In this interview authors David F. Ford, Deborah Hardy-Ford and Ian Randall reflect on the motivations behind their book, “A Kind of Upside Downness“.

A Kind of Upside-Downness celebrates the story of Lyn’s house, a small community in Cambridge encouraging friendship and hospitality.  Why was it important to tell this story in a book?

We were finding that we were being asked quite often to tell the story. The book is a way of responding to those requests! Through the book we hope that we can be more intentional in doing that. We also hope that the story told in the book, and our reflections on that, will inspire others to do what is appropriate in their contexts. We feel it is a story that can be generative. 

One of the unusual features of this book is it includes writing from new and established theologians alongside the voices of core friends with learning difficulties. Why was it important to include this range of voices?

We definitely wanted to include the voices of our friends with learning disabilities. It is a challenge to find ways to do that. One way has been to hear the testimonies of these friends about being part of Lyn’s House – testimonies which they have tended to shared with their families. As regards new and established theologians, we were delighted that Frances Young, who is the leading disability theologian today, wrote the foreword. Also we were very keen to give space to emerging writers who have lived in the Lyn’s House community.  We are aware of the need to nurture those who might be writers of influence in the future, in the tradition of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, and Henri Nouwen, who became part of a L’Arche community. The emerging writers in the book come from different disciplines: biblical studies, philosophy, theology, spirituality and social anthropology. 

This book has an unusual title, ‘A Kind of Upside-Downness’, why did you choose this title and why is ‘upside-downness’ something to be celebrated?

We chose the title partly because it is unusual! It comes from a poem dedicated to Jean Vanier, called ‘Admiral of Arks’ (a reference to Jean Vanier’s early years in the British Navy, and to L’Arche), in which the great Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail describes the origins and character of this community life. His more recent work, The Five Quartets, also has a deeply moving portrayal of Vanier, which is quoted in our book. We are struck by the fact that in the teaching of Jesus the Kingdom of God often invites us to espouse values that are ‘upside-down’ compared to values common in society. Another way of thinking about this concept is that we put those who are often marginalized at the centre. We also speak in the book of the Sabbath (or Shabbat) as a key value: Lyn’s House is a place where Sabbath-like things happen, such as having meals, praying, playing games, making music, celebrating birthdays, watching films, gardening, and, above all, spending free time together for the sheer enjoyment of each other.

The book reflects on a specific and relatively small community in Lyn’s house but the themes discussed of community, hospitality and friendship are much more widely relevant, with loneliness and isolation affecting so many. What have you learned about friendship from your involvement with Lyn’s House?

Yes, the activities at Lyn’s House have been designed to foster and sustain beneficial relationships and a sense of community and belonging over time. These include the things just mentioned, as well as others such as regular larger gatherings for monthly tea parties (often including arts and crafts activities), summer barbecues, and outings – Pembroke College has been especially hospitable with invitations to dine there, and attend evensong. It is probably at the regular smaller gatherings, the midweek meals, including the shared activities of cooking, talking, singing, praying, and more, that we have learned most about friendship. Quite often, friendship groups in our society bring together those who are similar to each other. Our vision is of daring friendships across divisions. Those with learning disabilities can connect with other people beyond their families, their carers, and others with disabilities. Lyn’s House provides an ‘ordinary’ setting for forming new relationships. It is also the case that in the larger events a range of people make new relationships – there is an overflow.

Lyn’s House is described as ‘a small improvisation on L’Arche’, how can this book help to inspire further inspiration on Jean Vanier’s work?

It is a small improvisation, and as such we hope that it can be quite readily replicated – although not exactly – rather, in creative ways. As an example of something which has begun in a University city context we are interested in whether similar ventures could take place in other University settings. Aberdeen University already has developed something similar. There could be communities not only in the UK but across the world. The core is pure L’Arche: having people with learning disabilities at the heart of a lively community. The book tells the story of the original challenge by Jean Vanier to Deborah Ford, when he said, ‘Cambridge is full of people with learning abilities. They need relationships with people with learning disabilities.’ We have proved that to be true, and we hope that the story of Lyn’s House will inspire similar communities elsewhere. There should be no limit to the settings in which such communities could be formed – wherever there are people with and without learning disabilities. 

Learn more and order your copy of “A Kind of Upside-Downness” here.

Testimonials from friends’ family members

“It’s somewhere she hasn’t got carers and she hasn’t got us: she can just be herself. Everywhere else – even at home with us – there are certain rules, expectations or contractual obligations. At Lyn’s House she’s free: she just goes in and treats it as if it were her home. It’s hard to say how much it means to her because it means so much. I honestly can’t think of somewhere else she’d rather go or be: except, perhaps her sister’s or brother’s. It’s very, very important to her. And part of it is because it’s a place where she can be at home in faith.”

“She loves coming and the attention she gets… We’re quite a large family and she easily gets ‘lost’ in a crowd because she’s quite reserved. I don’t really know what happens when she’s there because she doesn’t talk, but she loves it! If I ever had to say she wasn’t going to be able to go (if we were in the middle of a snowstorm and couldn’t physically get there, for example, she’d be devastated. She has to: she loves it. And she certainly wouldn’t go if she didn’t want to: she’d make that very clear.”

“The people at Lyn’s House have the ability to be friendly, not patronising.”

“There’s an acceptance of people.. it’s a tremendously loving and confidence-boosting place for a very diverse and different range of people and needs.”

“It’s nice he can go where I don’t have to worry about him.”

“She can laugh or cry and that won’t be abused.”

“She used Lyn’s House to disclose something – a safeguarding incident with her carers that she hadn’t told anyone else. She doesn’t like to upset us.”

“It’s not easy for people like him to have an opinion… but the patience I’ve witnessed in those at Lyn’s House, keeping listening and conversation open and being interested enough to keep trying to understand and help him and others means he’s found that there’s the freedom and space to say what he thinks… They help him feel he has something valuable to say and contribute and that matters. It is uplifting to see them respecting and listening to my son. It is an anchor for him. He has developed meaningful relationships.”

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