As you may remember, despite the wealth of incredible church buildings and majestic cathedrals, there are very few church communities here in France. In our town of 100,000 inhabitants, there is one catholic church, a beautiful cathedral in the town centre which dates to the 11th century. On Sunday morning there are usually about 20 - 30 people at mass. There is also a reformed protestant church, a Pentecostal church and a non-denominational evangelical church, each has about 80 - 100 members and approximately 40 - 50 people who worship on a Sunday. There are not many believers in our town!!
The protestant pastors occasionally meet together to pray (2 or 3 times each year) and Vincent and I join them when we can. Last month, Christian, the pastor of the reformed protestant church, invited us for a meal to meet the new priest, who is in charge of the greater Grasse parish and recently arrived to his post. Christian encouraged us to bring one or two people from our Parfums de Vie community, so we invited our friends Harry and Marjorie who serve as elders and ministry partners with us. We were invited to the chaplaincy of the Catholic Church where we were warmly welcomed by Father Francis-Regis and also Jean-Claude, one of his lay leaders (whom we all already knew well as he is a retired hairdresser and good friend of Harry, also a hairdresser). It turned out that Father FR is exactly the same age as Vincent (48!) and they went to the same middle school in Orange and High School in Avignon! All of Vincent's schooling was in catholic schools in France. Although they didn't remember each other, they talked about the teachers (all nuns and monks) whom they loved and were deeply impacted by!
It was just the 7 of us and a lovely and intimate evening of sharing our stories of faith (Father FR wanted to know all about Parfums de Vie) and he also shared about his childhood, family and his calling to the ministry. He expressed a deeply personal faith in Christ and both he and Christian share a vision for unity and a heart for reaching the youth. The four of us were warmly embraced and deeply encouraged by both Pastor Christian and Father FR.
The following day, Christian called me to invite us and our Parfums de Vie youth group to a joint youth event two weeks later! The catholic youth group meets once a month on a Friday evening, and the protestant group meets twice a month. The catholic group are currently working through the youth version of "The Alpha Course" and so we were all invited to participate in their next meeting, which was focused on the topic of "prayer". With our three groups together, there must have been 60 kids! We sat around tables and shared a pot-luck meal together and then had wonderful conversations about prayer. Vincent, Harry, Marjorie and I each sat at different tables and our Parfums kids mixed in with all the other kids. Afterwards we compared notes, and it was very interesting to observe that the kids from both church groups had shared that they didn't have much experience of prayer in a personal sense and that their experience was more in a formal liturgical setting. So they didn't feel sure about prayer, how to do it, if God was listening and very few had personal stories of answered prayer. On the contrary, our Parfums de Vie kids shared that they prayed together regularly as a group and individually every day, that they had a sense of God's presence in their hearts and faith that He was hearing and answering their prayers. The teens from both church groups were from privileged backgrounds with comfortable home lives, and all their parents were regular church goers. Many shared that they only went to youth group or church to keep their parents happy. Again, these stories were in stark contrast to our Parfums de Vie youth, who are from muslim backgrounds, live in very cramped and precarious circumstances, and yet all shared their deep convictions and personal faith in Christ. Vincent, Harry, Marjorie and myself all found this so encouraging to witness! Our Parfums de Vie kids also found this interesting! All of the kids we spoke to were so interested in learning about Parfums de Vie and amazed that we spent time together every day!
It was so encouraging for everyone. The pastor and the priest, who had been planning the event for some time, facilitated the table discussions together. The focus of both of them was unity, emphasizing the fact that we all share so much more than what separates us, and that our common faith in Christ was the most important thing, even if we all have different expressions of worship. They asked Vincent to do the closing address, he did an absolutely amazing job, and although we may be slightly biased, Harry, Marjorie and myself all felt that Vincent's words were the true highlight of the evening, because he was able to bring together his own experience of being raised in catholicism, how he found personal faith in Christ, and how God is at work trying to get our attention, in so many ways. He encouraged all of the kids not to ignore the flame of faith in their hearts, and instead to welcome it, cultivate it, pursue it and let it burn all the more brightly. It was perfect for a group of teens who despite their church background were lost and without a personal connection to Jesus. Who knows how God might use those words?!
At the end of January, the protestant youth group has invited Parfums de Vie and the Catholic Youth Group to a youth worship service that they are planning at the reformed church! We will be attending with the Parfums teens! I'll let you know how it goes. God is clearly at work in Grasse and we are encouraged to see this beautiful spirit of collaboration and unity from Father FR and Pastor Christian.
I've attached a few photos of the joint event - I hope they will inspire you to pray with us for the youth of Grasse, Father FR, Pastor Christian and the work of Parfums de Vie.
with love and thankfulness
Nicole & Vincent