On the pilgrim way: Listening to difference
Sheila Maxey faces the challenge of listening to difference
I have long been impressed by Jean Vanier and the L’Arche communities he founded, where people with learning disabilities live with those who society considers normal. I planned to spend my first sabbatical in a L’Arche community but it did not work out. I think I had – and perhaps still have – unfinished business with my mentally disabled older brother to work on. Now, I am reading Vanier’s latest book, Life’s Great Questions and being challenged again by his call to take those who are different seriously, as it is through them, that we grow spiritually and discover more about the nature of God.
“Different” does not just mean disabled. The artist Grayson Perry has recently made three TV programmes titled All Man. In each one, Perry, a transvestite, spent time in a traditionally masculine world – with cage fighters in the north-east, bankers in the City of London and “hoodies” on an estate in the former mining town of Skelmersdale, Lancashire. Perry produced two works of art for each group, responding to what he found. I found these programmes intensely moving – and his approach kept reminding me of Vanier’s book.
Perry listened so carefully to these lost, violent young men. He listened to their mothers and girlfriends. And then, he bravely offered them, through his art, what he had heard. In the north-east, Perry honoured mourning for a lost pit community and grief over a friend’s suicide. In Skelmersdale, he showed them a sad figure, stuck full of knives with a baseball cap on its head, titled King of Nowhere; the lads seemed to recognise themselves in it. I could have wept for them.
But Perry struggled with the bankers; they were too well defended and he had too many prejudices. I think that is why the L’Arche communities attracted me and still challenge me; they seem to be places where one can learn to be more open and vulnerable through listening to and respecting people with learning disabilities – people who are mostly not so well defended.
I find it so hard to truly listen to someone I deeply disagree with. I am a passionate European (I am, of course, writing this before the referendum) and find, to my dismay, that I cannot make myself read a measured article which puts the “leave” case. Am I, like the bankers, too well defended to grow and learn?
Collecting house-to-house for Christian Aid this year made me face my prejudices. It was a very poor year in our town. From one four-storey block I came away with nothing. People were polite in their refusals. I decided that all these people were selfish and uncaring. Then, a good church friend commented that she regularly binned all the appeals which came through her door because she knew which charities – including Christian Aid – she had decided to support. I remembered that I, too, do just that! I need to return to Jean Vanier.
Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform
This article was published in the July/August 2016 edition of Reform.