France

Language: French

Religions: Roman Catholic 85%, Muslim 8%, Protestant 2%, Jewish 1%,

Population: 66 million

Capital: Paris

Mennonites in France

Number of Mennonite Congregations: 32

Number of baptized Mennonites: 2,100 = 3,5% of European Mennonites. Located mainly in the

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The Prairie Welcome Centre

Author: Daniel Widmer

The Montbéliard district includes Sochaux, where the original French Automobile manufacturer Peugeot is situated. Forty years ago it had a staff of 40.000 but now that's only 11.000. Unemployment in this area is high and many people find themselves in difficult circumstances.

 

To help out, the Montbéliard Mennonite church, especially under the leadership of Etienne Klopfenstein, took the local people in difficulties to their hearts. Initially volunteers spent the night with the homeless in a State Social Centre or helped the Salvation Army to offer hot lunches.

 

Creating a Centre

The church members quickly realised this was insufficient, and a new idea started to circulate; create our own Centre to accommodate some of these homeless, mainly unemployed people. An abandoned dairy was purchased in 1994 and completely restored by both building firms and volunteering church members. This Centre, situated near ‘la Praire’ (the Mennonite Church in  Montbéliard), is named after  the neighbourhood where it is situated. The Centre was opened in 1996, offering 26 residents temporary accommodation in studios for one or two people. The management committee was chaired by Etienne Klopfenstein until his death in 2012. One salaried staff member provides a permanent presence, and another, working with the social services, helps the residents find appropriate accommodation normally in around 6 months.

 

Testimony

Each weekday from 2 – 5 p.m. in the Centre’s large meeting room, volunteers bring cakes and coffee and provide a friendly atmosphere in which residents can relax and share their problems.  Lionel, a past resident, but now a member of the Mennonite Church in Montbéliard shared this testimony with the members before his baptism in 2013:

 

I left home at the age of 18, as I wanted to live my own life. I found a job and at the beginning everything seemed fine. Unfortunately due to bad company, I became a drug addict, lost my job and found myself unemployed on the street for three years. [... ] Two people from the Centre befriended me and gave me a gospel [...]. One of the centre’s weekly visitors read the Bible with me and taught me about God. I then realized that there was a solution to my aimless life. God loves me as I am: this is revolutionising my life.

 

Developing Compassion

Author: Michel Sommer

Shortly after World War II French Mennonites expressed their compassion by establishing social institutions. The majority with the help of North American Mennonites. Since then, there has been minimal development in this field, with the exception of the Welcome Centre Montbéliard, where those battling with social and economic difficulties have been finding help since 1996.

However, today the number of people in need has not diminished. Why this lack of initiatives? What are today’s challenges in launching projects to demonstrate our compassion toward everybody?

 

Lack of initiatives

The reasons are numerous, but here are three. Firstly, it is much more difficult today to establish recognised social activities than it was 50 years ago.

Secondly, the absence of a theological drive resulting in visible acts. North American Mennonites played a key role in the past, but the theology of social action apparently has not been fully integrated in our French Mennonite communities.

Thirdly, one may wonder whether, since the1950s, French Mennonites have become somewhat gentrified; better integrated into society, mostly better educated, they now have difficulty identifying themselves with the excluded. This phenomenon is amplified by the context of continual media coverage: ‘The media allow us to see, and simply ignore’ (Jean-Marc Chappuis).

 

Challenges

In the French context, what are the areas in which compassion could be exercised in new ways? Let us consider three societal groups in particularly difficulty.

 

First: foreigners and immigrants. The rise of ideas of the extreme right and their more prominent place should make Christians reconsider their position as they should be revealing a message of love towards both neighbours and enemies. Unfortunately these xenophobic ideas find a fertile soil here in Alsace. Campaigning in favour of foreigners and immigrants would be a prophetic action.

 

Second: gypsies, a stigmatized foreign population. Although some gypsies are responsible for undesirable behaviour, aggressiveness towards them and the forcible evacuation of settlements revives memories of dark days in Europe. If Jesus spoke in parables today, perhaps a gypsy would be the model of compassion that he would invite his listeners to consider.

 

Third: social breakdown, divorces have rocketed, individualism is dominant and the population is more elderly. In this context, the number of people living alone has risen sharply in recent decades. Single mothers struggling with jobs, children and exhaustion deserve answers in terms of practical and moral support.

 

Should we conclude that French Mennonite compassion no longer exists?

Goals and concrete examples

Author: Sylvia Shirk

The Relief Fund, founded in 1977, is the helping arm of the French Mennonites, reaching out to persons whose situation of temporary or more long-term distress has come to our attention.

 

Syria

The year 2013 was marked by a new action for Syria. In an email in September, the  MCC representative for Lebanon, thanks the French and Swiss Mennonites for their ‘marvelous and continued support, and for your prayers for the Syrian people. The kits were received and distributed by a wide variety of churches  serving displaced people forced to leave their homes...’.

Since the beginning of the conflict, more than 3.500 hygiene kits, 200 blankets and a sum of €15.000 were shipped in two containers as far as Jordan and to Syria.  In 2013, the Swiss Mennonites joined in to fill the container with buckets.  These donations come from individual gifts.  The cost of shipping the containers (about €8.500) was covered by offerings taken at the concerts of a group of young artists from one of the churches. One congregation in the North of the Alsace handled the sorting, preparation and the shipping of the French contributions.

 

Afghanistan

Since its beginnings the Relief Fund has promoted a Christmas project to benefit a need that is more chronic but no less critical. This year a school project to benefit Hazara women and children of Afghanistan caught our attention.  Founded ten years ago by people who came from one of our churches, ‘Le Pelican’  created its first day center in Kabul for Hazara children in 2003.  The project grew quickly and was extended to include another hundred women and girls (literacy and sewing lessons), as well as professional training in bread making and in small restaurant business, and a class in sign language two years ago.  In 2007, the Relief Fund provided for the acquisition of equipment for the bakery.

 

Seven years later, the donations contributed to the creation of a centre in Bamiyan, using the same model as the one in Kabul. In November, Jacques, co-founder of ‘Le Pelican’ died. But Ariane is not giving up. Her testimony:

 

The Pelican’ had to position itself on this plateau where there is nothing but a poor population, without any resources:  no school, no business, no clinic, no electricity, no water ... they lack everything. So then it will be easy to help them!

Visiting the Hospital

Authors: Jean-Paul Herzog and
Mireille Peterschmitt, Sara Herzog 

Every week, Fabienne from Strasbourg and Odile from Sélestat enter and leave hospitals or clinics in their respective towns. They go there to meet and listen to patients, families and staff who are there. In these establishments where the people experience suffering and care, grief and joy, life and death, Fabienne and Odile are hospital visitors. Their ministry is an expression of a community involvement which wishes to reach those suffering isolation: either in a single visit or through long-term support. Their visits also introduce another Visitor, the Lord Jesus Christ who accompanies them in their daily ministry.

 

A matter of being present

In the French hospital establishments, our visitors are complementary to other hospital staff, desiring to take care of the human being as a whole. In our French secular society, hospital visitors have to prove that they have a legitimate reason for their presence in the situations where they are. Gone are the days when it was taken for granted that Christian visitors could circulate unhindered through the hospitals and clinics. As well as being  places where people from different social classes meet, hospitals and clinics today are the meeting places of people of different faiths and religions. Visits to patients vary considerably depending on their culture and religion. Finally hospitals and clinics are also the place where many questions are asked. Today tensions can be felt in the medical field due to human relationships, technical and economic reasons. Visitors have their part to play regarding ethical discussions and they can they can sometimes guide patients to those who can meet  their needs better, maybe outside the establishment. Our two visitors have more than enough work to fill their time.

 

For 23 years, working with the Alsace and Lorraine Protestant Churches’, chaplaincy service Compassion in Action sends, accompanies and supports salaried chaplains and several volunteer visitors. Mennonites in Strasbourg and in particular the Strasbourg Mennonite Church initiated our small charity. Neighbouring evangelical fellowships also participate. Our hearts are full of gratitude to God for his faithfulness and help, and this venture of faith and service continues today.

Committed to the disabled

Author: André Hege
Translator: Christopher Mobbs 

Two Foundations in the Paris area, ‘Les Amis de l’Atelier’ and ‘Domaine Emmanuel’ are closely linked to French Mennonite history. These groups have helped or guided 4.000 people in 70 institutions and services.

 

History

This activity was initiated in 1950 through the friendship between Mennonites and a family with a disabled child.  Something had to be done about  the situation of the child, and in a small prefabricated building with neither water nor electricity a group of children started meeting. This insignificant initiative was developed into something more substantial through the creation of a first ‘Assistance through Work’ Centre in Chatenay-Malabry and then a second Centre with accommodation for disabled people in Hautefeuille, in the countryside East of Paris.

 

Little by little, with government funding, our development has progressed. We have become more professional, seeking to better understand the individual needs of each person and to personalise their care.  The accommodations are adapted to assure maximum community integration. Home support services have now been added for those who can, with the right care, continue to live at home.

 

Both Foundations have created Centres specifically built and run for older disabled people. The ‘Domaine Emmanuel’ has developed special facilities for those who are mentally disabled after a mental illness.

 

Brotherly love: Accepting different points of view

Some of our homes provide full time medical care for those who need more intensive care. The two Foundations now have facilities for those suffering from severe disabilities. Both, working with Medical Institutes, welcome disabled people and in particular autistic children. Through these services we spread a message of respect and consideration which we pass on to disabled people.

 

We want to show consideration and respect to everybody, helping them to become responsible for their own lives as much as possible. It is also our aim to integrate disabled people into a normal work situation whenever possible. Providing somewhere to live and work creates integration and reduces the feeling of isolation.

 

We believe that brotherly love is increasingly being affirmed and revealed through our willingness to accept different points of view. Our experience must always remain appropriate to today’s needs and must show both creativity and adaptability.

 

Our websites (in French)

http://www.fondation-amisdelatelier.org/

http://www.aede.fr/

Welcome to the church

Authors: Madeleine and Bernard Huck
Translator: Louise Nussbaumer 

I was encouraged by one of my friends to come to a Sunday worship in this Mennonite assembly. I am an African woman, I don't know many people and am living in a difficult family situation. My husband has no stable job and this makes him nervous sometimes. I have five children; the youngest is a very small girl. And my oldest sons are a cause of concern.

 

As a church, we quickly loved this woman and shared her burdens. We gave her a paid job, maintenance of the premises.  Her home life  is hard ; her husband is violent;  Sometimes she escapes her home and spends the night on the church floor. ‘At least, I have peace here’, she said later.

We took care of her youngest daughter when she was away on a trip to see her family.

 

She is a regular at Sunday worship and attends the women’s group. She drinks in the Word of God which acts in her heart and the grace of God transforms her little by little.

Her family life is better now, after the police intervened, and her husband has now calmed down once for all.

 

She has won hearts in the church. When someone is ill, she is worried; she chooses the verses which go straight to the heart of people. She calls up to ask for news.

Our church has nominated her for the post of deacon and she accomplishes her role perfectly.  She says that I am her ‘bosom sister’ and it is indeed what she is to me.

An acquaintance of mine who knows her well enough confided to me that one Sunday, as the Holy Communion was being distributed, this sister approached to give her the bread and the wine. She was deeply moved.  To God alone the Glory !

 

This testimony might suggest that to welcome, to integrate, to support and to induce growth throughout the years requires great art. In fact, it is very simple. You must have a heart full of compassion. Compassion is not pity, but love. Something natural, which runs smoothly, which doesn’t ask questions. But above all, there is the power of God, the  ‘Fixer of the breach’, the One who raises and gathers. The Father who makes sure his children, albeit different from one another, are able to welcome one another, understand one another  and love  one another.

Social Services

Author: Theo Hege

As part of  the Mennonite churches of France Mennonite social services were born from the massive social action of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in France which began during World War II.

Helping the disabled

In 1945-1946, its leaders urged Mennonite churches to be involved in service to the neighbour. This approach made it possible to continue the early work after the withdrawal of the MCC thanks to the creation of ‘l’Association Fraternelle Mennonite’ and ‘l’Association du Mont des Oiseaux’: the purchase of the Valdoie property to install a child institution in Valdoie, near Belfort in 1950 and, the following year, the acquisition of a second children's home at Mont des Oiseaux, near Wissembourg.  The Mont des Oiseaux turned into a home for the care of children and adults with psychological or mental disabilities.

 

Furthermore, the American Mennonite missionary action, relayed by the association ‘Mission Mennonite Française’,  began around 1953 in Châtenay-Malabry, and  founded a local  Mennonite church. At the same time, it welcomed a local initiative to care for mentally handicapped children. The joint growth of this diaconal service and evangelism didn't happen without difficulty. The association ‘Les Amis de l'Atelier’ was created in 1961 and then grew into a Foundation in 2011.

 

Support-center and foreign students

In 1966, the 'Mission Mennonite Française' initiated  the creation of  a work and accommodation support-center. Today, the association has changed its name and is called: ‘Association des Institutions du Domaine Emmanuel’ (AEDE). The whole of the institutions and services comes down to these figures: 91 institutions and services, 4.188 beneficiaries, 2.633 employees. Financing comes essentially  from public funds.

Also,  the ‘Mission Mennonite Française’ opened a residence for foreign students in 1976. It ran until 1998. In 1995, the Mennonite church of Montbéliard opened  a small emergency accommodation  facility with a capacity of 12 studios.  It is the  ‘Maison d’Acccueil de la Prairie’.

 

In 1977, at the purchase of the building to host the new Mennonite church in Strasbourg, a small residence with seven rooms  for students opened.  Today in 2014, it has expanded to 14 rooms and 9 studios.

From individual to organized compassion

Author: Frédéric de Coninck

How can we explain why many people in favour of individual compassionate actions towards those in need have reserves immediately we initiate discussion concerning structures dealing with these problems?

Celebrating Christmas Together

Author: Paul Hege

For someyears, the Mennonite Church of Strasbourg has participated in ‘Vivre Noël Ensemble’. This eventallows us to put ourfaith in action at the service of ourneighbor, to renewour vision on Christmas, to team up withothers and be active in our city.

Togetherness

Eachyear, 15 to 20 people fromourchurchchoose to spend the night of December 24th togetherwith about as manyguests, people on the marginswhootherwisewould have a verysad and lonely Christmas. None of us regret thisexperience. Somedepict the delight of a different Christmas thatis more turnedtowardourneighbor and enriched by the spontaneous contributions of ourguests. Others are grateful for the richness and depth of conversations withourguests, despite the languagebarrier, sometimes; some contacts continue and evenbecomefriendships. Many point out thatthiskind of time allows us to becomeaware of the needs and povertythatweoften come across on the daily basis withoutseeingthem.

For the church, itis a beautifulproject in whicheachmemberfindstheir place, couples and single people alike, children and parents, and older people. We encourage eachmember to participate and we notice thatmany are ready to do itagain the followingyear.

Ecumenical

‘Vivre Noël Ensemble’ wasinitiallylaunched by a solidarity Christian institution. Today, itis an organisation in whichvarious Christian and non-Christian associations and severalchurches are involved, and with the support of the City of Strasbourg, they help about 300 marginalized people to celebrate Christmas in dignity.

They are welcomed by the differentpartners, each in their venue, according to theirmeans. The cluster isresponsible for the meal, the gift for everyguest, and the dispatch of guests to different venues: thus, the different host teams focus their attention and energy on an entertainingwelcome. The organisation alsoorganizes a friendly time downtownunder the tall Christmas tree, whichstarts off the feast, with hot drinks, pastries and music: in this place the guests and the hosts meet up before the groups separate and the party goes on in different venues.

As a smallchurch in ourbig city, we are verypleased to have foundour place in thisproject, whichwasinitiated by Christians and thensharedwithothers, and webelieve,  throughit, our Lord ishonored in Strasbourg.

‘Foyer Grebel’

Author: Neil Blough

Because of France’s colonial history, tens of thousands of French-speaking Africans come to study at her universities.  As a continuation of the collaboration between French and North American Mennonites in Paris, a welcoming centre for African students, the ‘Foyer Grebel’, was founded in Saint Maurice in 1977. Dutch and Swiss Mennonites soon joined the project, which became an interesting example of missionary partnership.

 

Cross-cultural

The Foyer offered temporary housing and assistance with looking for the stable conditions necessary to study.  Foyer staff members quickly became acquainted with the social and economic difficulties of the students.  How could such problems be solved? How could mistrust between the North and South be overcome?  The Foyer became a meeting-place of mutual learning.  Sunday evenings became a time of a shared meal and cross-cultural sharing.  New relationships, cross-cultural bridges were born from being together, mutual discussion, sharing one another’s cooking, and a common search for solutions to problems.  All of this helped those involved to learn about compassion and justice.  For many, this was the first occasion of real sharing with the “Other”: black, white, European, African.

 

The merciful

Many of the African students were Christians and did not always feel welcome in Parisian churches.  Some of the meetings became occasions for Bible study, singing and prayer.  New ways was of doing things were sometimes puzzling, but always a source of enrichment. Out of these meetings a multicultural congregation was born , hungering for new relationships among people of different origins.

 

The Gospel calls people to compassion: ‘blessed are the merciful’.  In this case, those who wanted to be ‘compassionate’ often learned what that meant from those who were to be ‘helped’.  The Foyer Grebel helped Mennonites to discover the world of foreigners in Paris.  It helped those who worked there to learn about cultural differences, colonial history and its legacy.  It was also a means to discover the global Christianity that was taking shape outside of Europe.

 

Multicultural heritage

An even bigger centre was built in the neighboring city of Maisons-Alfort. Temporary housing was offered until 1998, when an urban renewal project forced the closing of the project.  The Foyer Grebel nevertheless gave birth to two ‘children’ who still survive: the Foyer Grebel Christian Community, which has become the Mennonite Church of Villeneuve le Comte, and the Paris Mennonite Centre, started in the original facility in Saint Maurice when the Foyer moved to Maisons-Alfort.  The multicultural heritage of the Foyer Grebel lives on, as a constant appeal for compassion and justice among peoples.