Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Doing Things WITH Rather Than Just FOR the “Needy”

Jean Vanier (1928~2019) and his meritorious life dedicated to living in community with people who had serious mental and/or physical “disabilities” was the topic of my Sept. 10 blog posting. This article is about one of Vanier’s main emphases: doing things with rather than just for people with serious needs.

In Harmony with Vanier
In his L’Arche homes, Vanier and those who followed his example, modeled what it means to treat people who have physical needs with respect. They chose to live with people who had serious mental and/or physical “handicaps,” not just to provide homes where they could be taken care of.
Before I learned about Vanier and L’Arche, I heard about similar institutions in Japan, institutions very much in harmony with the L’Arche movement Vanier began in France in 1964.
Two years before Vanier started the first L’Arche home, Fukui Tatsu’u (福井 達雨), a 32-year-old Japanese man, founded what became Shiyo Gakuen (止揚学園) as a home for physically challenged people.
Fukui, a 1956 graduate of the Department of Theology of the renowned Doshisha University in Kyoto, remained the head of Shiyo Gakuen until 2015.
During the years I taught at Seinan Gakuin, Fukui-sensei was invited many times to be the guest speaker during the “Christian Focus Week” special chapel services at the university and the junior-senior high school. He always emphasized doing things with the “needy,” not just doing things for them.
In 1976, Hisayama Ryoikuen (久山療育), a similar facility, was established in the outskirts of Fukuoka City. Their emphasis from the beginning has been “living with” (tomo ni, pronounced toh-moh knee, in Japanese).
Doing something for others is expressed in Japanese as tame ni (pronounced tah-meh knee). These similar words express a great difference—and the former continues to be admirably modeled by Hisayama Ryoikuen, Shiyo Gakuen, and Jean Vanier’s L’Arche homes. 
From a Hisayama Ryoikuen poster emphasizing "living with"
In the Spirit of Vanier
I don’t know if he was influenced at all by Jean Vanier, but Chris Arnade is a fascinating man who spent a considerable amount of time in the 2010s living out the spirit of Vanier by constant contact with the “underclass” of American society.
Arnade (b. 1965) earned a Ph.D. in physics and then worked with a Wall Street bank for twenty years before becoming a freelance writer and photographer. In 2012 he began visiting a neighborhood in the South Bronx where he became friends with homeless people, sex workers, and addicts.
Arnade then traveled over 150,000 miles around the U.S., spending time with “back row” people in American society. Based upon his experiences, earlier this year Arnade published a book titled Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.
I first learned about Arnade’s book by reading Peter Mommsen’s excellent interview with Arnade published in the Summer 2019 issue of Plough Quarterly. That interview and the book are both very impressive.
The first chapter of Arnade’s book is titled, “If You Want to Understand the Country, Visit McDonald’s.” He spent countless hours in McDonald’s restaurants talking with the people who are frequent visitors there.
Arnade concluded that many of the people he found at McDonald’s felt “excluded, rejected, and, most of all, humiliated.” He recognized that society has “denied many their dignity” (p. 284)—thus the title, and thrust, of his book.
At the end of his interview with Mommsen, Arnade emphasized, “Take time to listen to people. Give them respect.”
While most of us can’t, or won’t, choose to live in a L’Arche home or a similar institution, we can choose to spend more time with “needy” people of various sorts, seeking to show them dignity and respect by doing things with them rather than just doing something for them.


  1. As a sociologist and whatever else I might be, I want to suggest this is something like a false dichotomy. There are structural and cultural reasons that generate feelings of being disrespected that have little to do with everyday person-to-person relations. So, to be specific, is it better to sit with and hold the hand of someone ill in an American hospital being drained of his/her financial resources and headed towards bankruptcy or to labor for policies that would guarantee that person health care? Or, on another front, is it better to hang out with America's poor or to write and speak against the American myth that the poor are that way because they're lazy, incompetent, or both?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Anton, and for the critical thinking underlying them.

      You have studied and taught sociology (among other things) whereas Arnade was a Wall Street banker with a Ph.D. in physics, of all things. But I was a sociology major in college (at Jewell), and I seem to remember the emphasis on the importance of "fieldwork," which Merriam-Webster defines as "the gathering of anthropological or sociological data through the interviewing and observation of subjects in the field."

      Having traveled over 150,000 miles around the U.S. and spending countless hours with “back row” people in American society, it seems to me that Arnade did considerable fieldwork and what he says about the conclusions he drew from the people he talked with must be taken quite seriously.

      I am certainly am an opponent of false dichotomies and either/or thinking. For that reason, "just" is an important word in the title of this piece. And it seems to me that Arnade's book is to a large extent for the very purpose you stated at the end of your comments.

      In this regard, I like Frank's comments that follow.

    2. Yesterday I received comments from local Thinking Friend Debra Sapp-Yarwood, who is a hospital chaplain. Here is the first of her two paragraph comments:

      "Hi, Leroy. I have two reactions. One is to your friend Anton, who seemed to be marginalizing the work of those of us who do simply sit with people in the hospital and listen deeply as they unburden about their finances draining away, generally at the same time they are grieving a thousand little and big physical losses that accumulate with a declining body and are coping with the indignities of dependence on nurses, aids and others. This kind of listening and hand-holding can be exhausting and it is valuable in its own rite. (The financial issues, moreover, may have some partial solutions, and so after listening, I may go consult with a hospital Social Worker who will sit with and listen to this person unburden again.)"

    3. Thanks for sharing these comments, Debra. I am among the many who appreciate what you do as a hospital chaplain as well as in other aspects of your life.

  2. I would suggest that we stand in both worlds working for both. It may be as simple as listening and being a friend to the poor and suffering. Going to McDonalds and finding someone to have coffee with and loving them. Or taking time to vote against or affirming policies that continue to destroy the poor and the suffering. It seems that those invested in L'Arche set an example of being friends to the marginalized and challenging systems. I am reminded of Henri Nouwen.

    1. Thanks for your "spot on" comments, Frank. As you see, I just commended them in my comments above.

      As you know, Nouwen spent the last ten years of his life, from 1986~1996 in a L'Arche home in Canada. He as well as Vanier certainly modeled doing things WITH and not just FOR people.

  3. A Thinking Friend who is pastor of a fairly large Baptist Church in Virginia sent me the following brief, and gratifying, comment:

    "Thank you for raising a helpful and needed perspective, doing WITH rather than FOR. Compassion without community misses the point and the human touch that is so necessary. I just ordered Arnade’s book."

  4. A Thinking Friend in central Missouri wrote that this article reminded her of Brian McLaren’s book "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World" (2012) as he juxtaposed “witness” with “with-ness.”

    I have read most of McLaren's books, but not this one, so I was interested and want to read it, especially Chapter 26, titled "How 'With-ness' Complements 'Witness.'"

  5. Here is the second paragraph from Debra's comments (see above for the first paragraph):

    "My other reaction is to McDonald's. Sigh. I agree that it is a gathering point for back-row and third-row-center people, but it disturbs me on so many levels. Beyond the food itself, of nutritional dubiousness and heavily subsidized by corporate-welfare tax breaks, I have noted that most McDonald's have Fox News up on one of the TVs. When I ask for it to be changed (a small act of social justice I do routinely) to a "neutral" channel, I am told (repeatedly) it is McDonald's corporate policy and cannot be changed. (I tell them to convey my dissatisfaction to their supervisors, and they look at me condescendingly and say they will.) When Keith and I visited Portland, we went into a McDonald's and noted that one TV was switched off. We assumed it was probably the Fox News-designated TV. I have emailed McDonald's corporation directly with my protest, but heard nothing back. Nevertheless, it troubles me that this 'gathering place' is tainted by a steady stream of propaganda. The poor are given both false news and false nutrition in single bite."

  6. Debra, thanks for writing this also. But I don't agree so much with you wrote here.

    Yes, I suppose the fare at McDonald's is not the best from a nutritional standpoint, but I doubt that it is much different from that of other fast food restaurants and I don't know what the alternative would be for poor people--especially in the early morning hours. I can't remember if Arnade said anything about nutrition in what he wrote about McDonald's, but I still think what he wrote about the contribution McDonald's makes to provide a gathering place for homeless people, and other "back row" people, is a good and important point.

    Concerning the matter of the TVs having only Fox News, I am confused about that, for as far as I can remember, the McDonald's I often go to in Liberty (and on Rainbow Blvd.) do not have TVs. (I go to McDonald's fairly often for a chicken sandwich and/or a caramel frappé, which I am very fond of.) The one just off Armour Road in North Kansas City, though, does have TVs on two walls, usually on different channels, as I recall. But I have not paid any attention to what channels are on, and I don't remember seeing anyone particularly watching TV when they are there--although no doubt some do. I am never there early in the morning or late at night, but even at other times the North KC McDonald's seems to be much more a place for "back row" people than the ones in Liberty, and I have had some limited conversation with such people there.

  7. I failed to post these comments from Arizona Thinking Friend Truett Baker earlier:

    "What a great lesson! I have seen this attitude in the spirit of the workers at Arizona Baptist Children and Family Services, when they deliver food and services to those in need in our state. We began regional centers in the state when I was president for the very purpose to being closer to the children and families we served and to provide more personalized care. I'm going to take the liberty of forwarding your last blog to the current president of ABCS, who is a kind and godly man who has led the agency to heights I could only dream about when I was the CEO."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Truett -- and I am always happy when my Thinking Friends forward my blog articles on to others.

  8. Three days ago I also received these pertinent comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for sharing this story. A Jewish acquaintance of mine, who is also a wealthy property owner in Johnson County and committed to charitable causes, also said that we need to actually meet the poor. He said anybody can write a check."

    1. Well, perhaps not everybody can write a check, but everybody can find ways to meet the poor and treat them with respect. Perhaps there are more people unwilling to do the latter than unable to do the former.