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Recently The New York Times ran an article about Europe’s ongoing resistance to Christianity and it’s symbols. This time the affront reared its head when France lead the European Commission to ban the minting of newly designed commemorative Slovakian coins that bear Christian symbols of crosses and halos. It’s not news to anyone that Western Europe (more so than it’s Eastern neighbors) despite all its resplendent cathedrals, monasteries and churches has seen a consistent decline in church attendance and in belief in God. According to a Wall Street Journal article published earlier this year, the newly elected Pope Francis has his work cut out for him in regards to filling Europe’s churches. Under his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI increasingly sought ways to re-evangelize Europe.
Yes. In the last several decades Europe and Christianity often go together like oil and water. But like any overarching characteristic of a continent or a people there always remains the unfortunate likelihood that other perspectives and realities will be missed.
France in particular may deserve another look. I spent last summer there as a writer/theologian in residence at a unique congregation right in the heart of Paris. I happened to have arrived in the dazzling city home to Norte Dame Cathedral Sainte Chapelle, and the Basilica of Sacred Coeur, on the day Francoise Hollande was sworn into office as the 24th president of the Republic of France. They say religion is dying in France and the secularization of French society leaves a nation increasingly bereft of an active, growing Christian spirituality. The country recognizes national public holidays commemorating Christian religious markers like Ascension and Pentecost. But the rumor is that though appreciative most Parisians are not even clear why exactly they have a day off of work. Hollande is an avowed atheist who openly lauds the French notion of “la cit ” the separation of church and state rooted in the 1905 French law, that has effectively translated to a deep French secularism and somewhat open dismissal of the notably religious. It is not news to hear Muslims, Jews and Christians contesting and bemoaning French anti-religious policies, especially those that seem to undermine national hospitality to immigrants. In 2004, under President Jacques Chirac, the French parliament voted and approved a law banning all religious symbols from schools, apparently as a move to unite rather divide people by ethnic or religious affiliations.
And yet, planted in the center of Paris, at 65 Quai D’Orsay, in the prime 7th arrondissement on the banks of the Seine, there is a church and a congregation that belies the notion that faith is at odds with daily life in Paris. It is the same place where Bob Dylan, Daniel Berrigan, Joan Baez, and James Baldwin gathered for student meetings in the 1960s. It is where Woodrow Wilson attended services regularly during the World War I Peace Conference. It is where Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower worshipped on occasion. It is where Jesse Jackson preached in 2007 and 2009. It is also where Martin Luther King Jr. preached for the first time in Paris on October 24th, 1965, less than a year after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway in December 1964. MLK Jr. was the first black man to preach from that pulpit. And it is where last summer on Trinity Sunday I had the beautiful honor of being the first black woman to preach from the same pulpit.
It is The American Church in Paris, France (ACP.) Its beginnings can be traced to 1814 but it was officially established in 1857 under the American missionary organization, the American and Foreign Christian Union (AFCU). The first clergy called to officially lead the congregation at the American Church in Paris was Dr. Edwin Kirk, a Presbyterian minister. The current clergy leading the ACP is the Rev. Scott Herr, also a Presbyterian.
The American Church in Paris is an ongoing beacon of hope that Christian faith is not dead in European cities. Granted from the fourth floor church windows one can peer into the Parisian flat of Giancarlo Giammetti, life and business partner to Italian shoe designer Valentino (but of course one doesn’t peer.) And a few steps around the corner on the way to famed Rue Cler to pick up fresh baguettes, fresh flowers, fresh anything really, you bypass tennis star Serena Williams’ supposed apartment. But the wonder of this century old gothic styled church has nothing to do with its luxurious location. The real wonder is all on the inside, where each Sunday people, including working class immigrants and appointed diplomats, from more than 40 different countries come together to worship God and to unknowingly offer a glimpse of what the Kingdom is supposed to look like, in Europe and anywhere else for that matter.
In the middle of a city pocketed with tourist-filled sanctuaries and governed by political leadership that totes allegiance to the state before any ethnic of religious unity,
I came to give a few lectures on Christian spirituality and to work on my next book. During my time there I found myself repeatedly surprised by how much my own faith in the strength of the universal church was being renewed simply by my encounter with believers at ACP. Through worship and life with people from all over Europe and other continents I was reminded that the work of the church is to continually strive to recognize and honor the imprint of God found in all people from all places and walks of life, even when the rumors spread that the church is losing her battle. We work towards celebrating our rich differences while striving towards sharing the responsibility and the weight of the various human burdens we bear.
It is curious to imagine what the congregation at the American Church must have looked like on October 24th, 1965 when Martin Luther King Jr. preached to an overflowing crowd. Part of his sermon reflected on the ongoing oppression in British Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the need for justice and change.
The Sunday I preached, I remember reflecting on how powerful it was to see such a diversity of people in the congregation at all three services. Every third person was of a different nationality or race or ethnicity from the last. As service progressed I gazed transfixed as they come towards me. They came from every nation, tribe and race. I offered them drink. I extended my hand with a cup full of blood and I said in so many small words, “This is for you. Drink. This will piece you back together again. This will make you one with each other.”
Here, in a vibrant church in the heart of Paris, a homeless man of Chinese descent who comes every Sunday will be bound to a Romanian youth graduating from high school. Here, the young Australian pilgrim healing from divorce will be bound to the 75-year-old Southern American woman married for over 50 years. Here, the West African fashion-designer with the Scottish accent will be bound to the Syrian who brings news of her country to the prayers of the people.
Here, the Spirit bears witness despite the ongoing struggle the church seems to have in reaching, loving and welcoming all people, in celebrating the many faces of God. The Spirit continues to hover, even in Western Europe.