In Focus

The beauty in caregiving

“Summer in the Forest” is a documentary about humanitarian Jean Vanier and his compassionate ministry to people with intellectual and physical disabilities. The French–born healthcare pioneer gave up wealth, privilege, and intellectual status to live with and for the poor. Robert Toone, a Vanier enthusiast and a representative for R2W Films of England, shares his thoughts on why Vanier and the film should be important to you.

This year, Gerber® chose a child with Down Syndrome to be its brand logo. Will this help the cause? Yes, I’d say that’s quite providential and I do hope so. It certainly helps raise the issue. Another matter most people may not be aware of is, in Europe, there’s a tide of eugenics coming around. For example, Iceland’s stated goal is to become a “Down Syndrome–free country.” Denmark wants to be “free” by 2030.

How do they plan to achieve this? By screening. There’s a new test. Before, they used amniocentesis, which was dangerous because it caused some miscarriages. But now, they’ve developed a risk–free blood test. This could lead to abortions or pregnancy terminations. Essentially, the system is saying, “if you have such a child, you can’t cope.”

What are you saying? We have to look with compassion on people who are intellectually and physically disabled. We have bad institutions that are often affecting good people. Many parents do want to have a child, but there is this system. That’s the inspiration behind World Down Syndrome Day, which has been in place since 2005.

Who is Jean Vanier? His message is that every person—no matter what his or her abilities or disabilities—has value, has dignity, and has beauty. Beauty is one of his big things. He says that the way we love people is by showing them how beautiful they are. This is what he did.

At 89, he is an extraordinary man. Born into the family of the Governor General of Canada, he had a life of wealth and privilege. His father was a WWII hero. When the Nazis invaded France, his family was one of the last to leave.

“The weak need the powerful. But one thing the powerful don’t realize, is just how much they need the weak.” —Jean Vanier
They braved the U–boat blockade to get to Canada. At the age of 14, Jean said to his father, “Papa, I want to join the Royal Navy. I want to fight in the world war.” Surprisingly, his father said, “Jean, if that is what you want, do it. I trust you.” So, he let him go, alone, back across the U–boat blockade.

Being underage, Jean joined the Royal Naval College. However, by the time he was old enough to serve, the war had ended. Nonetheless, he became a naval officer and served on the royal yacht Britannia, the queen’s yacht.

Last year when the film premiered in the UK, the Queen invited him and others featured in the film to her palace.

How did Vanier become interested in people with Down Syndrome? He actually included people with all kinds of intellectual disabilities, on the autism spectrum, and with physical disabilities. While visiting an asylum, Father Thomas, a Catholic (Dominican Order) priest, introduced Jean to them. He immediately felt called by God to address their concerns. Jean said, “I decided to make a home with the poor rather than for the poor.”

At the age of 23, he left the Royal Navy and formed the L’Arche (pronounced “larche” and means bridge or arc), a commune at the edge of a beautiful forest near Paris. The lodge was actually open to people of any or no faith. The work was inspired by the Gospel, but was open to everybody.

In the 1950s and 60s, the perceived wisdom was that people with disabilities needed to be segregated. As Jean says, “people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities are the most oppressed people in the world.”

How does oppression affect them? Of course, when people live without love and are institutionalized, they also become brutalized. So, these were often violent institutions. “When a person is abused, something switches inside them,” says Jean. “They then go on a quest to prove something to the world.”

For example, in Staten Island, N.Y., there were almost 6,000 people with mental disabilities—many in one place. This was a great scandal and the institution was taken down. The same thing happened in the UK and in many places.

Jean believes that we need to embrace a covenant relationship with other human beings, which is what he calls “a family.” If we can’t get that from our biological family, we should create the experience in community.

Jean brought two men together, Philippe and Michel, who are in the film. They had been institutionalized, but he brought them both out, which was a real victory for civil rights at that time. He bought a little flat in a village and he lived there with them. He said, “I lost my life so that two other men would find theirs.”

He then took over the lives of 50 other men. He didn’t know what he was doing really, but he just followed God’s call. People who were inspired by his example eventually joined him.

His main messages are that people are precious, regardless of their abilities or disabilities; they can only discover this as others see them as such in relationship; and they are beautiful and loved.

This sounds so simple. Why then is it difficult for us to trust we have the competence to live with the disabled? Because, Jean says, “we all wear masks.” We play this game. We project a successful image of ourselves. We all know how to do that. We think the masks make us more acceptable than our actual selves. People with intellectual disabilities don’t have those filters. They just show you who they are.

In the world today, the only currency is success. Whether we are Christians who go to church every Sunday, or whatever, that is the constant message we get. It surrounds us. It’s on our phones and on our billboards, “If you’re not successful, you’re not worth anything.”

Among Jean’s 30 amazing books, he wrote Becoming Human. He talks about how the journey to self acceptance is by becoming vulnerable. He says life is not a utopia, it’s a hope for a place in the Kingdom.

When a country’s leadership announces they want to be “Down Syndromefree,” what does that say about the culture? Obviously, they can’t force a couple to abort a child, but they are saying they’re doing everything they can possibly do to make their country “Down Syndromefree.” They are encouraging people to take the test.

Sally Phillips, the actor who started the “Bridget Jones’s Diary” movies for the BBC, has a Down Syndrome child. She made a film called “Don’t Screen Us Out.” It’s an affront to governments that say people—like her son—have no contributions to make to society.

What Jean says is, “we think that by making a contribution, giving our time to people with intellectual disabilities, we are helping them. But in doing that, we’ve become aware of and receive an immensely valuable contribution that they make personally to us and to society at large. So, he flips the “helping” concept on its head. By embracing the weaknesses of others, we also embrace weaknesses within ourselves.

What inspired your involvement with this project? I thought, I know all these people who made this film. I also know many other people in the United States who can help. At that moment, I believe God called me to connect them. I prayed with my wife, and we said we would do it. Since then, doors have just opened.

What are people saying about this film? When Nicky Gumbel, developer of the Alpha Course, interviewed Priscilla Shirer (daughter of Dr. Tony Evans) about the film, she talked about how touched she was by its message.

John Gray, associate pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, concurred with Shirer’s assessment. “I thought I knew what the Gospel was about,” he said. “But I realized how much I have to learn.”

The film launched in the UK and was critically acclaimed by The Times of London, the Guardian UK edition, and Sight & Sound magazine. It has the ability to pierce mainstream culture in the way that evangelical films perhaps cannot.

This film acts as a subliminal examination of conscience. When you see the way Jean loves, and the way people around him loves, you ask yourself, “Can I do that? Can I do a better job?”

How can people “do a better job”? See the film. Beyond that, we’re asking people to become part of a movement that says, “Let’s proclaim that every life is worth living, every life has value, every person has beauty.” This also is an opportunity to reach people who have been closed off from the Christian message. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I’ll become a Christian, if I ever meet one.” I would love to have had him meet Jean Vanier.

interview by Warren L. Maye

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