This year’s family vacation took us to France. The first week was spent with extended family in eastern France, along parts of the Saone and the Rhone rivers. Then, my husband, children and I spent a few days in Paris before returning home. This was not our first visit to Paris, with trips that included Paris in 2004 and 2008. This visit, though, we knew would be different.
Paris is a city on high alert. Police and guard units, armed with large scary weapons, roam the streets—on foot, on horseback, on bicycles, motorcycles, cars and vans. They are everywhere. Every tourist venue now involves a security check, some not unlike the airport. During our visit, we passed through many security checks. When we saw the person with the security armband, we knew it was time to open our bags and empty our pockets.
We were not exactly surprised, then, to find the security detail at the front door of the American Church in Paris when we arrived for Sunday morning worship. I opened my bag for inspection and my husband had to empty his pockets before we were allowed admittance. We weren’t surprised by this. Still, it was both sad and unsettling.
My experience of worship on that Sunday provided two distinct, entirely opposing impressions.
On the more negative side, I couldn’t shake the significance of the security check, wondering about this world in which we live. That particular worship service involved the dedication of two young children from one family, and a baptism for another child of a different family. As a nondenominational church that seeks to support a variety of traditions, baptism takes on a more fluid meaning. One family was clearly of a Baptist stream and the other was not. The pastor, though, found a way to make these two concurrent ceremonies feel distinct, yet special and meaningful in their own way.
As the pastor introduced the children to the congregation at the end of the ceremony, parading them down the center aisle and back, I couldn’t help but think about the world in which these children found themselves, and the security detail that met them at the door of their church. I wondered about those who wish nothing but harm for those who gathered in that church for worship, service and ministry. In that moment of reflection, the congregation seemed small and vulnerable.
On the other side of my experience, was a deep sense of hopefulness. For there was hope—brazen, remarkable, and plain. The American Church in Paris is a place of amazing diversity. While the congregation was not huge, the array of parishioners was stunning. There were people from various African countries, as well as Asian. There were also Brits and Americans and a few people I couldn’t quite figure out in terms of where they had come from.
And we were all at worship. During the passing of the peace, we greeted each other with words of Christ’s peace. A couple of people were especially enthusiastic, moving quickly from pew to pew, seeming to want to pass the peace to as many people as possible before it was time to return to their seat.
During worship, a candle was lit for “God’s Global Vision of Compassion, Justice and Peace.” This was clearly a weekly ritual. The pastor who spoke as the candle was lit did not speak of Paris and the ongoing trauma and fear of terrorism. Instead, he spoke of a recent visit of Pope Francis, who had spent a day with victims of human trafficking. Although it took only a few minutes, I found this part of the service to be very moving.
The American Church in Paris, simply by its existence and its ministry of presence, speaks to the way of hope in a profound way. In that multi-colored and multi-patterned worship, we worshiped as the people of God, demonstrating the way of peace and hope. And, in that way, the congregation seemed very powerful and strong.
Returning to Maine, I am back to a place where we have no security check at our front door, nor do we have the sort of beautiful diversity on display as the American Church in Paris, but I will carry that experience of worship with me, trying to maintain a renewed mindfulness for what it means to be God’s people, no matter where we live. To gather as God’s people is to live in the midst of hope, even where it seems most fragile, and to remain steadfast in celebrating God’s grace and blessing, no matter the circumstances, and to do our best not to take them for granted. And, to be a people always in search of peace, of the peace of Christ, so elusive yet so present.