What does a family from Virginia, living and ministering in Lewiston, Maine, and the French Riviera have in common? A year-and-a-half ago, this combination gave birth to what has become a very interesting life and pastorate.
In the winter of 2004, while I was serving as the minister of the United Baptist Church of Lewiston, my wife Robin and I visited Nice, France. From there, we made our way to the frequently visited hilltop village of St. Paul de Vence.
The purpose of our visit was to consider a new position at the International Baptist Church of St. Paul. The beautiful medieval cluster of stone buildings is perched on the top of a steep hill with the beautiful blue Mediterranean Sea to its south and the southern French Alps to the distant northeast.
Among the stone buildings, ancient walls, art galleries, olive trees, and a variety of merchants, lies an English-speaking Baptist Church made up of people from France, Germany, America, England, Scotland, Romania, Mauritius, Ireland, Italy, Finland, Bulgaria and Canada.
For years, it had been a dream of ours to live and minister in France. In the mid 1990’s my wife, infant son Mason and I lived in the southeastern region of Germany known as Bavaria, where we served a congregation of primarily U.S. military personnel. It was our desire then to one day return to the old country.
After living for six years in Lewiston, we moved to southern France. We have great friends in the L/A area and stay closely connected with them to this day.
Not long before we moved to France, we saw images on TV of some disgruntled American merchants casting French items out into the streets in protest of President Jacque Chirac’s disapproval of the war in Iraq.
The media seemed to capitalize on these gestures of ill will to our distant European neighbors and estranged allies across the ever-widening Atlantic.
When we decided to move to France, we wondered how we might be perceived and ultimately received as Americans and as a Christian pastor in a post-Christian environment.
As people we have been warmly received. We have befriended French families and internationals in the community, our lives being intertwined, as a result of our children going to the local public schools and our service in the church.
It has been our experience that people are people in every country. Whether you live near the French Riviera or in a large American city or a rural town, life is life wherever you are.
We have found it important to at least attempt to speak French when engaging others in conversation. Can you imagine meeting someone in the grocery store or local school in L/A who immediately began speaking to you in a foreign language and expected you to understand what was being communicated? Some of our friends here prefer to speak in English with us, but many just cannot and we do not expect them to.
We are reminded continually of our tendency, as Americans, to live as if our experience is the center of the universe. The rest of the world is acutely aware of this fact.
The French have created a unique culture that many world citizens enjoy. We have found a great deal that we can affirm in France, especially life near the Mediterranean coast. You have the sea, which is warm most of the year. Because of the high salt content, even the weakest swimmer can enjoy the gentle waves that push against a beach full of smooth, gray pebbles.
Just to the north, you have the southern French Alps with great skiing an hour and a half away. There are numerous hilltop villages sprawled out as far as the eye can see. Monaco is just 45 minutes to the east, Florence, Italy about 4 hours and Rome between six and seven hours away.
In an hour, by plane, you can travel to most any European city you can think of. France is well known as the land of gourmet food, art, wine, cheese and fashion, just to name a few of her assets.
People work hard here from early morning to evening, but take plenty of time to relax and enjoy life, with two-hour lunches and at least six to 11 weeks of vacation per year.
Diet defined by sea
The typical French family in our region has a diet that is often defined by the Mediterranean Sea. A simple cuisine of fresh foods in season are served each day – seafood, French bread, olive oil, pasta, and loads of fresh produce, cheese and red wine. Produce grows year round here, with lemons, oranges, tomatoes, grapes, olives, figs, cherries, plums, apricots and much more grown locally (in our neighborhood!). In our yard, we have five fig trees, a cherry tree and two olive trees.
In addition to diet, there are other things that are very different from our American experience and a welcome change for us. Josette, our local mail carrier, knows us by name and will leave her little yellow postal truck any day of the week to come inside, kiss us on the cheek, share a cup of juice or coffee and a smile. We often see her truck parked outside houses in the neighborhood, as she visits and catches up with her many friends along the route. No one would even think of complaining to her superiors, as relationships seem to be more important than tasks.
Rules here do not seem to be regarded as absolutes – a truth which is evident every day while driving on the narrow, winding roads, setting the limits of one’s personal space, conducting business on the economy and navigating the school system. It gives a whole new meaning to the word “flexibility.”
My wife Robin has had three Caesarean sections. The first two were in the United States with our daughter Addison and son Mason. What we found interesting is that Robin had a far better experience in France with the birth of Lily Kate.
She found the nurses to be very helpful, interested and thorough. With our first two children in American hospitals, she recalls doctors and nurses talking about routine business taking place in their daily lives, with little focus on what she was feeling.
In the American system there is not much time to recover in the hospital due to the financial bottom line of insurance companies. In France you spend a week in the hospital after a Caesarean section.
We appreciate the emphasis on people over money. Our capitalistic, moneymaking system in American could learn a few things from the French. In addition to a longer hospital stay, Robin recalls how sensitive and compassionate the doctors and nurses were. The anesthesiologist actually sang a song to her in French.
I commented to Robin how interesting it will be for Lily when she grows up to have a dual citizenship of American and French. God blessed us with a joyful birth and we are thankful to Him and to the French doctors and nurses.
Shocked by schools
When we first arrive in France, our family had a mix of feelings, especially related to our children’s education. Personally, I wanted to home school because I wanted my children to receive an education rooted in a Christian worldview, something that is a rare find in France.
We decided to send them to French schools and supplement their education with home study. As of today, they have spent nearly two years immersed in French language and culture. Their school is not bilingual; it is pure, unadulterated French.
While our children are Euro-American, they have experienced some prejudice as Americans, but all in all have felt accepted by their peers. When we were in Lewiston, we sent them to Central Maine Christian Academy where they received love, care and compassion from their teachers.
France is a different ballgame altogether. Teachers here regularly yell at students and even use physical force when disciplining them. In all honesty, we have been very shocked by the French schools and their medieval discipline tactics in the classroom.
On the other hand they kiss the students and speak to them in terms of endearment at times. At the end of the day we are thankful that our children are experiencing France firsthand through the lens of French schools and know that God has a purpose in their development in a country not their own.
Sharing the faith
Some consider France a Catholic country, but in reality it is a secular state. In 1905 France declared its independence from Catholicism. Of its 57 million people, 47 million have no church connection at all. There are more Muslims in France than Catholics and Protestants combined.
Less than 2 percent of the French population is evangelical Christian and only a handful of people we have met seem to view the Bible as relevant for their lives. It is my belief that they have not tried Christianity and found it lacking, but rather rejected it outright based on stereotypes.
Unfortunately, the old guard Church in Europe has not done a great deal to dispel these caricatures of the real faith. Many have never heard about a true, living, loving and personal Savior, Jesus Christ. They see only the crusades, the Inquisition, and the seeming irrelevance of overly ornate and formal religious worship.
We try to share with them how faith can be very relevant to daily life. There are more evangelical churches in the Congo of Africa than in all of France. About 75,000 people make their livings from occult practices, which is more than Protestant and Catholic clergy combined. Within the next 10 years half of all Catholic clergy in France will be retiring. Needless to say, given the religious climate we are serving in, we have plenty of opportunities to share the faith – one seed at a time.
Overall, we are very happy to live in France, to experience a different culture, to learn from people related to our ancestors, to be stretched and grow as people and to become what many today call third culture. Born in America, living in France, becoming a bit of both and enjoying the contrast.
As was said earlier, people are people wherever you are. It is our desire to show the love of Jesus with those who have become like family to us. We are blessed to have one big, happy multi-national family we call the International Baptist Church of St. Paul de Vence, France.