Claire Gardiner greeted friends and new visitors as they arrived at St. Clare of Assisi Church on a recent evening in June — with a big grin and lots of hugs.
After more than a year of meeting on Zoom with her friends in Faith and Light, Gardiner was more than happy to see everyone in person once again.
Inside, she and more than two dozen others began their evening with prayer and a song about building community. “You can tell we haven’t done that in a while,” said her father, Ray Gardiner, grinning, watching the group as they attempted to remember the accompanying hand signs.
Claire Gardiner and her parents have been a part of Faith and Light for several years. The ecumenical Christian association for people with disabilities, and their friends and family, fosters friendship, prayer, celebration and sharing. The groups include a blend of people with and without disabilities, with many describing it as a place where they can be themselves and form authentic Christian friendships.
Faith and Light was started in France in 1971 by Marie-Hélène Mathieu, who has served in disability ministry in France for decades; and the late Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities. (See related.) More than 1,600 Faith and Light groups exist in more than 80 countries.
Members from the St. Louis community meet once a month at St. Clare of Assisi in Ellisville to pray, discuss Scripture and share in fellowship. Some residents of L’Arche communities in St. Louis also participate in Faith and Light. Most participants are Catholic and come from areas across the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
This year, Faith and Light celebrates the 50th anniversary of its worldwide founding. A conference was to have been held in St. Louis in July to celebrate the occasion, but was moved to a virtual format because of the ongoing pandemic.
Each month, members gather to sing, share examples of where God has been present in their lives and act out a Gospel passage and discuss what they learned.
At the beginning of their meeting, Helen Risse asked the group to think of some ways to describe Faith and Light to others. “What’s been a God moment in Faith and Light that you could share with somebody that would help somebody to understand why we like to come to Faith and Light?” she asked.
“When you walk in, they’re happy to see you,” said Michelle Conley.
“I like being Jesus,” said Jeff Reichelt, who has played the role of Christ when acting out stories from the Gospel together as a group. He also shared how he enjoyed helping at a food pantry with friends and working at a fish fry. Friends shared how he is an example of Jesus to others.
“When you come into this group — especially if Claire meets you — you get a hug,” said Gene Allard, who learned about Faith and Light through his niece, Mary Kate Agniel, and joined about two years ago, helping out with music at the gatherings. “This group means love and community to me.”
“It’s a community of unconditional love and acceptance,” said Carlita Logan, who recalled in high school helping in the summers at Camp Don Bosco with young people and adults with disabilities; she later became a pediatric nurse. When she retired and returned to St. Louis, Logan said, “coming here was like part of me was coming back home,” she said of Faith and Light. “I don’t have to be anybody but who I am when I come here.”
L’Arche founder Jean Vanier said that we must simply accept one another for who we are and where we’re at, no matter what our abilities are, said Ted Agniel. “Those of us who have disabilities sometimes have gifts of the heart that others don’t have,” he said. “The gifts of love, and joy and acceptance.”
Prayer partners, building friendships
Toward the end of the meeting, prayer intentions were shared among the group. It’s an important aspect of the friendships that they’ve created with one another.
When the group had an activity on the Beatitudes, Claire Gardiner chose “blessed are they who mourn.” For several years after that, Gardiner would obtain holy cards when she would attend a wake or funeral. Every night, she chooses a holy card and prays for the deceased person.
Outside of the group, members participate in social activities together, such as going to fish fries or out for ice cream.
“It’s been a privilege to be part of Faith and Light in other places,” said Helen Risse. “I see how privileged St. Louis is to have this here. God has touched me to allow me to be part of this.”
>> Origins of Faith and Light
Faith and Light was born of a desire to help people with intellectual disabilities and their families find their place within the Church and society.
In the late 1960s, people with an intellectual disability were not considered as having a place among participants in pilgrimages. People thought that they were not capable of experiencing this kind of activity and that their presence would possibly disturb other pilgrims. In response to an appeal by the parents of Thaddée and Loïc, two children with an intellectual disability, Jean Vanier and Marie-Hélène Mathieu organized with them a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France.
At Easter in 1971, 12,000 pilgrims from 15 countries, 4,000 of whom were people with an intellectual disability, accompanied by their parents and friends, particularly young people, assembled again. Moved by the experience, they wanted to continue the adventure. Jean Vanier suggested: “Continue meeting together in small communities, do whatever the Holy Spirit inspires you to do.”
In 1975, a second pilgrimage was organized to Rome where they met with Pope Paul VI. It became known as the pilgrimage of the confirmation of Faith and Light, four years after its birth and baptism in Lourdes.
Today, the ecumenical association is has approximately 1,612 communities in 81 countries. While rooted in the Catholic Church, the association has an ecumenical approach, and meets regularly in a Christian spirit, to share friendship, pray together and celebrate life.
>> Faith and Light community in St. Louis
Faith and Light meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month from 7-9 p.m. at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville. All ages are welcome, as well as people of different abilities. To learn more about the group, contact Ray Gardiner at (314) 604-1297 or Gene Allard at (314) 973-5861. Or visit faithandlightstl.org.