Jean Vanier and the Minstead Trust.

I was very sad to hear that Jean Vanier died on 7th May after 90 years of a life lived selflessly for people with learning disabilities; he will be greatly missed. Remembering him is also a good time to recall the influence that he had on the development of our own learning disability work here at the Minstead Trust.

Jean Vanier was a French Canadian, the son of the Governor General of Canada. His parents were devout Christians and Jean was brought up in the faith and with a strong social conscience. At the age of thirteen in 1941 he set off on his own for England to join the British Navy at Dartmouth College, then served for seven years before deciding that he wanted to give his life to a cause which reflected his personal faith.

He found his vocation through witnessing the dreadful conditions in which many people with learning difficulties were shut away from the world. His very personal response was to set up home to live with two such disabled people. His own deep commitment inspired others to join him in the venture that was to become L’Arche, “The Ark”, now with 146 shared homes in over 30 countries.

During the 1960’s I experienced similar shocking conditions in a number of large mental institutions.  Consequently when we started at Furzey Gardens in the early 1970s we employed three 16 year olds from Oak Lodge Special School, one of whom is still with us, though partly retired, Paul Turner.

When Minstead Lodge was set up in 1975 with Peter Gardiner as its first director we were providing for a wide range of social needs including learning disabilities and providing holiday breaks for L’Arche community houses in the South of England. As a result a group of us from Minstead Lodge decided to visit Jean Vanier at L’Arche just north of Paris. Some of the members of this group can now be seen in the library mural…If you go to see it try to pick out a youthful Lucio Defeo who is of course still with us.

Our time with Jean Vanier was inspirational. We shared in a simple way with their daily life, their barn chapel, and listened to Jean Vanier, speaking as he always did of the beautiful people who were so often rejected and unloved.

As a result of this visit our learning disability work became more focussed. Peter’s time as director came to an end and Martin Lenaerts, who with his wife Janet had made his own deep personal commitment by adopting two boys with learning disabilities, set up a day service at Furzey Gardens. This soon incorporated Minstead Lodge becoming the Minstead Training Project and providing a widening range of learning disability services. After 25 years of Martin’s care we then became the Minstead Trust under the leadership of Madeleine Durie. Jean Vanier’s example of loving those too often unloved still lies at the heart of our work.

Jean wrote several books, still well worth our reading. I am left with two favourite sayings from him….

“Don’t ask whether a person believes in God, ask them if they believe in Love” and

“You don’t have to be a saint to love people!”

So much has come from the small beginnings of one selfless person who started a movement to transform peoples’ lives of which we are now a growing part. Thank you Jean Vanier.

Tim Selwood. May 2019.