This is the short story of how a group of Muslim kids showed a Christian missionary what the love of Jesus looks like, and how they seem to have broken his Christianese vocabulary.
About a month ago, I joined a retreat put on by Parfum Du Vie, an after-school program for youngs and teens in Grasse, France. It was fun. We went to the Cevennes Mountains, where Robert Louis Stevenson took his donkey back in 1879. The group was 5 adults and 20 kids and 24 of the people on the trip spoke French. I’ll give you a guess at who did not speak French.
The kids in the program are mainly from Tunisia, Algeria and other parts of N. Africa and from either nominal or strict Muslim homes. Life in France is hard for an immigrant. The absentee public school system threatens to leave them behind and their skin makes them perpetually the outsider in public. The worst part of all; however, is what this system does to kids. It stunts their outlook on life; on how sweet it can be. And that is what Parfum du Vie exists for. To be the Fragrance of Life to these kids.
I have to say here that the describing Parfum as an after-school program is like describing the Great Pyramids of Giza as triangles. Vincent and Nicole are parents to these kids. They push them to succeed. They dare the kids to dream. They study Jesus within the Bible and the Koran. They have kids taking refuge with them from abusive home situations. They teach them everything from The Noble Gases to fart jokes. They share their home and table permanently with a Tunisian mother named Rhodia and her two kids. I cannot do their ministry justice here but if you want to go see it, email me and I’ll go with you - firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyway, I came to help out with a retreat (which is a noun meaning a quiet, secluded place in which one can rest and relax) that actually turned out to be hiking long distances through remote area of the Cevennes Mountains, weathering against the creeping fog and drying out 25 pairs of swampy boots by the fire each night.
There is just one memory that I’d like to recall here and it happened on April 12th, a Tuesday. It was about 10/16km through the hike and I was wondering what the hell I was doing in France. I didn’t speak the language. I wasn’t needed. I had tried to connect with the kids but each time felt a twinge awkward; like standing in a room a bit to small for me. And then one of the campers asked me a question. Now, speaking words in itself is a stretch. Of the French language, I know "les incompétents...” from Home Alone. And as for English, this girl had 1 year of study and 3 Taylor Swift albums to go off of. But what I assumed was destined for awkward, mumbling failure became worship in the moments that followed. We talked about movies, music, “if you could be any animal..”, “..have any superpower”, travel, hopes, food and family. We talked about nothing really, but I remember about halfway through the conversation feeling the undeniable urge to praise God for loving me through this 15 year old girl. It was not just petty conversation, it was God telling me directly, face to face, that he loved me.
At the end of the conversation, she asked my religion and I told her I was a Jesus follower. She replied that she grew up Muslim but wasn’t religious now. I stopped in my tracks. Not 20 minutes before, I had felt the love of Jesus in her and now this? Right in that moment, standing over a gorge, the smell of horse poop somewhere I wondered, "is God more amazing than I imagine him to be?”
That is perhaps the greatest of all questions.
The rest of the week went like so: we ate baguettes. we cleaned the kitchen. we danced. we hiked Mount Aigoual (1567m). we talked about teamwork. we wore costumes. we cut down trees. When I sat down to write this I wanted to write about “whole-life community”; about Vincent and Nicole and how they have given everything to these kids and gained even more. But this is what came out. Everything in my evangelical Christian brain wants to distill this experience down to a digestible piece of Christian lingo but my heart just won’t let me.
This is the short story of how a group of Muslim kids showed a Christian missionary what the love of Jesus looks like, and how they seem to have broken his Christianese vocabulary. I hope you liked it.