FAITH AND LIGHT

Anne Gibson is coordinator in Ireland of Faith and Light, an international Christian association for people with learning disability, their families and those who would like to be their friends, especially young people.

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Faith and Light is a non-residential community organisation, founded by Jean Vanier and Marie Helene Matthieu, which brings together people with learning disability, their families and those who would like to be their friends. We come together regularly, not as helpers and helped but as friends, to build community and to provide friendship, acceptance and understanding in a Christian context. We are nourished by the writings and spirituality of Jean Vanier and by the simple friendships that develop in community.

Faith and Light was founded at Easter in 1971 after 12,000 people from various countries, cultures and religious traditions made a pilgrimage to Lourdes in community groups of about thirty people. The inspiration for this pilgrimage arose from the lonely experience of a little French family, Camille and Gerard and their two profoundly physically and mentally handicapped sons, Loic and Thadee. Back in the mid-’60s, they travelled to Lourdes on their own and felt rejected and isolated. They also felt an urgent need for support from friends. So it was decided that a pilgrimage should be organised especially for people with learning disability and their families–and there had to be friends too. In preparation for the pilgrimage each of the little groups, of about thirty or so, met regularly in order to get to know each other and to build trust and support around families who felt vulnerable. Each person, in different ways, discovered the gift and the value of these meetings: parents and siblings encountered the strength of a safe place to share with others who were experiencing anxiety and pain similar to their own; people with learning disability found friends, young and not so young, committed and caring, outside of the usual family, school or day centre fora; and friends discovered a very new way of forging relationships based on genuine acceptance of difference and the richness that follows such acceptance.

On Easter Monday morning 1971, as everyone was preparing to return home from Lourdes, there was a powerful conviction that this experience could not be allowed to end. The communities continued to meet–and Faith and Light was born. Now Faith and Light International is preparing for another pilgrimage to Lourdes at Easter 2001, to celebrate the thirty years since its birth. This time there will be representatives from 1409 Faith and Light communities in 72 different countries in five continents. In Ireland we have 28 communities in all four provinces, and we are looking forward to being in Lourdes for Easter 2001.

What do we do in Faith and Light? Nothing world-shattering! We meet every month, we share together, pray together and enjoy ourselves, we experience warmth, acceptance, smiles, hugs, suffering and pain, delight in meeting again, the pure joy of clapping and singing, the simple interpretation of the Gospel in mime. Like Mary in the Mary-and-Martha story, we ‘be’ together, we listen to each other’s story, thus enabling us to recognise the person behind the label, the heart behind the name.

Outside of our local community meetings we have summer holidays, formation weekends, retreat weekends–all organised on a regional, national or international basis.

No age group, gender group or ability group is excluded from Faith and Light. There is a place for everyone, and input from everyone, even if it can only be a simple smile, is considered a gift and is valued. This inclusivity is one of Faith and Light’s strengths and beauties.

In some mysterious way we find a peace in the midst of the suffering in Faith and Light which helps us to discover our hearts, our real selves. We learn to cooperate rather than to compete, to do with rather than do for. When Jesus proclaimed His vision for our world in the Beatitudes those whom many people in our society consider weak and inadequate were exalted and given their rightful dignity as individuals created in His image. We in Faith and Light endeavour to do the same. Our society is inclined to celebrate the young, the strong, the beautiful, the intelligent, the healthy, the wealthy. Jesus celebrated the weak, the leper, the marginalised, the sinner, the broken in body and spirit–and the poor. In our world today He continues to challenge us to do likewise. In F&L we are given the opportunity to meet that challenge and in doing so, we quickly come face to face with our own weakness and brokenness, and we begin to acknowledge and accept our times of failure, to see things in a different way.

On Saturday 17 June 2000, L’Arche, Faith and Light and two sister organisations, Faith and Sharing and Faith and Friendship, came together to celebrate Jubilee with a difference. We invited President Mary McAleese to join us. One of our founders, Jean Vanier, was present also. In a tribute to him and his work the President said: ‘There was a time when good people of good will used to ask when they saw people who were different–“What can we do to help?” What Jean Vanier did was to stand that question on its head and ask instead, “What has God in mind that those who are disabled will teach us? What is the nourishment that He expects to be bestowed on us through those who are vulnerable?”’ President McAleese’s observation highlighted the simple inspiration of seeing something that’s familiar in a new and different way, having a vision which changes a sad, suffering reality into one of hope and relevant meaning.

In Faith and Light, by simply being with people with intellectual disabilities, we learn about poverty of spirit, humility, openness, welcome. We learn that difference is not threatening but enriching–we learn to say, ‘I accept you as you are’. We learn to live as equals, recognising each other’s gifts, affirming each other.

In a society where we are being constantly browbeaten by the media and by advertising in general about the importance of striving for success, beauty, health and wealth, it has been our experience in Faith and Light that people with learning disability call us gently back to the priorities of the Beatitudes. In a society which is urging us to become selfish and introverted, where commitment does not mean very much any more, parents of people with learning difficulties have the potential to give strong witness to the depth of the meaning of that word. In a world which is being bombarded with news of indiscriminate killings in schools and colleges and stories of violence and sexual abuse within the very heart of family and church, in a world where ethnic cleansing policies are given credence by many governments worldwide, we need the little one who cries out to us for love in order that our civilisation may hold on to qualities of sensitivity, care and compassion, and in order to preserve as sacrosanct society’s almost forgotten belief in the dignity of humankind.

Faith and Light, through the inspirational presence of people with learning disability, has developed a richness, a spirituality that this world cannot afford to be without. Like the person with learning disability, Faith and Light is still a small voice, a vulnerable presence in a loud world clamouring for power and strength. We welcome this opportunity to be heard through the medium of Frontline.

We are happy to respond to any inquiry or query, simply contact: Anne Gibson, Derryadd Quay, Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh BT92 0BX; tel: 028677-21472 (from the Republic: 048-677-21472); email: asgibson@aol.com.

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