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Ministering to Mentally Disabled: 'Mystery of Jesus is Hidden in Weak People, Fragile People'

04-16-2018
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The world once called them idiots and locked them away in institutions, but a new film highlights how people with intellectual disabilities actually show us what God is really like.

"See, the wise and powerful lead us to ideologies, where as the weak are in the dirt," philosopher and theologian Jean Vanier says in the documentary Summer in the Forest.  "They're not seeking power. They're seeking friendship.  It's a message for all of us. It's about all of us."

The film depicts the lives of three disabled men and their unlikely friendship with Vanier, who moved them from an institution into his home. It offers insights into what it means to be happy.

In 1964 Vanier founded a ministry for the mentally ill called L'Arche Communities and it became one of the first residential communities for people with disabilities such as Down syndrome.

Vanier says he sees the Kingdom of God in the people at L'Arche and that the mystery of Jesus is hidden in weak people, fragile people.

CBN News spoke with Randall Wright, the film's director, about Vanier's commitment to love and befriend those who society says should be hidden and forgotten. 

"Jean has an incredibly deep faith," said Wright.  "He wants to live as Jesus lived.  And the Jesus that he would describe was a Jesus of the poor.  It's the Jesus on the side of people at the bottom of society.  And he believes in a Jesus who loves absolutely everyone."

Wright, who has directed more than twenty major documentaries, also shared his reasons for wanting to work on the project, one of which included having a loved one with a developmental disability.

"I had a great aunt who had an intellectual disability and I, like a lot of people I think, was a afraid of her," he said.  "I was afraid of entering her world."

Many of the film's cast have disabilities, which Wright admitted was a challenge, but rewarding.

"I wish I could say I adapted really well," he explained.  "In fact the problem was I couldn't really be a director.  I couldn't tell them what to do and I in a sense had to learn to change the way I approached people."

He also discussed the need for people to confront and change their preconceptions about those with disabilities and to challenge themselves to be more open.

"Are we wiling to see them as people?  Are we willing to see them as friends?  Are we willing to recognize that the things they know perhaps better than us; how to be a friend, the importance of the care of being honest about what your weaknesses are?" he asked.

"These are all things that in our very competitive society ... we are constantly trying to project the image of our success, of our ability to cope incredibly well under any circumstance, and we're very reticent about what our problems are.  When we meet people, for example, and people of L'Arche, or in fact if you meet people in any category that are different to you, quite often what they have to teach you is something that adds to your capacity to make friendship, capacity to love."

He says the film offers lessons for everyone.

"I think you might start by thinking what on earth is this and then very quickly five or ten minutes in, the people who seem quite strange become incredibly lovable and by the end of the film you recognize their courage, their ability to survive and their ability to teach us," said Wright.

Meanwhile, there are now nearly 150 L'Arche communities around the world.  

Click here for screening dates and locations for the film. 

Summer in the Forest opened in New York in March and in Los Angeles last week.  It is now open in other markets around the country.

While Vanier is a Catholic priest, he encourages the disabled to form the disabled to form communities according to their own faiths.

 

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