Author of Theology and
Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (2007)