We’re afraid of people who are different.
It’s not a knock. It’s in our nature. When we meet someone who doesn’t look or sound or act like us, we hesitate. We don’t know how to engage. That’s especially true if someone has a mental challenge or disability. We want to connect, but the feeling of being faced with something other puts walls in our way. We tend to draw back, frightened.
Jean Vanier, the Catholic philosopher, theologian and humanitarian, knows that fear. He knows the frustration of working with the mentally disabled, for he’s done it for much of his life. His organization, L’Arche, is dedicated to helping folks with sometimes profound mental and sometimes physical disabilities. It encompasses 149 locations in 37 countries, and the 89-year-old Vanier continues to live in its original chateau of Val Fleuri, located in a village outside of Paris called Trosly-Breuil. But initially, Vanier felt much like we would.
“I felt scared, with 30 men there, many of them disturbed,” Vanier says in the beautiful, lyrical documentary Summer in the Forest, which focuses on the philosopher and his work. “There were noises all night and I lost my sleep. … It was really difficult for me. I had to fight my way through life. It took a long time for the Val Fleuri to become a place of peace.”
Randall Wright, creator and director of Summer in the Forest, knows that fear, too, as I discovered during an interview with him. But in the time he spent filming Vanier and his many friends in L’Arche, he came to know its peace far better. “It was a sort of coming home,” he says.
I talked with Wright about Vanier, L’Arche and his own experiences crafting his documentary. “It changed my life,” he tells me. And after reading his interview (edited a bit for brevity and clarity), you’ll likely see why.