IN 1964, the Canadian theologian Jean Vanier took two men with intellectual disabilities out of their institutions to live with him in a small house in a tiny French village. From this humble beginning came L‘Arche, a worldwide network of communities in 35 countries where people with such disabilities live happy and useful lives cared for by young volunteers.
Hans S. Reinders’s sweet and engaging The Second Calling: A novel inspired by the life and work of Jean Vanier (DLT, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-232-53217-3) is a fictionalised account of the growth of the first community, written at the request of Vanier to introduce L’Arche’s work to a wider audience.
Reinders is a lovely storyteller, narrating crises, but also food and fun, in a warm voice with a slight Dutch accent. His community, the House of Bethany, is on the edge of a village near Seville. We arrive with an American volunteer, Jonathan, and are taken into the pottery managed by the eccentric and humorous Antonio, who oversees a team of potters who are blind, wheelchair-users and, in the case of the teenager Lucie, unable to concentrate on anything for any length of time.
Jonathan is escaping a domineering father and a future mapped out for him running the family business. He comes bustling forward with ideas to help Lucie, not realising that he has to relax and listen to what people need, the “second calling” of the title, when we accept that we cannot do big or heroic things for Jesus.
A series of flashbacks leads us through the community’s foundation. Like Vanier, intellectual Ramon buys a house where he can live with handicapped friends. Claire, a teacher, is a farmer’s daughter, who organises the growing of food. The community grows organically. All the members have come there for a reason, even if they do not yet know what it is. Jonathan’s is not only to help people, but to learn to understand and forgive his father.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.